A Q&A with Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger

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In October 2016, a group gathered in San Francisco for the TEDWomen 2016 conference, this year themed around the idea of time. One talk was given by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger, who took the stage to share a story that took place in 1996, when Stranger raped Elva, then his girlfriend. The talk had a powerful effect on the audience in the room, and is now available online. We had some follow-up questions.

This is an incredibly personal topic and talk. What made you decide to go so public with your story?
Thordis Elva:
I’d be lying if I said that it was an easy decision, and questions about how it’ll be received have entered my mind regularly on this journey. But most importantly, I know in my heart that hearing a story like the one I share with Tom would have made a world of a difference to me when I was younger. As a survivor, it would have helped me realize that the shame wasn’t mine to carry, and that there is hope of finding happiness in life even after a shattering experience like rape. Also, if hearing our story could help potential perpetrators realize how imperative it is to get consent for all sexual activity, ultimately lessening the likelihood of them abusing other people, that would be a goal worth striving for.

Tom Stranger: The road from that dire night in 1996 until now has been long and fraught with uncertainty. We acknowledge that the choices and pains in our past are not unique to us, and are situated within a deeply pervasive societal issue. In going public with our TED Talk and book, and speaking to the 20-year path of reconciliation and dialogue behind us, we are not seeking to offer a manual or methodology to other survivors or perpetrators of rape, but to simply offer a story — a personal communication that can possibly give hope to others, and add our voices to the public discussion that is now seeking to better comprehend and address this multifarious issue.

How did you prepare for the talk?
It took considered writing, online discussions from different time zones, significant editing and frequent rehearsal, and wouldn’t have been possible without the guidance of our two incredible coaches.

The chronology of our history was divided into periods, and we each committed to talking to these stages honestly. We did our best to keep our diverse audience in the fore of our minds, and selected the language that would be suitably considerate but also do justice to our individual parts. The intense period prior to the talk was dedicated to rehearsing, and this saw the talk repeated to the point of knowing that we retained the words well enough to invest in them the authentic feelings they deserved.

TE: After we laid this groundwork, we worked individually on committing the talk to memory, sometimes in very odd circumstances. I admit that for a while there, I was the strange lady who was talking to herself on the bus.

Tom, you show obvious contrition in the talk. Nonetheless, it will almost certainly be difficult for some people to see you take center stage like this. What would you say to someone who feels like you’re trying to portray yourself as some kind of hero for speaking up?

TS: I recognize this as valid questioning, and wouldn’t offer any argument to counter such a response. As much as I can convey, I recognize that just me being up on stage, and for people to see and hear me, would be challenging and triggering for some.

I acknowledge that my past choices invalidate any suitability for present or future praise.

The risk of me receiving any commendation for being on a TED stage with Thordis, and speaking to our history, is something that both of us have endeavored to avoid. I believe owning one’s past choices should be viewed as neither brave nor heroic in any way, but instead a necessary obligation and acknowledgement of individual culpability.

I’m also deeply invested in learning any ways to better the approach I use to share my part in our history.

Thordis, did you ever hesitate to give the man who raped you a platform like this?

TE: Yes, I did. I understand those who are inclined to criticize me as someone who enabled a perpetrator to have a voice in this discussion. But I believe that a lot can be learned by listening to those who have been a part of the problem — if they’re willing to become part of the solution — about what ideas and attitudes drove their violent actions, so we can work on uprooting them effectively. After having dedicated my career to preventing sexual violence, attending conferences on this subject around the world for over a decade now, it’s come to my attention how it’s often perceived as a women’s issue when it’s really a human issue that affects every country on the face of the planet. It’s my belief that all of us are needed when it comes to preventing violence and creating safer communities.

Tom, when did you tell your friends and family about the rape? How did they react?
I first sat down with my family in 2011. Since then I have gradually told my inner circles about my history and past choices. I have now had many honest conversations, and feel I’m better at voicing the words that accurately explain my actions that night and the consequences, for both Thordis, and myself.

I am blessed with a loving, understanding and supportive network of friends and family, who have, for the most part, seen me as more than my actions. Primarily, the reactions I’ve received have been receptive, quiet and thoughtful. Confusion and rumination have been common, as I kept this a dark secret for many years.

Understandably, my relationships with some people close to me have been, and will be, affected. I hold neither judgement nor altered opinion of friends or family who see me differently once they have learned about my occasion of perpetrating rape.

How did people respond after you gave the talk at TED Women?
I was caught off guard by the gratitude received from women and men who came up to me and voiced their support. It was immensely strengthening to have our story received in that way. Being at a conference that focused on issues pertaining to women’s current experiences all around the world, I was honored to be able to speak at such a forum, and to such a community. To receive any confirmation that attendees saw value and importance in the sharing of our story was a truly humbling and profound experience.

In saying this, I also received some precious and hugely valuable critical feedback. I still carry with me the warm responses we received, but the constructive and personal appraisals and reactions enabled me to better understand the positions and experiences of others, and will help me talk to our story with more sensitivity and awareness in the future.

TE: In short, the response was warmer than I had dared to hope and ever so humbling. Among other things, I received tight hugs, kind emails and encouraging words that will forever be dear to my heart, and serve as an inspiration to continue with this work. It’ll be interesting to see what the global response will be like, and I’m expecting a wide range of reactions.

Thordis, why didn’t you press charges against Tom?

TE: At the time, I was 16 years old. I had no clear sense of the law around sexual violence, and frankly at the time I wasn’t even able to identify what Tom did to me as rape. As I describe in the talk, by the time I did identify what had happened to me as a criminal act, Tom had gone back to Australia, my physical injuries had healed and I had no witnesses. Tom’s denial didn’t help either, as he didn’t even acknowledge what he’d done to himself, let alone me or the authorities.

As many women have done before and after me, I told myself it was pointless to address what had happened, and I tried to move on with my life. As with so many women before and after me, the consequences cut too deep for it to be that simple.

By the time I’d confronted Tom, and he’d taken responsibility for the violence he perpetrated against me, the statute of limitations for the crime had passed. We resorted to creating our own process; but I want to make it clear that in no way do either of us think that sexual violence should be met with legal impunity.

How would you like the public to respond to your story? What do you believe is the “idea worth spreading” within it?
Sexual violence is one of the biggest threats to the lives of women and children around the world, and it also affects the lives of many men too. A problem of this size and magnitude calls for necessary shifts in attitude, one being that those who perpetrate violence shoulder the responsibility for it, as opposed to those who are subjected to it. Far too often, survivors are wrongly blamed and shamed, or in extreme cases even killed for having been abused. This fosters a culture of silence, which enables further violence, so I believe it to be a vicious circle. The strongest countermeasure to silence is raising your voice.

That said, Tom and I are not presenting ourselves as role models whose actions should be championed in any way. We’re simply sharing our story in the hope that it can be of use to people who share a similar experience, and serve as a reminder to everyone about the importance of sexual consent.

TS: I don’t believe that as a perpetrator, I personally have any right to expect or predict how individuals respond to our story.

I can only hope that if listening to our story evokes a difficult or painful response, that the individual knows there is help out there, and has access to this support.

If the public engages with our story, I hope that we’ve illustrated that silence and denial can be toxic, that it’s erroneous to address sexual violence as solely a women’s issue, and that we each can have a role in finding solutions to this global issue.