94% of all sexual assault cases go unreported and 1 in 4 North American women will be raped (source). These statistics sadly aren’t much of a shock when you consider how much the media and society sexualize women. Given the enormity of the stigma surrounding rape culture, do you really blame survivors or their rapists for not wanting to come forward?
Society often pities rape survivors, deeming them as damaged or even blaming them for what happened. Women are told their skirts were too high or that they must have somehow “been asking for it.” In some situations, survivors could even be killed for reporting their perpetrators. It’s rare for rapists to own up to their crimes as well because they’re ostracized and dehumanized, as society has so little compassion for them even though they arguably need it most.
Survivor Thordis Elva and her rapist Tom Stranger are challenging that stigma together by discussing both sides of the story: from the rapist’s and the survivor’s perspectives. Although they both took part in the same story, they had opposing experiences, which in turn affected their lives very differently. In hopes of inspiring other rape victims and rapists to face their inner struggles, they gave a Ted Talk together.
If you’ve been raped, it can be easy (and completely understandable) to place the blame on yourself, be embarrassed, angry, or ashamed, suppress your emotions, or misplace your despair on others, or even worse, on yourself.
However, as Thordis so kindly points out, “the only thing that could’ve stopped me from being raped that night is the man who raped me.” At the end of the day, you cannot control another person’s actions. Yes, you have the power to manifest and create your own reality, but so does everyone else. There’s no point in over-analyzing or regretting your actions because the victim’s actions are ultimately never the cause of rape.
As Tom says, “Far too often the responsibility is attributed to female survivors of sexual violence and not the males who enact it. Far too often the denial and running leaves all parties at a great distance from the truth.”
Part of the issue with rape culture is the victimization of sexual assault survivors and the immense amount of judgement placed on the perpetrators. This prevents both parties from feeling comfortable in expressing their emotions or sharing their experiences with others.
Yes, the rapist is responsible for his or her actions and the blame should never be placed on the victim, but just because the rapist committed a violent act doesn’t make him or her a bad person. Souls that succumb to violence are simply lost, so instead of judging them for their actions we need to help them see their actions for what they truly are.
Plus, by referring to survivors as victims, we further perpetuate the idea that rape survivors are somehow less than those who haven’t suffered similar traumas. This also encourages survivors to live in “victim consciousness,” the state whereby we continuously think “poor me” and ask ourselves, “Why me?”
As Thordis explains, “Labels are a way to organize concepts, but they can also be dehumanizing in their connotations. Once someone’s been deemed a victim, it’s that much easier to file them away as someone damaged, dishonoured, less than. Likewise, when someone’s been deemed a rapist it’s that much easier to call them a monster, inhuman.”
Since we encourage survivors to accept their role as the “victim” of sexual assault, this can cause survivors to place blame and anger on their attackers. It’s natural to want to blame someone, even hate someone, when they hurt you, and it’s important to feel these emotions rather than suppress them. However, when you spend a lot of your energy thinking negatively about someone else, you are hurting no one but yourself.
As Buddha said, “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” Forgiveness is one of the best ways to overcome anger, as it allows you to find the light within darkness. Even if you don’t think your rapist deserves your forgiveness, recognize that you deserve it.
Thordis found forgiveness through contacting her rapist, Tom. She wrote him a letter outlining her feelings and terrifying experiences that night, which proved to be very therapeutic for her. To her surprise, Tom responded explaining that he too had been trapped in a “silent prison,” just as she had. He hadn’t spoken to anyone about the events that occurred that night, and neither had she.
Thordis, from Iceland, and Tom, from Australia, decided to meet partway in Capetown, South Africa, to discuss what had happened in person. They found solace in talking through the horrific events that transpired that night, and ended up extending compassion to one another.
I think it’s easier for many people to relate to Thordis’ pain, as she was the one who was raped. We often hear the story from the survivor’s perspective, so it’s easier, in a sense, to paint that type of image in our heads. However, the fact of the matter is, 1 in 16 men are rapists, so odds are that you’ve met someone or are even friends or related to someone who’s a rapist.
If you found out your father or your lover was a rapist, would you still consider them the same person? Does one single act have the potential to define our entire self? If someone commits an act of violence, I don’t think this reflects their inner Self, but rather is a product of societal or behavioural issues. This is why I think Tom’s message is so crucial for us to reflect upon.
Tom was always too ashamed of what he’d done to face it. He justified his actions by suppressing his true feelings, which in turn forced him to continuously feel like he needed to convince himself that he was a good person.
When he was finally ready to face his actions and take responsibility for what he’d done, he referred to it as a “paradox of ownership,” saying: “I thought I’d buckle under the weight of responsibility and I thought my certificate of humanity would be burned. Instead, I was offered to really own what I did and found that it didn’t possess the entirety of who I am. Put simply, something you’ve done doesn’t have to constitute the sum of who you are.”
Have you ever made a mistake that forced you to really question your humanity? We want to believe that everything we should do is “right,” which is why labelling our actions as “right” or “wrong” can lead to suffering. However, our humanity isn’t defined only by that which we perceive as being “right.” Everything we do is human; our mistakes don’t dehumanize us, they’re part of what makes us human in the first place.
I’m not suggesting that every “immoral” act can be justified by simply stating, “I’m only human.” To be honest, I think that statement is used far too often to bypass our emotions and avoid dealing with our problems. However, if you do something that you consider “wrong,” I don’t think that makes you any less human.
As Thordis explains, “But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?”