For every #metoo, there is an implicit #ididit. For every survivor who uses the ever-ballooning hashtag to explode out of her own personal hell, there is a perpetrator who imprisoned her inside of it.
Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger know this story. In 1996, Stranger, an 18-year-old Australian foreign exchange student, raped 16-year-old Elva while studying in Iceland.
“As he proceeded to take off my clothes and get on top of me … the pain was blinding,” Elva said during a TED talk in 2016. “In order to stay sane, I silently counted the seconds on my alarm clock. And ever since that night, I’ve known that there are 7,200 seconds in two hours.”
The TED talk has been viewed more than four million times. Getting there — to where Elva and Stranger shared the stage — was a painful 20-year journey, including an eight-year correspondence in which Stranger owned up to the assault.
While some have praised Stranger for taking responsibility and helping to debunk the rape myths that serve to protect men like him, others have expressed outrage that he is on a stage at all. Thordis’ public forgiveness, critics say, may make other survivors feel this is something they, too, must work toward.
Elva stresses that her personal journey of reconciliation isn’t meant to be a guide, but she believes there are bigger lessons in her and Stranger’s story on shifting attention from survivors to perpetrators.
“I am a big believer in the need for the conversation’s focus to shift, because for decades, if not centuries, we’ve been wrongfully dissecting the survivor’s behavior,” Elva said. ”What the survivor was wearing, thinking, drinking, where they went, etc. And I think that we’re now afforded this invaluable opportunity to shift that focus to the people who are actually behind the problem, who are actually perpetrating the abuse and their behavior, where we should, of course, have been focusing our efforts all along, because that is the only way to solve this issue.”
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Stranger doesn’t dismiss his critics, but says he’s committed to ensuring sexual violence stops being seen “as a women’s issue.” He said he doesn’t make money from his involvement in the book he co-authored with Elva, South of Forgiveness, and donates profits he receives to a women’s shelter in Reykjavik.
After the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, it’s been mostly women who carry the #metoo movement on their backs and bear the burden of changing the system that permits their abuse. The statements of many of the men accused have fallen short of an apology. USA TODAY spoke with Elva and Stranger about this post-Weinstein moment and men’s role in it.
Thordis: In short, yes. I do think that this is a pivotal moment. I do think we will be talking about a “before” and “after” the #metoo campaign. The ripple effects are enormous. … When I stood on the stage with Tom and told my story to the world, I did not fathom in my wildest dreams that only a few months later we would be seeing this global movement kick off — that millions of people would be breaking their silence. So I do think it’s immense.
Tom: To watch it gain momentum, to watch it open up and spread and to be sustained in the public discourse and to remain on the front pages and to see articles each day has really, I think, proven that this is not just a periodic conversation that’s going to fade …. To me, the next thing I’m keenly watching is behavior. I want to see what this looks like on the street. I’m wondering how this feels for women and men in the workplace and walking around in public. I want to see whether this does actually evolve into people in positions of power and authority really taking a long look at how they behave.
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Thordis: There’s a general lack of knowledge among men about how the male culture that fosters violence against women is also harmful for men themselves. Many men are taught outright lies, such as that the way to approach women is by being sexually overt and aggressive, grabbing them and making sexual remarks. Not only is this abusive towards women, it also teaches men and boys that “being a man” is based on behavior that could land them in trouble with the law and isolate them socially. If more men realized that this type of behavior is harmful for everyone, men as well as women, I think more men would see the value in taking responsibility for uprooting it.
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Tom: It’s undeniable that the vast majority of individuals committing sexual violence are men, the world over. Part of facing this truth could mean dropping the idea of their being “good” men that are entirely isolated and non-complicit in the issue, and “bad” men who either have perpetrated violence or embody the culture that subjugates women. Creating divides and talking of “others” shifts the focus and denies the well-supported perspective that sexual violence is symptomatic of gender ideologies, and allows it to be somebody else’s problem: a women’s issue.
Tom: This is something that was excavated from my memory, and trying to go back and re-inhabit where I was at that night, what the feelings were, what my emotions were, what place I was in. … This has been a product of a long process with Thordis, for me to contemplate the “why” of that night — for Thordis’ sake and my own. And I think I enacted a really misguided expectation and took it to a really dark place. I think it’s undeniable that I felt entitled to what I stole from Thordis. There was selfishness there. There was lust there. I didn’t uncover feelings of wanting to hurt Thordis, but that’s, of course, exactly what I did. … I forgot what I knew and I made a horrific choice. And the fact that it was a choice is important to be stated as well. … I’ve looked at this for years and it’s been integral to the conversation in the eight years of emailing with Thordis to get to the bottom of this, and to place it in a context of sexual entitlement, of male sexual entitlement.
Thordis: I think that it’s necessary to create a space where people can own up to their abusive behavior, but I would like to issue a very strong warning to others to not applaud that in a way that suggests praise, because in the end we should not praise abusive behavior. … I would prefer that men simply change their behavior and try to influence men around them to also make changes, to open their eyes to how they may be contributing to this problem. If it has to start with words, with conversations and confessions, then that is OK, but I would not want that to be the final destination. I would not want that to be the one and only thing they do. I would want those words to translate into actions.
Tom: I’m just looking again at some of the confessions, some of the admissions, some of the apologies online from men and witnessing the way that some of their expressions of regret and remorse can be really saturated in shame and in self-focus and in pouring out regret — I think it’s almost an indulgent, introspective confession. I think we need to ask for more than that. I can relate to this — this is part of my history as well. When I first was speaking to Thordis I was focused on my shame and shame for myself instead of shame for the hurt that I caused Thordis. … Perhaps confessing it in a public space is not the best way to do it.
Thordis: If I were addressing perpetrators that have realized they were wrong … I would say get help to change your behavior. Of course, if you’ve committed a sexual crime I would say turn yourself in, but if that’s not in the picture that you’re painting … I would definitely say to that group, now that you’ve realized the error of your ways, get help to change it. Talk to a professional. Talk to people around you to help uproot this pattern in your life, because this is your responsibility.
Tom: It is difficult to talk, honestly, from my position, where I was not charged for my crime, I was not sentenced. … [It] feels like it would be completely hypocritical, albeit I do believe in the legal process and the justice system. … I do think restorative justice is one of the opportunities here, and one of the ways to acknowledge and validate the experiences of the women who are speaking out and the women who are airing their pasts.
Thordis: I think that the effectiveness of #metoo is from a survivor’s perspective. I think it emboldens and empowers those who have been silenced and those who have wrongfully carried the shame, and those who have wrongfully taken on the responsibility and blame, which of course is a global phenomenon.
Tom: I think some of the things that are productive are … the conversations around the quality of apology that is being demanded, and that should be demanded. … [There’s been] a lot of denial, outright denial, and really reductive and dismissive apologies. Some of the apologies are being criticized and critiqued for the focus and whether the apology is introspective, and whether it’s focused on the survivor and the recognition of the hurt that was caused. I think it’s an essential thing to look at apologies and whether they’re really coming from a place of accountability and really looking to make amends.
Thordis: I do, unfortunately, think that there’s some truth to the fact that the glitz and glamour surrounding some of the people subjected to Harvey Weinstein’s abuse perhaps aided how big that case became in the media. … But what I’m seeing and what fills me with hope that we are indeed moving into an era where you don’t have to be conventionally attractive and powerful and rich to have a voice in these matters is this shift that I’m seeing all around me.
Tom: I think it’s really important to talk about privilege and visibility in this conversation as well, and which stories are held up and given prominence and to recognize the fact that this is an everyday occurrence with everyday women. … If I was from a different background, would I have been afforded the chance and the platforms that I was offered in telling my story?
Thordis: I don’t think that we will revert to the way things were before this. I don’t think that a backlash will be of that magnitude. I do sense the fear and the trepidation with those that feel threatened by this change, with those that feel threatened by these conversations. I can sense that. And that is, of course, a part of the reaction to significant change in world history. There is always resistance. What that is going to look like I don’t know. … I would want the next step to be from men. I would want the next step to be men coming together and saying, “This is horrific, we can do better than this, we do not want this culture to continue, and we’re going to take responsibility for the change that needs to happen.”
Tom: I think it’s going to be a long, protracted process. I hope that this conversation lasts. I hope this can be sustained. I think it’s going to be a rocky road to meet and hash this out. … I’m really hopeful, but I also think it’s valid to be bracing for what’s around the corner.
Tom: Speaking as someone who has perpetrated rape, I will never understand what the experience was like or has been like for Thordis. I can never erase the past, I can only do what I can to understand, to listen, to hear Thordis out, and to comprehend the magnitude and effects of my choices and make sure that I would never do anything like that ever again. … And then I want to be part of solutions, and I want to be part of prevention efforts, and I think that should be the minimum requirement if we’re admitting this to ourselves. … I think we need to organize and speak and discuss this with other men and be collectively questioning the culture we share, the masculinities we inhabit and embody and condone and protect and how we’ve collaborated or conspired to keep these stories secret. I think there’s lots of things that can be done. But when I hear the words “amends” or “redemption,” I think the bar should be really high.
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Thordis: In my case, with the legal course of action not being open to me, I guess what I wanted then was for my pain to be acknowledged and for Tom to take responsibility for it, so that I could let go of this wrongful blame and shame that I’d taken on. … It was not about an apology. It was not about forgiveness. That was the never the destination of this journey. The destination of this journey was to break a vicious cycle that was keeping me back from living my life, from being who I am, from enjoying relationships with other people. … I wanted to understand the root causes of this problem. … In the end it was an attempt at making a better life for myself by letting go of the past and not letting it dominate my future in the way that it had been when I was trying to outrun it. Because outrunning it had become a very emotionally taxing process that was corroding me, and would have probably led to me not sitting here today.
Thordis: The sexual violence I’ve been subjected to does not cause me pain anymore, the way it did before I faced and worked through my past. However, it influences the way I see the world, every day. Sexual assault is part of a larger, structural problem that affects every country on the face of the planet, and it is the problem of gender inequality. Not a day goes by where I am not affected by gender inequality, directly or indirectly. Once your eyes have opened to the magnitude of the problem, it’s impossible to “unsee” it.
Tom: I notice myself becoming heavy … shrinking when I talk about the immeasurable effects that my past abuse and choices had on Thordis. It’s a reality that there will always be a connection to that truth and the outfall from my selfishness. When I’m reading and following the apologies, confessions and denials from men who have recently been called out, I’m also learning and reflecting on what I did, why I did it, and how I behaved in communicating with Thordis in the years since. There is always more to see.
This Q&A has been edited for length. Follow Alia Dastagir on Twitter @alia_e.
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