Courageous Woman and Her Rapist Campaign Together to End Sexual Violence
Thordis Elva never expected to write a book, let alone speak on the same TED Talk stage, with Tom Stranger—the man who raped her in 1996. They now travel the world, telling their shared story about truth, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Together, they are seeking to address the “global pandemic of sexual violence” by sharing their story and encouraging others to join the crucial conversation.
Elva and Stranger were only teenagers when it happened. Stranger was an Australian exchange student, excited to be in Iceland for the first time. With the encouragement of his teachers, he tried out for the school play. Through it, he met Elva, a local Icelandic student. They were immediately attracted and began dating shortly after. A month later, they attended the school’s Christmas Ball together. Elva describes this event as a “public confirmation of [their] relationship. [She] felt like the luckiest girl in the world.”
High on love and drunk on rum, Elva found herself taken home by Stranger after the dance. “It was like a fairy tale, his strong arms around me, laying in the safety of my bed,” she recounts at the TedWoman 2016 event in October.
But the night suddenly grew hazy, speeding out of control, until it transformed into the wholly horrific as Stranger proceeded to take off Elva’s clothes and get on top of her. Still weak from the alcohol, Elva’s body couldn’t fight back or protest. She describes the pain similarly to being “severed in two.” By then, her brain had cleared up and all she could do was count the seconds on the alarm clock. “There are 7,200 seconds in two hours,” Elva says—a fact she wishes she did not know.
In the traumatic aftermath of that fateful night, Elva had difficulty labeling it as actual rape. “The incident didn’t fit my ideas about rape like I’d seen on TV. Tom wasn’t an armed lunatic; he was my boyfriend. It didn’t happen in a seedy alleyway, it happened in my own bed.” It took several months for her to realize the correct term for the incident and before legal charges could occur, Stranger had already completed his exchange program and returned to Australia. The couple had broken up a few days after the ball.
Struggling to come to terms with the true act of sexual violence, Elva cast it off as pointless. After all, she thought, she must have been the guilty one. “I was raised in a world where girls are told they get raped for a reason. Their skirt was too short, their smile too wide, their breath smelled of alcohol. I was guilty of all those things, so the shame had to be mine.”
Stranger explains in the Ted Talk that he also struggled to accept the truth of what he had done. “I convinced myself it was sex and not rape. And this is a lie I’ve felt spine-bending guilt for.”
Nine years passed without any contact between the two, when out of the blue, Elva wrote to Stranger to tell him what his actions had put her through—years of depression and anxiety that had led her to the edge of a nervous breakdown. She also wrote five courageous words: “I want to find forgiveness.”
She surprised herself with those words, but she reasoned it to herself: “Regardless of whether he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace.”
They met face-to-face in Cape Town, South Africa, sharing stories about their teenage lives, as well as conversing about the excruciating event. The conversation was surprisingly cathartic for Elva, and since then, the two have continued an open dialogue reconciling their dark past. Stranger tells Huffington Post that he has “deep respect for Thordis’ commitment to this correspondence and I don’t know exactly where I’d be had she not reached out to work through this.”
Ms. Elva and Mr. Stranger have even co-authored a book, South of Forgiveness. The importance of having both voices present within the text strives to represent both ends of the perpetrator/survivor scale.
Writing a book with your attacker is not something easily done, and Elva recognizes that her actions are not the norm. “What we did is not a formula that we’re prescribing for others… Nobody has a right to tell anyone else how to handle their deepest pain or their greatest error,” she says.
Each survivor of sexual violence is entitled to recover the way they choose to. However, both Elva and Stranger agree that the victim is never to blame.
“Don’t underestimate the power of words,” Stranger says. “Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself, as well as with her. But most importantly, the blame transferred from Thordis to me. Far too often, the responsibility is attributed to female survivors of sexual violence, and not to the males who enact it.”
This is the issue that Elva and Stranger are campaigning for change. “It’s about time that we stop treating sexual violence as a women’s issue. A majority of sexual violence against women and men is perpetrated by men. And yet their voices are sorely underrepresented in this discussion. But all of us are needed here.”
In a Q&A with Huffington Post, Stranger and Elva discuss that their goal is not to make a case of sympathy for rapists, or argue immunity from the consequences of committing sexual crimes. Instead, they wish to open the conversation about the systems in place that give men entitlement to women’s bodies in hopes that sexual violence can be prevented. Elva writes in her book, “In order for people to better understand this type of abuse, they need a three-dimensional view of those who perpetrate it, not two-dimensional stereotypes that either vilify the perpetrators as “monsters” or glorify them to the point where their crimes become unthinkable.”
One place, in particular, that could use this kind of honest awareness and attention is at universities. Sexual violence on college campuses is a huge issue in the United States. According to RAINN, women aged 18-24 are at an elevated risk of sexual violence, whether attending college or not. 11.2% of all students (of all sexes) in the United States experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. Recall that Stranger was 18 and Elva was 16 when the assault occurred. So how do we talk to young men about entitlement and consent? How do we prevent these offenses and enforce men to take responsibility for their actions?
Organizations such as A Call to Men and It’s on Us are already on the path to creating a world where all men are loving and respectful and all women are safe and valued. They do so by hosting empowering community events and through violence prevention education. Partnering with schools, universities, corporations, government, military installations, and social service agencies ensures a complete community of support.
Tom Stranger stresses that the stereotype of highly masculine jocks who devalue anything feminine must be examined, criticized and discussed. Yes, it is a human rights issue, but primarily, the language needs to shift to become a men’s issue. We must champion traits of being emotionally accessible, of knowing you’re fallible. Men must be included in the public conversation about sexual violence.
Elva echoes Stranger’s statement in her hope for the world’s future. “Just imagine all the suffering we could alleviate if we dared to face this issue together.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, please call the RAINN Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or visit their 24/7 chat HERE.