A recent investigation by The Globe and Mail revealed how badly the Canadian justice system fails at prosecuting rape cases. Robin Doolittle reports that “one of every five sexual-assault allegations in Canada is dismissed as baseless and thus unfounded.” Contrary to popular opinion, only a tiny percentage of complaints are false (between two and eight per cent), yet Doolittle found that police in Canada are closing a disproportionate number of rape cases as “unfounded,” meaning that the women simply weren’t being believed.
There are many reasons — ranging from shame to intimidation to fear of going through the judicial system and dealing with the police — that women don’t report their rapes. According to The Globe investigation, nine out of 10 women don’t report, and clearly even the ones who do report are often dismissed. It’s only relatively recently that rape has begun to be treated seriously, thanks to the work of the feminist movement, which continues to fight for justice for victims and to hold perpetrators to account.
Men, on the other hand, rarely discuss rape in terms of justice. Restitution is left out of the conversation and, when faced with legal consequences for their actions, men will often try to garner sympathy through tear-jerking tales that justify their violence (or will simply flee). There are few accounts of rapists talking about their conviction or possible conviction in agreement. Men are too busy making excuses for themselves to consider any form of punishment or justice for victims.
When we ask men to discuss rape from their perspective, two things are made clear: rapists are Good Guys who made a mistake, and convictions are not a solution.
This is most evident in a widely-viewed TED Talk featuring Thordis Elva, a rape victim, and her rapist, Tom Stranger, who recount “their” story of “rape and reconciliation.” Stranger is not only invited to discuss the rape from his perspective, but speaks first:
“In 1996, when I was 18 years old, I had the golden opportunity to go on an international exchange program. Ironically, I’m an Australian who prefers proper icy cold weather, so I was both excited and tearful when I got on a plane to Iceland after just having farewelled my parents and brothers goodbye. I was welcomed into the home of a beautiful Icelandic family who took me hiking and helped me get a grasp of the melodic Icelandic language. I struggled a bit with the initial period of homesickness. I snowboarded after school and I slept a lot. Two hours of chemistry class in a language that you don’t yet fully understand can be a pretty good sedative.”
People laugh. It doesn’t seem likely, at this point, that a gruesome story will follow.
This casual approach to rape is not uncommon. From “star football players” who had a “promising future” and were “very good students” in Steubenville to the “baby-faced Stanford freshman,” a “once record-setting swimming prodigy,” the media just don’t know how to portray rapists as anything other than good guys who made a mistake. Similarly, Stranger’s flowery language could fill the pages of a sentimental novel. (Indeed, the two also published a book about their “life-changing journey” this year.)
Stranger’s introduction begs the question: whose story is it really?
The discussion is heavily focused on forgiveness. Stranger is positioned as a redeemed man. He has admitted to raping Elva. She has granted him forgiveness in return.
This is her right, of course. Forgiveness is a matter of personal inclination. What transpires through this “reconciliation,” though, is that she gives him a platform to speak about his experience and perception of the rape. In a carefully constructed monologue, Stranger shares his pain at realizing that perhaps what happened wasn’t right. He “felt a certain hollowness,” a “spine-bending guilt,” and a “heavyheartedness.” He names denial as a coping mechanism for the awful state he claims he found himself in. He emphasizes his “good guy” status further, explaining, “I was a surfer, a social science student, a friend to good people, a loved brother and son, an outdoor recreation guide, and eventually a youth worker.”
Identifying rapists as they really are — “regular” men from all backgrounds — is important. But centering men’s feelings in conversations about women’s victimization and how they respond in the aftermath is not the way forward.
“[L]abels are a way to organize concepts,” Thordis says, “but they can also be dehumanizing in their connotations […] and […] when someone’s been branded a rapist, it’s that much easier to call him a monster, inhuman.” But while being named as a rapist may feel limiting or uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean we should eschew the label. Regardless of how men feel about it, labelling rapists as rapists and victims as victims is a matter of social and legal recognition of an issue that plagues the world and overwhelmingly targets women: rape. Erasing those terms erases the truth. It dismisses sexual violence against women as a human misstep. The violence that Elva discusses is a sex-related violence — men rape women. Yet, according to Elva, “[Men’s] voices are sorely underrepresented in this discussion.”
Through feminist organizing, writing, and consciousness-raising groups, women have gained an understanding of the sexual violence they are subjected to as systemic. It was through speaking out that women were able to begin to fight back. Men, on the other hand, have a history of silencing and isolating women, or invading their spaces in order to speak on issues for which they are responsible. Allowing men to dominate conversations about rape serves men, not women (i.e. the victims). This is why a petition has emerged to ban Stranger from speaking at Southbank Centre’s 2017 Women of the World Festival. Women are justifiably concerned that the narrative will hurt victims.
The reality is, at best, few men realize that they rape. At worst, they don’t care. Yes, men should be educated about rape. No, they don’t have to listen to other men in order to do that. Because the question that haunts me is: will Tom Stranger’s unpunished crime seem all that terrible, especially to other men, when shared from his perspective? I’m not so sure.
Some men may be able to explain why they rape, but can they be trusted to hold themselves accountable, not only morally, but legally? It is easy for Stranger to blame rape culture, but less easy for him to report himself to the police.
This is, in part, what is missing from the TED Talk: the issue of justice, which so few women find. Ultimately, Stranger offers a self-centered perspective. He may show remorse, but in insisting that he is still a Good Guy, while eluding the matter of justice, what he’s truly saying is that he should be forgiven.
“Just imagine all the suffering we could alleviate if we dared to face this issue together,” concludes Elva. And just imagine all the suffering we could alleviate if we dared treat rapists for what they are: criminals. Considering that society doesn’t seem to have much trouble forgiving rapists, perhaps that should be the least of our concerns.
Cécilia Lépine is a Paris-based fantasy writer who discusses pop culture from a feminist perspective online.