Comment | When is a rapist no longer a rapist? On the cost-free repentance of Tom Stranger
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Friday, March 17, 2017 2:29 - 2 Comments
Tom Stranger, a name from fiction if ever there were one, faced a physical no platforming by students at the South Bank Centre in London. Stranger was appearing on stage to discuss his book South of Forgiveness, written with an ex-girlfriend, Thordis Elva, who he’d raped decades ago.
Thordis was a teenager who had drunk too much rum at a Christmas party, later vomiting it back up. Staff at the venue wanted to call an ambulance, but Stranger saw his opportunity in an incapacitated, ill, 16-year-old- girl. Stranger told staff he would take care of her- after all, she was his girlfriend – but, instead, raped her. Their book is about that sexually violent event and its aftermath.
“If I was to not say anything publicly about what I had done I would feel that I was complicit in this issue,” Stranger earnestly proclaims in his book. Let’s be clear: Stranger is not upsetting our dominant paradigm on rape. If by, “rape is a men’s issue”, he had been remarking on how all rape is committed by men, then he would be adding something new to the public debate. Why is it that one sex is responsible for 99% of all violent crime and the quasi-entirety of sexual violence at its apex?
Stranger is not interested in the behavioural specificities of sexual categories, or in statistical facts and realities. He is interested in saying things like “Rape is weaponised”; though he does not do so to refer to, for instance, the way in which ‘the monstrous rapist’ is culturally coded as the figure of the black male (as in To Kill A Mocking Bird) or the way in which Middle-Eastern refugees are typecast as rapists despite less than 1% of all crimes committed by refugees falling into the sexual crime category; or to any other sentiment that would redress the false assertions – so often wielded by the far right – of “rapists in our midst”.
But he does not. Rapists can look just like Tom Stranger: remarkably featureless, a placid air, gentle in tone, yet apparently adept at causing two hours of sexual torture, which Thordis Elva described as, “endless”. Nothing tells us more about the exalted status of the heterosexual couple than the countless instances of men who equate intimacy with possession, with the women closest to them being the ones they are most likely to rape.
What South of Forgiveness foretells is that if you rape someone, you can become another one of the brooding self-conscious white men (and it is only white men who are allowed to be so) so very celebrated at the absolute centre of our mainstream culture (just one visit to the cinema yields a multitude of examples.)
We do not need ever more sophisticated ways to forgive rapists when rape is already all too readily forgiven now. We do not need more sophisticated ways to think from the perspective of the perpetrator about what it is to find sexual pleasure in grotesque violence when there are entire industries, both off- and on-line, dedicated to catering for that perspective.
South of Forgiveness, with respect to Thordid Elva, who is tellingly left out of the raging debate surrounding the pair’s venture, is a case of how men are still allowed to find ever more ingenious ways to take up the psychic space of others, insist on being at the centre of discussion, stand on stages, receive applause, sell a book about themselves and generally be considered before the women stood directly next to them. Women they raped.
I am more interested in any woman who has ever experienced casual everyday sexism at work or street sexual harassment than I am in Tom Stranger’s meticulous self-narration of his life as a rapist. It is quite clear what that life is: you lose nothing. Stranger appeared on Newsnight, looking as if he might cry at any moment (signalling a swift sexual-aggressor-to-victim-of-self-sabotage reversal), but other than cutting a somewhat pathetic figure next to the self-possessed Thordis Elva, there has been no consequence for him: Materially. Emotionally. Relationally. He is still employed. Still mentally well. Still married. As such, not being allowed to speak on a public platform is ostensibly the first time he’s had to face consequence not on his own terms.
That Stranger’s power was curtailed, for the first time, is significant. Since the protest, Stranger has stated that he will donate all the profits from South of Forgiveness to charity. Once more, we see how power does not concede until and unless it is forced to do so. It is those important consequences: exclusion, losing power and status, culminating in no longer being able to structure the terms on which you are received, that will demonstrate to men that rape might not be worth it. Rapists will cease to be rapists only when they are confronted with the reality of who they are, rather than be allowed, like Stranger has been, to self-portray as thoughtful, moneyed, wedding-ring-wearing, woollen-clad, sun-kissed counsellors, whose self-narratives we are all too ready to prioritise over being responsible for a two-hour-long rape attack.
If Thordis Elva had written this book alone, about her recovery, even if she had featured Stranger in the background, it is very unlikely anyone outside of feminist circles would have been interested: Raped women are in great abundance. Go to your local supermarket, or get on a local bus, or attend your own family gatherings, and you’ll likely encounter a raped woman there. Listening to raped women, however, is deeply unpopular. On the other hand, listening to well-spoken white men, even when they rape 16-year-old girls, is, apparently, what we as a society are still wild about.
So what made Stranger committed to public involvement in the book? He is, undeniably, attempting to clear his name through dutifully cultivating and marshalling our forgiveness. His admission of rape will forever be emblazoned across a thousand websites, but Stranger believes his virtue is still at stake. What does he have to do to make us believe in his goodness? For Stranger, forgiveness is, unfortunately (or, possibly, fortunately), not the key issue: the problem isn’t that rapists are unredeemable, but that rape is normalised.
What else is there for Stranger to gain? There is, of course, the attention, the financial revenue, maybe not from book sales but certainly from other lucrative opportunities that mainstream exposure inevitably brings. Ultimately, this is the age-old story of a man’s adventure and his journey of redemption. If it were not, Stranger would not be so keen on shaping the narrative.
My guess is that Thordis was going to write about her experience, and Stranger felt overwhelmed with powerlessness at the thought he might be skewered through her depiction. After all, he is so keen to remind us that rapists are not monsters: Look at me! Please! See? I am not a monster! I wear soft-knit sweaters and speak with reason. By being involved in the telling, he can structure the story, all-the-while selling its novelty as a repentant rapist writing about his ‘sin’, as he calls it (if that’s not a cry for freedom from guilt, I don’t know what is.)
In Stranger’s thinking, this supposed willingness to self-efface, to self-flagellate on live telly, stands to eclipse his past brutalities and, ultimately, become what we remember him for. Not just another invisible rapist cast through the words of his victim but someone who could now ‘help’ tell the tale and, in doing so, exonerate himself before us.
Let us not allow a momentary chance of that. If I were Stranger, I would do my damnedest to go to prison for rape. Because I wouldn’t want to be a rapist anymore and there is no redemption without loss. Stranger has lost nothing. So Stranger is still a rapist, not because he raped Thordis Elva many years ago, but because he still wishes to be the victor, the conqueror – with his conquest achieved not through a body this time, but through everyone’s mind with regards to who he is.
Insist on the freedom to decide away from the prying hands of Tom Stranger. When it comes to rape, rapists cannot be allowed to become the subject-who-structures the story. To do so runs the risk of creating a scene of greater impunity for sexual abusers. Survivors and victims, and those most at risk of rape, primarily women and children, should be the ones who are put centre-stage, even when we want to bring into sharper focus the perpetrators of rape.
As such, the No-Platforming at South Bank was a step towards that ultimate goal: The centering of rape survivors and the actual, uncompromising repudiation of rapists.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the protest as taking place at South Bank University rather than at the South Bank Centre.
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