Confronting my perpetrator and the world - NKMV CONFERENCE 2017
Being the last speaker at this fantastic conference is a great honor, after having listened to the important work that's being carried out in our respective countries and having swapped invaluable advice. The knowledge and competence in this room is so immense that our meetings ought to be automatically declared a Unesco World Heritage site, if you ask me. I am not going to be handing out advice, however, and I will not be answering questions. On the contrary, I want to ask a few questions, that you can choose to take with you and perhaps ponder after this conference.
I heard a Chinese proverb many years ago and it sounds like this: Don't be afraid when you run into resistence in life. Only when the wind is blowing in your face, not at your back, only then can your kite take off to the sky.
The person that wrote that proverb has clearly never been to Iceland, where the winds are so fierce that your kite blows to hell. But I've always been fond of that saying, especially in my work with men's violence against women, where we're often faced with the strong winds of patriarchy.
This is the 3rd time I've had the honor to address NKMV, last time in 2015. I've also spoken at the UN, the Nordic Council, the Nordic Forum, I've written two books about sexual violence, I've been on the board of our Women's Shelter here in Reykjavik for four years, two of which I was chairman of the board, I've launched four national awareness campaigns and for over a decade I've been to hundreds of meetings and conferences where sexual violence is the topic as a pressing global issue that remains the largest threat to the lives of women and girls worldwide and it's almost always the same scenario. A glorious room of talented, intelligent, solution-oriented women who are working tirelessly toward changing the world – but not the people who at the end of the day are slipping their hands up skirts or their fingers down shirts, coaxing, coercing, hurting, abusing, raping.
Like millions of other girls and probably most of you, my conditioning started early. If I just behaved a certain way and dressed a certain way and avoided certain places, I could avoid being abused altogether. If my skirt was just a decent length, if I just didn't accept a ride from a stranger, if I just made sure never to walk alone after dark, if I just made my keys stick out of my fist to cause a potential assailant more harm, along with countless other 'safety measures', I could avoid being abused.
Not only does this install a false sense of security in us girls, but it also fosters a culture of victim-blaming. Not only in wider society, where people are prone to ask what the survivor was wearing or drinking as opposed to what the hell the perpetrator was thinking - but also within the survivor herself, who feels that she must've failed somehow, by somehow ending up in a situation where she was abused despite years of training to avoid it. Which should rather be directed at potential perpetrators not to rape.
Every one of us who has worked with survivors of violence have encountered the million dollar question: How do we get men to stop? How do we get them to give a shit about the violence women are subjected to within the patriarchy?
First of all, let me say that as far as I am concerned, raising that question is not our duty. Men themselves should want to stop being assholes and forces of destruction who remain the biggest threat to the lives of women and children around the globe. The fact that the average guy is able to sleep at night, knowing that fact to be true, baffles me. Fucking step up your shit, men. This is on you.
Alright, so it's not our duty to get men to give a shit. But we're here today because we want to see the end of violence. And the bitter truth is that this will simply not happen while men don't give a shit.
And of course many of them don't. It's too easy not to. It's too easy to ignore the problem and if anyone dares to raise it, they can always resort to their #notallmen retort and everything will continue like it always has. Because patriarchy is a power structure that benefits men - and those at the top of any power structure will never cede their place willingly, as Fredrick Douglass once said. And with the inherent misogyny in the world, many men don't even hear things until they come out of the mouth of another man, as is proven in multiple studies.
As for many women in this room, despite having worked with these matters professionally for a decade, this topic holds a personal significance for me and this spring, I chose to tell the world why. For those of you who aren't familiar with my story, it starts when I was a 16 yr old high-schooler here in Reykjavik. I met and fell in love with an 18 year old Australian exchange student, Tom, who also attended my school. For a little over a month, we had a lovely teenage relationship, complete with hand-holding and awkwardness and romance and mutuality before the Christmas ball was held. On that night, I felt all-grown-up and decided to try drinking rum for the first time. This made me very ill and instead of spending the night dancing with my boyfriend, I spent it in the bathrooms, vomiting convulsively and drifting in and out of consciousness, frustrated with my incapacitated state, which meant I couldn't utter a word nor move a limb. To my relief and gratitude, Tom suddenly appeared in the bathrooms, scooped me up from the floor and carried me outside. He was stopped by two security guards on the way out, who wanted to call me an ambulance as they thought I was dangerously sick. Tom assured them he'd take care of me. Instead, he took me home, laid me in bed, undressed me and raped me for two hours. The reason I know it was 2 hours is because the way Tom had positioned me in my bed, my head was facing the alarm clock that glowed in the dark, and the only thing I could do to help me stay sane and disconnect from the indescribable pain I was experiencing was by silently counting the seconds on my alarm clock. That's how I know that there are 7200 seconds in two hours.
Our relationship did not survive the events of that night and Tom and I went our separate ways, without a word about the dark deed that preceded our breakup. Part of the reason is because I was unable to put what happened to me into context. I was a 16 yr old kid with a head full of misconceptions about rape, getting my ideas from TV shows and movies, where the assailant was this monster-of-a-guy, this unknown, armed lunatic lurking behind a bush. This was 21 years ago as well, so the public conversation about violence was very underdeveloped compared to what it is now - thanks to the tireless work of nasty women who have refused to shut up and I love every last one of you.
The monster myth not only held me back from identifying what had happened to me as rape, because it happened in my own bed and was carried out by my boyfriend, it also cost me precious time. Because when I finally realised that yes - I'd indeed been raped - Tom had completed his exchange program and moved to the other side of the planet, literally. My wounds had healed and I had no witnesses, so I deemed my window of opportunity to press charges as being effectively closed. So I did what so many women before me have done, and what so many women still do: I bottled up my pain and tried to move on with my life as if nothing had happened. As if my trust had not been mangled to shreds the first time I gave my heart away.
As you know, from your work or personal experience or even both, after we're sexually violated, when trying to scrape ourselves together again, we do things that may seem insane to people who haven't been in our shoes. Many of them are not dignified. We numb ourselves, we drink, we get high, we detox, we abstain, we sleep with our perpetrators in the hope that this time it'll feel consensual, we self-harm, we over-achieve, we work ourselves to the bone, we isolate, we spend a fortune on therapy and self-help, we self-sexualise and self-objectify and binge and cry and rage against our perpetrators or quietly forgive them to be able to stop feeding the monster that our anger can turn out to be.
At the age of 25, nine years after Tom raped me, I had unsuccessfully tried most of the above and I was stuck in a rapid downward spiral. I was angry and bitter because of what I'd been through and how I'd been lied to all my life to think that not wearing a short skirt and not accepting rides from strangers would somehow save me, make me immune, when in reality, it was the person whom I'd trust with my life that turned out to be the traitor. Someone who had shared a meal with my mother, played with my little brother. I was angry with myself for having 'fallen for it' and shouldered the shame and blame for so long that I had no idea how the hell to break my silence.
So, at the age of 25, I was having one of countless fights with a loved one, because my past was constantly causing tension in my relationships with other people as well as myself, and I ran out the door in tears. I drove to a café, sat down and asked the waitress for a pen, as I was going to doodle in my notebook hoping it would calm my nerves. Much to my surprise, a letter streamed out of my pen, addressed to Tom. It was a detailed description of the crime he'd carried out against me that fateful night, complete with all the repercussions it had had for me ever since. The voice in the letter was raw and strong, it was the part of me that wanted to place the responsibility with the person to whom it rightfully belonged, the part of me that had seen through the victim-blaming, the part of me that was sick of being sick due to this untreated wound. The letter also expressed a longing to find a way to reconcile with the past, because being at war with it had cost me my happiness and quality of life. My coping mechanisms had kept me alive but they weren't making my life worth living.
I typed the letter into a computer when I got home and decided to send it, despite only having no contact information for Tom apart from a decade old hotmail address (and let's face it, nobody uses hotmail anymore). I was also aware that the likeliest outcome would be that he ignored the email, if he ever got it, or that he flat out denied the contents of it. Still, I decided to send it, because the only outcome I couldn't live with was silencing this newfound voice of mine. Much to my surprise, Tom responded with a straightforward confession, owning up to having raped me, a fact he had tried to suppress, deny and outrun all these years. He took full responsibility for his act, expressed his deepest remorse and asked if there was anything, anything at all that he could do to make it better.
Receiving his mail set me off on a rollercoaster of mixed emotions. It was a relief to have my pain acknowledged, but I was also furious for all the years he'd robbed me of. That's when I realised that yes, there was actually something Tom could do. He could answer the million dollar question that I believe every single survivor yearns to ask, and it's WHY. Why did you do that to me?
This question was the start of an eight year long correspondence where Tom and I analysed not only what happened that night, but what motivated his selfish actions as well as the deep-seated consequences they'd had. Tom told me how he, as an 18 year old boy, felt he had a right to his girlfriend's body. That after a night out partying, he expected the it to end with sex. It was a given. Not for a moment did he stop to think about what I wanted. Of course I wanted to, we were a couple, that should be consent in itself, he thought. He was a young man and young men had sex with their girlfriends, in his mind. It took him a long time to admit to himself that what he did wasn't at all sex. That it was horrifically abusive, an enormous theft.
His words made me furious and disgusted and deeply sad, because I started to realise that Tom's misconceptions weren't unique to him, that countless men and boys around the globe had the same false sense of entitlement to women's bodies, and that I had run into yet another one of patriarchy's lies, rooted in toxic masculinity.
I wrote raging letters back, tearing down his arguments - which was relieving and even healing at times - to have finally caught a hold of the root cause and be able to stare it in the eye. I also got the chance to shed my self-blame and put the full weight of Tom's actions on his shoulders, where it belonged, as opposed to carrying it myself.
I made sure to always prioritise my own wellbeing. I was as safe as it gets, literally on the other side of the planet, communicating in the protected mode that is email, where nobody can interrupt you and you can easily disengage, which is exactly what I did whenever I didn't think it was serving my recovery. After all, this was not about him, it was about me healing myself and finding a way to live that wasn't dictated by my past.
One of the first things we addressed In our writing, was that Tom had never been sexually abusive again, which was a prerequisite for me to even be in communication with him. Next up, we discussed a prison sentence and how that would've been a fitting result of Tom's actions. That's when we discovered that the statute of limitations had run out. A legal process would've been much easier for both of us, but since the judicial system denied us that chance, we had to figure out our own process instead, a kind of restorative justice process which is actually much more common than many people might think. In Australia alone, the organisation SECASA services 2000 people every year, where the survivor and perpetrator of sexual violence go through a restorative justice process whereby the perpetrator listens to the hurt and damage he caused the survivor, and shoulders responsibility for it. The whole process is survivor-centered and survivor led, and I encourage those of you who are curious to give it a closer look.
SECASA, and other organisations that work with perpetrators, regard sexual abuse as a behaviour that can be changed, as opposed to an identity that people are born with. And that's not a very popular opinion in a world where so many people benefit from keeping the monster myth alive. But no single entity benefits more from the monster myth than the patriarchy itself, in my opinion, because it allows men to create a sub-category of monsters from whom they can distance themselves, so that the question of what's wrong with masculinity never gets asked. Because 'monsters' aren't men, men don't have to concern themselves with the problem. The patriarchy gets off the hook yet again.
Back to the story. After 8 years of on-and-off correspondence, I came to a point where I felt I had written what I wanted to write, I'd posed the questions I wanted to ask and I wanted to put a full stop to the analysis. After all, it had never been my intention to make Tom my pen-pal and I didn't want to spend my life looking over my shoulder, constantly mulling over the past. I had a husband, two wonderful step daugthers and a son at this point, and I wanted to have a future with them that was as free from the constraints of the violence Tom had subjected me to as possible.
And that's when I knew that I wanted to give voice to my experience. Because after all, the written word is silent, and there's something very empowering about literally breaking your silence, and owning your truth. It was the most dignified way to close this chapter of my life, that had cut to my very core. After all, doing it via hotmail seemed detached and impersonal considering how deeply this event had marked my life.
Tom agreed to a meeting and given how Sydney and Reykjavik are literally worlds apart, we decided to meet in the middle, which happened to be Cape Town in South Africa. There, in April of 2013, we had some of the most excruciating conversations I've ever had, but also some of the most liberating ones. In short, it changed my life. I managed to forgive myself for the shame and blame I'd wrongfully carried, which is referred to in the title, South of Forgiveness, contrary to a common misunderstanding that it refers to forgiving Tom.
Upon returning home, I flew into writing. Not because I thought our story would end up in the public eye, but because I am a chronic writer and that's how I process my experiences. Which is why my entire life, I've written diaries and journals and very, very bad poetry.
Tom then completed the narrative by inserting a few of his own thoughts and learnings, the rest is told from my perspective. When he suggested that we'd go public with our story, my first reaction was 'hell no, I have no desire to bare my deepest wounds in a victim-blaming world'. But then I thought: If we do it together, if Tom becomes the voice we're currently missing, if he as a perpetrator shoulders responsibility publicly, then perhaps we can finally take the next step and stop scrutinising the victim. Perhaps we can finally shift the focus onto the perpetrator, perhaps we can finally get other men to stop and listen and turn their gaze inward and take a look at their own masculinity, in a world where Donald goddamn Trump can brag about sexual violence before filing it away as 'lockerroom talk' and a normal part of men's culture, in that world, I wanted to do the very opposite.
As a survivor, I also wanted to give hope to those who are still engulfed by the darkness and silence I resided in for so long, and tell them that the shame never belonged to them. That it is even possible to find happiness – a thought that I found unattainable during my darkest hours. And I should state that Tom is not profiting from the book, as he gives his profits away to the Women's Shelter here in Reykjavik.
With the development of intersectional feminism, it has become a goal to focus on the most vulnerable women among us. And among the worst of treatment that women arguably sustain is sexual violence, as one of the most serious human rights violations. As a result, sexual violence survivors are some of the most vulnerable among us, some of the most shame-ridden and silenced. I'm privileged to no end just being able to stand here and share my story, a story that so many of my fellow survivors would be ostracized, punished, forced to marrying their rapists or even killed for sharing.
The women who have contacted me subsequently have all kinds of stories, but one group in particular has caught my attention, and it's the women who have confronted their perpetrators or are in the process of doing so. No woman wants to be raped and no woman wants to confront her perpetrator about it, but many of them feel that they simply have to. And I'm going to borrow Frederica Mathewes-Green's words and say that women don't want to confront their perpetrators like they want an ice cream or a Porsche. They want to confront their perpetrators like a trapped animal wants to gnaw off its own leg. Because it's the only way to carry on living.
Some of them have children with their perpetrators, they work together, they go to school together, they belong to the same family or live in a community that's too small to avoid each other entirely. It gets even more complicated when they have feelings for their perpetrator, because he's their brother, their husband, their son. The monster myth deepens their shame and silence, because what does it say about me if I trusted the monster, married the monster or even gave birth to the monster? How do I then deserve anything better?
But they do. These women deserve that the monster myth is dismantled. Violence is a monstruous act, committed by people. People like Tom and millions of other perpetrators that we share spaces with every day, all over the world. People whose behaviour has to chance if we're going to see an end to violence.
At the end of the day, what Tom and I did was an attempt to reach those who will never sit in air-conditioned conference rooms like this one. People like the 16 year old Indian boy, who sent me this message.
Our project was imperfect, and sure as hell not above criticism. After 15 years of feminist activism, my expectations were pretty realistic as to what would happen when Tom and I went public. I anticipated the black-and-white media and mean comments and the rape threats, but also grateful letters from survivors with similar stories. I was surprised to receive support from legends like Sonali Mukherjee, who survived an acid attack by two men, and Theresa B. who survived when a man she didn't know shoved her in front of an approaching train, who believes that if we want to eradicate violence, we need to understand how perpetrators think. Like Liz Kelly said yesterday: Dare to ask the hard questions, to know the uncomfortable.
I also anticipated being accused of pressuring other survivors to do what I did, which is why I was very mindful of always underlining that I want the exact opposite: I want every survivor to have a right to find their own path, their own process. The only recommendation I have for them is to prioritise their own safety.
I anticipated the men's rights activists who would accuse me of lying and their mansplaining of how it wasn't really rape because I didn't fight back and how I ultimately reacted wrong, for which I was to blame.
I was less prepared for my fellow feminists to tell me the same thing, that how I reacted was wrong. How I didn't have a right to let go of my hatred and break my silence the way I did, not even when I explained that it was the only way for me to save my life.
Our greatest support came from feminists too, trailblazers such as Pat Mitchell and Jude Kelly, and without people like them, we wouldn't have given a TED talk that has now been viewed almost 4 million times, nor would we have published our book in 12 countries. We also had the support of many feminist journalists who 'got it' and wrote brilliant articles. But the staunchest opposition and silencing attempts also came from feminists and organisations that claim to be survivor supportive, but at the end of the day were willing to organise petitions and protests and buy sponsored campaigns on social media platforms to tell the world how wrong this survivor had been in the processing of her own experiences, how dangerous I was and how I had other women's blood on my hands. Not the men who actually kill them - but I - because I committed the ultimate crime: Humanising the monster.
I didn't anticipate that the most common question I'd get in the media was what I thought of the reactions from feminists - as if I couldn't be one of them myself – and I didn't anticipate that the only threat that was deemed serious enough, so that I had to be assigned a security detail, would come from a group that claims to be feminist.
I was not prepared for their hatred, nor how deeply it would affect me. And I'm ashamed to admit that when I was invited to speak at this conference, I felt deeply honoured but also a little scared.
But at the end of the day, this is not about me.
It's much bigger than one woman's experience.
It's about what we want, as a feministic movement. As the single most important movement in the world for women's rights. And it's an inherently flawed question, because we as individuals can't answer what a movement wants. The only thing we can do is to look into our own hearts, which is what I want to ask you to do now, as I leave you with three questions for you to ponder at your own convenience. You don't have to answer these questions now - and you don't have to agree with each other, either.
- Are we willing to embrace the theme of this conference: Nothing about us without us - and support survivors in telling their stories, even when we don't like the way they processed their experiences?
- Are we willing to see violence as a learned behaviour that can also be changed? If yes, are those who have been abusive in the past allowed to contribute to the battle against violence? Not to be centered in it, not to be applauded or heralded – but to allow for the invisible to become visible without us attempting to shove it back into the shadows?
- People like me and my thousands of sisters at SECASA and all over the world, who have confronted our abusers, are our voices allowed to be heard publicly or only behind closed doors?
I can't speak for every survivor. But in all my years of work, I've never met a survivor who didn't want to be respected and restore her dignity and reclaim her power. The only way to do so is by being allowed to control that process yourself - even when it differs from traditional ideas about how a survivor 'ought' to behave.
That's when the winds blow strong.
That's also when - if we set it free - our kite can fly higher than ever.