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‘What on earth is Bristol doing inviting a known rapist to speak here?’

By nancy fielding, Monday Mar 13, 2017

In the week that Bristolian women celebrated International Women’s Day in a multitude of exciting ways, we were also visited by a boxer who has been convicted multiple times of violence against women, and invited a self-confessed rapist to speak at a public event.

Boxer Floyd Mayweather is one of the wealthiest men on the planet and is celebrated for his sporting achievements. He has also been convicted multiple times of domestic violence against women, he has been sentenced to community service, given a suspended jail term and, in 2012, spent three months in prison for six offences of violence towards women. His presence in Bristol (where his event was cancelled last year due to objections, and moved around several venues this year due to further objections) was greeted by a protest outside the venue.

And there’s more. As part of Bristol’s Festival of Ideas, Tom Stranger will be speaking at a Bristol bookshop alongside Thordis Eva, the woman he raped.

Stranger raped Elva in 1996 when she was 16 and he 18, in an ordeal lasting two hours while she was so drunk she could not even speak. He took advantage of a vulnerable young woman of whom he was supposed to be looking after. Chillingly, Elva says of the ordeal: “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.”

Eight years after the rape, Elva decided to contact Stranger and confront him via a series of emails, which culminated in a decision to meet up. The result of this is a joint TED Talk, a co-written book, and a series of talks promoting the book where both Elva and Stranger take the platform at locations, including Bristol.

The Bristol event has so far faced an online petition, a volley of upset and angered people who are expressing themselves on social media, and a range of blog posts: all speaking out against the event and expressing shock and disgust at the invitation of a rapist to speak in our city. Elva and Stranger had been due to speak in London this weekend at the Women of the World Festival, but this has just been cancelled due to a huge outcry from angered women.

There seems to me, no difference between Stranger and Mayweather. They are both men who have committed violent acts against women, and who are being celebrated and invited to come and speak in our city about themselves as if they are heroes. It is inappropriate. And it is insulting that we are expected to pay to hear them, as if their opinions are valuable.

In many ways, the Tom Stranger event is even more unpalatable than the Floyd Mayweather one, because Stranger has not been convicted of his crime. He is presented as a charming, white, middle-class, conventionally attractive man who therefore isn’t a criminal (yet he freely admits he is a rapist), and because of the devastating message this puts out to women everywhere that rapists rarely get convicted. This reinforces the existing damaging message that, following a rape or sexual assault, women will not be believed.

While this event may pretend to be (and the Festival of Ideas insists this is the case) about Thordis Elva and her experience, it is not. It has, of course, become all about this man and not about the woman at all. Despite the fact that Elva is an extremely interesting and strong woman who has achieved impressive things in her career, this story has now become about him, not her. In her native Iceland, Elva is an acclaimed feminist writer, journalist and public speaker who was named woman of the year 2015, and she is a recognised specialist on violence against women and girls. She sounds amazing.

Elva’s story is important, as are the stories of all rape survivors. But just as her words are overshadowed by the very charming voice of her rapist in their TED Talk (a rapist who makes jokes while he talks, and who stands with his hands in his pockets while his victim talks), Elva’s story is also being overshadowed by the presence of Stranger in their live talks. Scribe, who published their book South Of Forgiveness this month, have said: “Tom Stranger is a perpetrator of rape. He has acknowledged as much publicly, and seeks to avoid inappropriate praise for his admission of guilt. He believes taking responsibility for committing any form of sexual violence should be viewed as essential rather than praise-worthy, whilst going to lengths to avoid suggesting that perpetrators should make contact with any individuals they have subjected to sexual violence. He will be donating a proportion of the proceeds from the project to charity.”

That’s great in theory, but the reality is that Stranger is, of course, dominating all of the discussions, newspaper articles, social media posts and general debates around Elva’s story – a story that she has a right to explore in whatever way she feels appropriate for her. Yet again, he is dominating her and her experiences. And whether or not Elva feels this herself, the message being put out there for all other survivors of rape and sexual assault is that their voices and experiences do not count unless they make peace with their rapist.

The Bristol Festival of Ideas issued the following statement: “We have organised a number of events around violence against women and girls, and have supported many women’s and feminist organisations in their work. These are issues we continue to explore and organise events and initiatives around.” But this doesn’t excuse anything. The fact that they have included some events in their past and future programmes around feminism has no bearing on the fact that this event is alienating and potentially triggering to existing survivors of sexual assault. Women will doubtlessly feel excluded from the event, as why would they wish to attend?

It is worth also remembering that Bristol has good credentials as a feminist city. Amongst other things, Bristol was the first city to sign up to the European Convention against Trafficking and the first UK city to sign up to the European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life.

In addition, Bristol has a mayoral Women’s Commission, is to host to the widely acclaimed Zero Tolerance initiative, and is working towards a city that is free from gender-based violence, abuse, harassment and exploitation.

Bearing all of this in mind, what on earth is Bristol doing inviting a known rapist to speak here? It’s truly staggering. Not only did this man commit a violent sexual assault on a woman, but he has received no criminal punishment, and now he is profiting from his actions as a rapist (as noted above, Stranger is only donating ‘a proportion’ of his fee from the book and talks to charity).

This whole episode puts out the very harmful message that as long as you say “sorry”, you can get away with the most hideous of crimes.

Nancy Fielding is a reporter for Bristol Women’s Voice: an organisation seeking to make women’s equality a reality in Bristol.

Top image: Thordis Elva & Thomas Stranger’s TED talk

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