Not with­out my con­sent

Daily Dispatch - - Weekend -

EARLIER this year, I gave a TED talk with a man who had raped me dur­ing a brief re­la­tion­ship. The talk, strange as it sounds, was a con­ver­sa­tion about the shame and si­lence that sur­rounds sex­ual vi­o­lence; the way we jus­tify to our­selves our ac­tions and re­ac­tions in the days, weeks and years that fol­low.

Be­cause the af­ter­math of rape is nei­ther pretty nor straight­for­ward. It is this truth that lies at the heart of the new ITV drama Liar, which sees a school­teacher (played by Joanne Frog­gatt) ac­cuse her dash­ing doc­tor date (Ioan Gruf­fudd) of rape. After flow­ing wine and con­ver­sa­tion, she wakes up in his bed with the hazy mem­ory of a sex­ual as­sault; he main­tains his in­no­cence, while she bat­tles for jus­tice for the al­leged crime com­mit­ted against her.

Where the story is sim­i­lar to mine is in the con­fu­sion that arises af­ter­wards. Some­times it will be clear straight away what has hap­pened. In many other cases, the truth will emerge slowly and painfully, two sides of a story rarely co­a­lesc­ing into any­thing like clar­ity.

But un­like Laura Niel­son, Frog­gatt’s char­ac­ter in Liar, I did not make an ac­cu­sa­tion un­til many years after what hap­pened.

His name was Tom Stranger and he had been my boyfriend. I had been drunk on rum that fate­ful night, and was so in­ca­pac­i­tated I couldn’t move a limb or ut­ter a word. Tom had come in to res­cue me, scoop­ing me up and tak­ing me home. The re­lief and grat­i­tude I’d felt was pro­found. But my grat­i­tude turned to hor­ror when Tom pro­ceeded to un­dress and rape me.

Not that I re­alised it was rape at the time, and not that he would have ac­knowl­edged it as such. Back then, sex­ual vi­o­lence was not ex­actly a preva­lent topic of con­ver­sa­tion in 1996 in Reyk­javik, Ice­land, where I lived.

To me, a rapist was not your boyfriend, but a mon­ster who lurked in the bush. A stranger – but not Tom Stranger, an Aus­tralian whose air of world­li­ness had left me smit­ten. And hadn’t my drunk­en­ness made me par­tially re­spon­si­ble any­way? I had lost my vir­gin­ity to Tom just a fort­night earlier in a lov­ing en­counter.

It didn’t make sense that the same per­son could one night be so con­sid­er­ate and then, shortly af­ter­wards, so ut­terly un­feel­ing. It didn’t oc­cur to me at the time that it is sim­ple: if you don’t give con­sent, it’s abuse.

If I didn’t have the name for what Tom had done, I had the pain. I knew I’d been griev­ously be­trayed. So when he came to my house two days later and broke up with me, I cer­tainly didn’t beg him to stay. He has said, with hind­sight, his de­ci­sion to end things was most likely sparked by the knowl­edge, deep down, of hav­ing com­mit­ted a hor­rific wrong.

I told no one what had hap­pened, and put ev­ery ef­fort into sup­press­ing the trauma. It was prob­a­bly not un­til a year or two later that I ac­cepted that the first time I gave my heart away, it re­sulted in rape.

By this time, Tom, who had been on a for­eign ex­change at my school, had re­turned to Aus­tralia. I had no wit­nesses, and felt my win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to press charges was now closed. I en­tered into a spi­ral of de­cline. Nine years passed and I had hit rock bot­tom when one day, to my sur­prise, a let­ter be­gan to stream out of me.

I hadn’t con­sciously con­sid­ered con­fronting Tom, but it all came bub­bling to the sur­face and I wrote him an e-mail in 2005 in which I rid­ded my­self of the blame I had wrongly shoul­dered for so long.

Much to my sur­prise, Tom wrote back and con­fessed all, told me he was deeply re­morse­ful and asked if there was any­thing he could do. The statute of lim­i­ta­tions had passed, so we had to make up our own kind of jus­tice, which I de­scribe in our co-au­thored book, South of For­give­ness.

Our e-mails con­tin­ued for eight years, dur­ing which time we delved not only into the con­se­quence Tom’s ac­tions had had for me, but also the ideas he had har­boured at the time: the toxic mas­culin­ity that meant his 18-year-old self felt en­ti­tled to his girl­friend’s body.

Many men who do th­ese things deny it to them­selves; they call it locker room talk. But Tom could no longer out­run his past. It was, he has said, hor­rific to recog­nise you have com­mit­ted a mon­strous act of which you didn’t ever think you were ca­pa­ble.

Fi­nally, I sug­gested we meet and con­front our past once and for all. See­ing Tom again was over­whelm­ing: it was the end of the run­ning, the hid­ing and deny­ing – for both of us. We had some ex­tremely dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions, of course, but also some very lib­er­at­ing ones. It changed my life.

We’ve since shared our story with the world in the hope it can lead to dis­cus­sions about con­sent and a di­a­logue about sex­ual vi­o­lence; we hope it will ul­ti­mately de­crease and even end it. The re­ac­tion to our story has been enor­mous and many have come for­ward to share their own ex­pe­ri­ences.

Some have con­fronted their per­pe­tra­tor like I did. But what is rare is a con­fes­sion like Tom’s, and it’s high time oth­ers joined him.

I’m now in my 30s, liv­ing in Stock­holm with my hus­band and eightyear-old son. Have I for­given Tom? That’s a tricky one.

I’ve let go of the ha­tred I felt for many years, but there’s no sim­ple way to de­scribe or let go of such a com­plex, 20-year his­tory. All I know is this: that each sur­vivor should have the right to find their own way to heal­ing. I hope that I’ve found mine.

As told to Rosa Sil­ver­man — The Daily Tele­graph

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