Not without my consent
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