Should men be included in the conversation about rape and women abuse?

Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger at TEDWomen 2016 - It's About Time, in October last year. (Marla Aufmuth/TED)

Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger at TEDWomen 2016 - It's About Time, in October last year. (Marla Aufmuth/TED)

“I’d choke her,” says Grizelda Grootboom, who refers to herself as a former “sex slave” when I asked how she would feel if she were to share a platform with the person who trafficked her.  This exchange took place during a discussion titled From Victim to Survivor at the Franschhoek Literary Festival last month. Michelle Hattingh, author of I’m the Girl Who Was Raped, responds with less venom but similar sentiment: “I’m conscious not to give my rapist the time. He doesn’t deserve a platform to speak.”

Their responses are not surprising, considering the understandable climate of anger and frustration towards South African men that has broken out on social media in the last month.

The hashtag #MenAreTrash has pointed the finger at all men regardless of race or socioeconomic standing as more and more women are coming forward with stories of sexual abuse.

Recently, two women alleged on Twitter that an award-winning male writer, fellow of a Wits University administered fellowship and previous contributor to this newspaper and City Press, had been verbally and physically abusive to them in the past. This reflects the nondiscriminatory nature of gender-based and domestic violence, regardless of social strata.

The undeniable reality is that, in the words of academic and author Helen Moffett, there is “an unacknowledged gender civil war” in the country. The rhetoric of late is definitely angry; it’s attacking and aimed at naming and shaming male perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence – and for good reason.

But when a conversation on the transition from victim to survivor is exclusive to women, there is an inherent limitation imposed on the space and the possibility of the conversation wherein the entitlement of the man is not addressed.

This is the opinion of the self-proclaimed and publicly regretful rapist, Tom Stranger, who met his victim, Thordis Elva, in Cape Town in 2007 in a collective act of reconciliation a decade after he raped her. Since then, they have shared many platforms together, speaking on the subject and co-authoring a book, South of Forgiveness, about their collaborative healing process.

In light of the blinding anger in South Africa of late, resulting in much polarised debate, I decided to reach out to Stranger; well aware that mine would be the first one-on-one interview with a male journalist that would make it to publication after the editor of another newspaper “refused to give a rapist a platform”. As a South African male whose sense of masculinity has been profoundly shaped by the rape of a close family member, I felt a deep double tug.

On the one hand, I felt Stranger represented an important way of furthering and deepening a conversation around the idea of giving men a platform to talk about an issue that cannot and should not be resolved exclusively by women. In conflict with this idea, I felt nervous and unsure about whether I wanted to engage with him simply because he is a rapist. But my need to explore a different way of having an urgently necessary conversation gripped me.  So, despite my better instincts to shout him down and silence him, I sat down for an honest and revealing Skype call.

Stranger was 18 when he raped Elva while she was incapacitated after drinking too much at a highschool party in December 1996. Today, he is insightful about what he sees as a glaring omission in the global conversation – which starts with a criticism of the backlash to #MenAreTrash, which is #NotAllMen, dismissing it as a kneejerk reaction that is not constructive.

“This #NotAllMen argument, I’ve seen it in person,” Stranger says. “I’ve been offered excuses. People have said I was 18, I had hormones, that they’ve all been there. They absolve me of my crime.”

He is articulate about the construct of masculinity, describing it as a “heavily policed, insecure project […] something that is unstable and has to be produced. If we see sexual violence as something committed by men who are within the bounds of that production of masculinity and not external, we can then dispel the ‘monster myth’. There is space to talk about the semantics of the term but the thing that excites me the most is the challenge to masculinity and how it is protected.”

I am struck my Stranger’s sharp capacity to reflect and get to the foundation of rape culture after committing rape – namely men’s entitlement to women’s bodies: “The sexual violence that I committed came from a place of deservingness and the very misguided assumption that when a boy goes out with his girlfriend he is entitled to sex.”

This sense of reflection coupled with his championing of a collective healing between rapist and survivor is strikingly familiar. It was this methodology that Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and others put in place during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for dealing with post-apartheid trauma, which saw the victim and the perpetrator share a platform. Twenty-one years on, however, we are a more divided nation on the subject of truth and reconciliation than ever before.

Although men should not be leading the conversation about rape, surely it is an incomplete conversation without voices like Stranger’s, which show the capacity for rapists to reflect and become ambassadors for change in all men?

Not according to Grootboom and Hattingh or 2 364 people in the United Kingdom who signed a petition barring Stranger from taking a stage at the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre in London in March.

In light of my personal connection to rape, I find myself declaring to my partner that I would have also signed that petition. The thought of seeing a family member share a stage with her rapist would be too painful to bear and so, however compelling Stranger’s capacity to repent and articulate the broader problem, I sympathise with Grootboom’s desire to throttle him.

But as a man myself engaging with the dialogue in this country, I would be lying if I wholly took up the politically correct position that men must remain silent and assume a distant listening role. It is important to point out that Stranger did not claim his platform without being prompted by Elva, who initiated the contact between them and who felt that this would help her personal process of healing.

Sadly this model is perhaps impossible in a South African context where rape is, in the main, brutal and all too often a source of pride. But what Stranger represents is ability for self-reflection and an interrogation of the structures that prop up this toxic masculinity.

Perhaps filling this void allotted specifically to men to talk about rape is part of the solution. One could make the case for having a parallel event to the discussion From Victim to Survivor where men face up to their privilege.

As Grootboom passionately says, “#MenAreTrash is not for the rapists but, for me, [it] is speaking to the men who haven’t raped but are doing nothing about it.”

It is about ordinary men who see themselves, as Stranger did, as one of the “good guys” but miss the point of how the structural imbalances between genders leads to gender-based violence. It is about engaging these men in the conversation and that needs to start now.

Although this process is deeply personal and cannot be mapped onto anyone else’s process, this TRC-style model has worked for Stranger and Elva, and can serve as a powerful prompt to a society like South Africa’s, which has in effect tried and tested this approach, albeit in an incomplete and outdated capacity where including the culprits of violence in the conversation did not go far enough in holding them accountable.

But before culprits can be held accountable, and if victim and society allow, even though they might have been forgiven, they must be interrogated.

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