Rape – why do we find it so hard to talk about it?

by Fiona Harper

In the story behind the book South of Forgiveness, co-author Thordis Elva says in The Weekend Australian’s Magazine article by Megan Lehmann that her life’s defining moment lasted 7,200 seconds. Uncharacteristically drunk after attending a high school dance, the 16 year old’s boyfriend had tenderly held her hair while she vomited, put her in a cab, carried her inside and put her to bed. Then he violently raped her.

The following two hours saw Elva’s mind see-saw between pain and confusion. Having willingly given her virginity to the Australian exchange student two weeks prior, her rum-adled brain couldn’t compute this unexpected act of violence. Of betrayal.

She never reported the rape. Indeed, by the time she identified that what happened that night was rape, her physical injuries had healed and the rapist had returned to Australia. Dumped two days after the act, she was left reeling, confused, alone.

This act of sexual violence took place in Elva’s hometown of Reykjavik though it could just as easily have been in Portland or Perth. Rapists don’t always look like the monsters they are portrayed to be in films and the media. The reality is, rapists are rarely brought to account for their crimes. Often as not they are adored brothers, respected co-workers, beloved boyfriends or husbands. Someone we know and trust.

‘I think part of the problem, when it comes to sexual violence and how incredibly widespread it is,’ Elva says, ‘is that it happens in our close communities and our intimate relationships while at the same time we’re nurturing these myths that it doesn’t happen. That it isn’t (perpetrated by) someone we know.’

Years late Elva’s rapist confesses he had only his own needs in mind and felt an entitlement to sex.

I’m no expert on sexual violence against women. But it’s this sense of entitlement that troubles me most. That invasion of a woman’s body, that her most intimate being, is a commodity to be snatched for personal gratification is abhorrent. Why do we shy from speaking of it? Why are victims reluctant to report these crimes?

I know why. It’s through shame. Shame that we are somehow responsible for a crime against ourselves. That we dressed inappropriately. Said the wrong thing. Sent the wrong message. Spoke to the wrong guy. Drank too much. Danced too enthusiastically. Hell, we probably smiled too much, God forbid!

The betrayal that upended Elva’s world eventually led her to forgiveness. Though she admits being reluctant to forgive in the Biblical context, instead preferring to forgive as a means of reclaiming control. Her rapist and co-author on the book they’ve recently collaborated on, says he has forgiven himself for his insidious crime, after having walked around in a maximum-security prison in his head for years. Good for him. He seems to at least had the decency to recognise his despicable crime and in so doing restored some of the self-control he stole from his victim.

Few rape victims achieve such peace, instead filing away the dark secret of sexual violence in a little-visited headspace. Elva found a path through trauma to empowerment, dragging her rapist out of denial with her bottled-up shame and rage. Ultimately, she found forgiveness. Her story reminds me of another 17-year-old rapist. I wonder if he too walks around in denial. Never brought to account, does he ever consider the consequences of his own unconscionable act all those years ago?

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