perfect survivor

Challenging The Myth Of The Perfect Survivor

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Kate Earley

Killjoy, PR lover, politico, and I run on caffeine.

It was a little while ago that a TED Talk started circulating around on the interwebs – one that caught the eye of many survivors of sexual assault. Thordis Elva, a survivor herself, did an unusual TED Talk – where she invited her own rapist to speak with her. It’s based around their story, and the story of their recently-published book, South of Forgiveness. Both the book and the talk chronicle Elva’s assault at Tom Stranger’s hands.

If this sounds controversial, that’s because it is. You mean we’re supposed to forgive rapists now? What good does that do?

The answer: it’s complicated.

Diverse Reactions, Different Needs

Just as we know that victims of assault react differently to their trauma – some freeze, some flee, some fight – they have different reactions to the healing process of trauma, as well.

Perfect Survivor
Thordis Elva and her book, South of Forgiveness

Mainstream society would like us to believe that The Perfect Victim is brutally attacked by a stranger, whom she never sees or speaks to outside of identifying him in a police lineup or speaking at his trial. But the hard reality is that most victims of assault know their attacker. And that means that they may very well interact with them before, during, and after the healing process begins – especially if their attacker was their intimate partner. Just as we fantasize about The Perfect Victim and what they do and how they interact with their attacker, we have myths to dismantle about The Perfect Survivor and our idea about how they should interact with what happened to them. For example, interaction with attackers may not be inevitable, but for many survivors, it’s actually important to their self-discovery and healing process.

It is certainly not my intention to persuade any survivor of assault to interact with their attacker if doing so makes them uncomfortable – rather, I want to point out the complex realities and feelings that occur during the healing process of assault. For some survivors, confrontation is a powerful tool. For others, they seek to forgive the harm that was done to them, like Elva. Just as every rape is different and every victim/survivor is a different person, they have different needs and different desires when it comes to healing and facing their trauma.

To be clear, however: it is always the survivor’s choice alone to confront, forgive, or otherwise deal with their attacker. What happened to them was not only violent, it was frighteningly personal. However they see fit to seek justice and healing for themselves is the route that their support network should rally behind, without judging or inserting commentary. This also means that it’s still unacceptable to knowingly converse with rapists who survivors have outed to you about the sexual assault without the survivor’s explicit permission. It is not your call to forgive or confront the attacker. (Doing the latter may, in some cases, actually put the victim in danger)

For many survivors, the idea of speaking to their rapist may be physically repulsive and unacceptable. That is their right. Others can find power in confrontation – writing letters, having a sit-down, talking over the phone. Others find value in publicly sharing their experiences and naming their attackers outright.

We seem to try to limit the reactions that a survivor of assault can have. Not only do we tend to look poorly upon survivors interacting with their attacker in any way, but when it comes to avenues for justice, we put them in a terrible position by only giving preference to a civil suit or criminal charge route. In reality, there are other options – options that can even help us better dismantle rape culture – that we should present survivors of assault with when it comes to helping them decide what road to go down.

Callouts, Community Accountability, Prison Reform, And Other Calls To Action

There are a number of things we can present as options to our friends and loved ones going through the trauma of rape. Civil and criminal avenues, of course, remain on the table – but in a world where it is increasingly difficult for rape victims to get justice through the legal system (which can be re-traumatizing), it’s important to consider all aspects of what the road to justice can look like and open up options for survivors.

  • Callouts. Public callouts in community spaces – whether in person or online – can serve as a powerful way for victims/survivors to take back their space and reclaim their power. Callouts can take many shapes and forms – a simple Facebook status, a shared screenshot, an article written by the survivor, etc – and can reach a wide audience.
  • Community Accountability. Communities can be led to a call to action by survivors – by holding attackers responsible in their own social atmospheres. This can look like an attacker being voted off a school board, losing advertisers for their TV show, or revoking certain privileges or positions of status.
  • Prison reform. Survivors devoted to dismantling rape culture and encouraging rehabilitation, while still favoring the legal system, can advocate for various measures of prison reform – measures that will decrease rape in prisons and increase rehabilitative measures that deconstruct learned predatory behaviors. This is a hard one to tackle: if we believe in ending mass incarceration, what do we do with rapists? Isn’t that taking away an avenue of justice for victims? By advocating for prison reform, we open up the justice system as a more viable route for survivors to go down.

There’s no right or wrong way to respond to sexual assault. In a world where we continue to challenge the narrative of The Perfect Victim, we must also challenge our misconceptions of The Perfect Survivor – and grant understanding and support to survivors no matter what road they decide to go down.


Header image: Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger, her rapist. Photograph by Calum Robertson.