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Is rape rampant in gender-equal Sweden?

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11:59 CEST+02:00
A recent European Commission report identifying Sweden as the rape capital of Europe should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism, argues sociologist Laura Agustín.

Rape is a complicated crime. A research project funded by the European Commission's Daphne programme reveals that Sweden leads Europe in reports of rape.

At 46.5 per 100,000 members of the population, Sweden far surpasses Iceland, which comes next with 36, and England and Wales after that with 26. At the same time, Sweden's 10 percent conviction rate of rape suspects is one of Europe's lowest.

The report's comparative dimension should probably be ignored. Instead of assuming that there are four times as many rapes in Sweden as in neighbouring Denmark or Finland, as the figures suggest, to understand we would have to compare all the definitional and procedural differences between their legal systems. It is significant that Sweden counts every event between the same two people separately where other countries count them as one. Most of Sweden's rapes involve people who know each other, in domestic settings.

The countries reporting highest rates of rape are northern European with histories of social programming to end violence against women. In Sweden, Gender Equality is taught in schools and reinforced in public-service announcements. Should we believe that such education has no effect, or, much worse, an opposite effect? Raging anti-feminist men think so, and raging anti-immigrant Swedes blame foreigners. Amnesty International says patriarchal norms are intransigent in Swedish family life. Everyone faults the criminal justice system.

In contemporary Sweden, women and girls are encouraged to speak up assertively about gender bias and demand their rights. Public discussions have revolved around how to achieve equal sex: Gender Equality in the bedroom. We can consult okejsex.nu, an official campaign whose homepage shows pedestrians obliviously passing buildings full of scenes of violence, suggesting it is ubiquitous behind closed doors. Okejsex defines rape as any situation where sex occurs after someone has said no.

In many countries, and in many people's minds, rape means penetration, usually by a penis, into a mouth, vagina or anus. In Swedish rape law, the word can be used for acts called assault or bodily harm in other countries.

That may be progressive, but it's also confusing. You don't have to be sexist or racist to imagine the misunderstandings that may arise. If younger people (or older, for that matter) have been out drinking and dancing and end up in a flat relaxing late at night, we are not surprised that the possibility of sex is raised. The process of getting turned on – and being seduced – is often vague and strange, involving looks and feelings rather than clear intentions. It is easy to go along and actively enjoy this process until some point when it becomes unenjoyable. We resist, but feebly. Sometimes we give in against our true wishes.

Sweden is also proud of its generous policy towards asylum-seekers and other migrants who may not instantly comprehend what Gender Equality means here, or that not explicitly violent or penetrative sex acts are understood as rape. That doesn't mean that non-Swedes are rapists but that a large area exists where crossed signals are likely, for instance, amongst people out on the town drinking.

Discussions of rape nowadays use examples of women who are asleep, or have taken drugs or drunk too much alcohol, in order to argue that they cannot properly consent to sex. If they feel taken advantage of the next day, they may call what happened rape. The Daphne project's Sweden researchers propose that those accused of rape ought to have to ‘prove consent', but attempts to legislate and document seduction and desire are unlikely to succeed.

What isn't questioned, in most public discussions, is the idea that the problem must be addressed by more laws, ever more explicit and strict. Contemporary society insists that punishment is the way to stop sexual violence, despite evidence suggesting that criminal law has little impact on sexual behaviour.

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We want to think that if laws were perfectly written and police, prosecutors and judges were perfectly fair, then rapes would decrease because a) all rapists would go to jail and b) all potential rapists would be deterred from committing crime. Unfortunately, little evidence corroborates this idea. Debates crystallise in black-and-white simplifications that supposedly pit politically correct arguments against the common sense of regular folk. Subtleties and complications are buried under masses of rhetoric, and commentaries turn cynical: ‘Nothing will change', ‘the police are pigs', immigrants are terrorists, girls are liars.

Is it realistic or kind to teach that life in Sweden can always be safe, comfortable and impervious to outside influences? That, in the sexual sphere, everything disagreeable should be called rape and abuse? Although the ‘right' to Gender Equality exists, we cannot expect daily life to change overnight because it does.

Laura Agustín is the author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (London: Zed Books, 2007) and the blog Border Thinking.

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