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Sweden in Focus: One year on, what did #MeToo achieve in Sweden?

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
Sweden in Focus: One year on, what did #MeToo achieve in Sweden?
A march organized by #MeToo campaigners makes its way through Gothenburg earlier this year. Photo: Thomas Johansoon / TT

The #MeToo movement took a specific form in Sweden, where women organized and called for specific structural changes in different branches. One year on from what is referred to in Swedish media as 'the autumn of #MeToo', The Local explores how much the conversation has changed, and what can be done to better support the women and girls who continue to suffer assault and harassment.


This feature is part of The Local's award-winning Sweden in Focus series, taking an in-depth look at the issues that make this country tick. Click here to read more articles.

Ninni Carlsson is one of very few researchers in Sweden who looks at how women deal with sexual violence, and over the past year she's noticed a distinct change in how people respond to her job.

"People used to just say 'oh, that's a difficult topic' and that was it. That was very common. But now, that's not the reaction. Now, there's a need to talk about it: people are curious, they tell me their own thoughts, there is a huge interest in #MeToo, and I see that as a big change," she tells The Local.

In a way, this shouldn't be surprising, since a large proportion of Swedish residents, and those across the globe, experience sexual violence or harassment over their lifetimes. But for a long time, even those directly affected haven't talked about it – and in many cases, may not have even acknowledged to themselves what they had experienced.

According to recently released figures by the National Council on Crime Prevention (Brå), the proportion of women affected by sexual crimes in the preceding 12 months has increased over the past five years.

In 2017, 10.7 percent of women told Brå's annual National Security Survey (NTU) they had experienced a sex crime that year (a category which ranges from verbal abuse to aggravated rape), and that figure rose to over one in three (34.4 percent) among 16-24-year-olds. Among all women, 2.3 percent said they had been victim to a serious sex crime.

In 2012, only 2.7 percent of women said they had experienced a sex crime that year. Brå's survey, for which tens of thousands of Swedes are questioned on whether they have experienced a crime, is generally considered to give a more accurate picture of crime rates than police reporting rates. This is due to several factors: the way Sweden categorizes sexual crimes changed five years ago, and only a minority of women report assault (in this way it differs from crimes such as theft or car vandalism, when a police report is necessary for insurance claims). 

But even the NTU survey may not accurately reflect the true crime level, so the increase could mean several different things. The government has asked Brå to carry out a comprehensive study into the rate of sexual crimes, the results of which will be presented next year.

"There's a huge unknown quantity and it's hard to investigate this because it requires us to ask questions in a very definitive way and it's hard to put words on your own experiences," explains sexual violence researcher Carlsson. "Even with someone who has experienced sexual assault, they might not connect it to being a crime because you need to understand the concept and define it – maybe the norm is that this is OK sex."

Researcher Ninni Carlsson has studied how victims of sexual assault cope with trauma. Photo: Private

The increase in Brå's victimization rate started before #MeToo, but it's still possible that the campaign had an impact in providing sexual violence victims with understanding of their experience.

"My research shows that the likelihood of reporting increases if you have a society that supports victims, and we know that calls to helplines went up after the first few weeks of #MeToo. I talk a lot with colleagues and students and I ask, what did #MeToo set in motion for you? A lot of people have said they started to reflect on what they have experienced themselves. Things they didn't think of as an assault at the time," Carlsson explains. 

"My impression is that willingness to report has definitely risen [since #MeToo], but we can also consider whether assault has also increased in recent years. We know that pornography for example has become very common and widespread and has also got more violent, and it may well be that there's a link between assault and what happens in porn."

"We've had great progress in Sweden in terms of talking about assault, and women here are very aware of their rights. But at the same time, this hasn't stopped sexual violence."

To those involved the movement, it was clear from the start that the work of challenging patriarchal structures would take time. The #MeToo movement made harassment a topic of conversation in national media and within families and friendship groups, but when it comes to concrete outcomes, the pace of change is somewhat slower.

"Unfortunately, over the past year I have met many leaders who think that now we have talked about it so everything has changed," Culture and Democracy Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke tells The Local. "One big thing has changed, and that's that the culture of silence is broken, but we need to make sure that's permanent."

The minister says she "totally changed [her] agenda" at the end of last year to make sexual harassment issues a priority. Looking forward, one clear goal she has in mind is continuing work to strengthen Sweden's Discrimination Act. 

Alice Bah Kuhnke, Sweden's Minister of Culture and Democracy, pictured announcing measures to tackle sexual harassment in the cultural sector last December. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

As for how confident she is that #MeToo will lead to permanent change, Bah Kuhnke says it depends on whether decision makers in Swedish society are able to keep the isssue on the agenda. 

She recalls wrapping up an interview with a journalist who asked if there was anything else she would like to talk about:

"I said 'yes, let's talk about #MeToo', and the journalist said 'why, has something new happened?' I think that's quite symptomatic of the times we live in. We as leaders have a great responsibility. We need to keep talking, keep learning, keep being self-critical and dare to be inconvenient and even create a bad atmosphere. Then we might be able to reach another way of being and working together."

There have, of course, been concrete changes in Swedish society as a result of #MeToo. The culture sector has seen some of the most radical, after the #tystnadtagning letter in which hundreds of women detailed sexual abuse in the industry inspired over 60 further industry-specific '#MeToo initiatives'. Over the last 12 months, Bah Kuhnke has presented a ten-point programme aimed at tackling discrimination in the cultural sector, which has led to new guidelines and structures in many Swedish theatres and drama schools.

The editors who published #tystnadtagning were awarded one of Sweden's most prestigious journalism prizes, as was journalist Matilda Gustavsson, whose investigative journalism saw cultural figure Jean-Claude Arnault accused of rape and harassment. Gustavsson's reporting also paved the way for charges against Arnault, who has now been sentenced to jail for rape.

Outside the courts and the media, work has been under way at all levels of society to find solutions to the problem, from seminars in schools to hackathons aimed at finding digital solutions to a new law making sex without explicit consent illegal.

Actresses wore black '#tystnadtagning' T-shirts and refused to smile for cameras at Sweden's film awards. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer / TT

The thing that differentiated the movement in Sweden from its counterparts elsewhere was its sheer breadth. The first upprop or initiative may have come from the theatre industry, as the movement in the USA began with accusations of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but the initiatives that followed related to industries from politics to teaching to prostitution. 

"It's a true people's movement in that way," says Emmy Lilliehorn, who along with Elin Andersson has worked to coordinate the different groups, now in the early stages of becoming a non-profit organization. "Even if we don't always think alike, if we can still agree on a goal, which is this idea of an equal society free of sex harassment, then we've already achieved a lot." 

The Local spoke to organizers of four of the #MeToo initiatives about the progress in their sectors: the steps already taken, and those remaining.

In the care sector, the writers of #vårdensomsvek said the Swedish Psychological Association removed the two-year statute of limitations for reporting inappropriate psychologists to its ethical council. In politics, the petition #imaktenskorridorer has led to different changes in different political parties, with several of them introducing a whistle-blower role so that women can report harassment without needing to approach their direct manager, and the initiative's organizers also said the movement had led to a “sisterhood” between women from different parties. 

In the world of higher education, the #akademiuppropet has also led to whistle-blower functions as well as the government ordering an investigation, currently ongoing, into how universities tackle sexual harassment. And within the Swedish church, the #vardeljus initiative has prompted more widespread discussion of how to prevent and tackle assault, and the issue has become more highly prioritized.

There are other structural changes which they hope will follow: clear guidelines, better access to care and treatment, ongoing collaboration between the #MeToo organizers and leaders, and more. 

But one message rings out clear: they are just getting started.

The groups focused this year on presenting a list of suggested action points to politicians ahead of the September election – but sexual harassment didn't become the key political issue the campaigners had hoped for.

"There's been a striking silence," admits Lilliehorn. "My expectations have been crushed a couple of times. There have been so many opportunities for politicians to step up during the election year and for companies to take responsibility, which haven't all been taken. It's strange that companies and politicians can still get away with promising things and not delivering."

Representatives of the #MeToo initiatives. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT

One issue that has derailed some of the focus is the question of naming perpetrators. Very early on, the organizers of the different initiatives decided on a no-naming policy, even within the groups, many of which started out as closed Facebook groups.

But some women named their alleged abusers on social media in the first days of #MeToo in Sweden, and these cases have at times been highlighted by the media – particularly after the suicide of one man who had been publicly named as an alleged harasser, though those accusations were related to bullying and leadership style rather than sexual harassment. The Swedish Press Council has criticized newspapers who published unconfirmed reports.

Lilliehorn says that the debate on publishing names has at times taken some of the focus from the structural questions the movement hoped to address through the breadth and anonymity of the initiatives, but says she wouldn't characterize it as a 'backlash'.

"We were never expecting this to just be really appreciated instantly, or for there to be no friction. There's been discussion and critique and some of that has been good for us, for example that many of us are privileged white people and the problem of who feels included, and we should talk about that and change that," she says.

In the meantime, while she is proud that the movement brought #MeToo onto the agenda and hopes to achieve the structural changes the group is working for, Lilliehorn hopes that it will prompt continued self-reflection as well.

"It's very common that people recognize this as a structural problem but find it hard to connect it to their life and realize they are a part of this story. There is so, so much more work to do," she sums up.

This assessment is backed up by a survey from the NGO Män, which works to engage men in equality issues and tackle male violence. In a survey on male attitudes after #MeToo, a majority said that men bore a responsibility in tackling sexual harassment, while 80 percent said the movement had been positive for society and 40 percent had become more engaged in questions of equality as a result. Even so, just one in 20 totally agreed that the movement had made them examine their own behaviour.

"Often when men talk about sexual harassment, they refer to rape, often outdoors with a perpetrator who doesn't know the victim. Statistically, that only refers to about 15 percent of rapes," explains Alán Ali, who in spring became chairperson of Män. "So men might think MeToo is very important but not relevant to them because they're not a rapist. Our goal is to show that this is the tip of the iceberg and start talking about gender roles, patriarchy and so on."

Previous efforts to tackle sexual violence in Sweden have often had the wrong starting point, he argues, and highlights the importance of using the term 'male violence' rather than 'hooliganism', 'youth violence' or even 'criminal violence'.

"There has been a lot of talk about implementing Swedish Christian values among newly-arrived minorities, but we know that white Swedish Christian men are also raping and harassing women. The #MeToo movement showed that this is about men, not culture or ethnicity, so we need to engage all men within this work, and at the same time believe men can change." 

Män does this through talks, seminars and small group discussions held across the country, which offer men the chance to discuss issues relating to masculinity in a non-judgmental space. 

"A lot of participants think we're going to talk about MeToo on a structural level, but actually we talk about it on a personal level. People are surprised. They often say they didn't realize they'd be talking about how their life relates to MeToo – and they don't realize they have so many opinions about it," he explains.

The movement has prompted Ali to reflect on his own experience of sexual harassment, as a nine-year-old boy in a refugee camp, which he had rarely spoken about before but now shares with the groups.

"We need secure rooms where we can talk about these topics and feel vulnerability. It's not often that men question other men's views on sexism, especially in macho environments," he explains.

Sweden's women-only Statement Festival was launched following reports of assault at music events. But instead of excluding men, they can be part of the solution, most campaigners say. Photo: Frida Winter / TT

Before the #MeToo movement last autumn, Män had around 500 members, but after more and more stories of harassment in Sweden came out, hundreds of men got in touch who wanted to be part of the solution. The network tripled in size and has remained at around 1,500 members ever since. 

"We aren't trying to take over from the women's movement, but we need to complement each other. When men are involved, we have access to all the other 'rooms' where men are. We need to keep #MeToo alive," says Ali.

In order for change to continue and accelerate, sexual violence researcher Ninni Carlsson says Sweden needs to take the step from talking about sexual assault and consent to putting in place the resources to best deal with this, such as active prevention work in schools and workplaces, improved access to professional help and research funding, as she says that the area is "not yet prioritized" in Sweden. 

"We need to do something about children and women not being believed. Being believed is something we take for granted in most areas of our lives, but it's not obvious when you've experienced sexual assault. On the contrary: it's very common not to be believed, and the development here is going too slowly."

"I would like to see collaboration between authorities, political parties, representatives of the #MeToo initiatives, unions and employers, to analyze where we are now and where to go next. We can't bend back to the old political methods like strengthening punishments, as many political parties have done. Rape has been illegal since the Middle Ages, but is still widespread and it's still very hard to come forward," she says.

In conclusion, she suggests: "We need to rethink, we need to think in the right way, and we need to do it together."


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