A new study from Sweden's National Council on Crime Prevention (Brå) looked into reported rapes across Europe, after Eurostat figures showed that between 2013 and 2017 Sweden, together with England and Wales, had the highest number of reported rapes per capita.
“We knew that according to the statistics, Sweden has a very high number of rapes. We were interested in studying that closely and to see if the numbers are comparable from country to country, and we soon recognised that they were not comparable,” researcher Stina Holmberg told The Local.
“This could have an impact on both women in Sweden and women from abroad, if they feel frightened when really it is not more dangerous to be in Sweden than in many other countries from the perspective of the risk of rape,” she said.
In a Europe-wide crime victim survey, the number of women in Sweden who said they had been raped at some point since the age of 15 was still high at 11 percent, but this was similar to most other northwestern European countries.
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Holmberg said there were three key differences in how rapes are reported and recorded which could make it tough to compare countries.
Firstly, there is the question of how to define rape. Sweden recently followed the lead of several other countries in defining all non-consensual sex as rape, and its definition of rape covers acts of sexual violence which are categorised as 'assault' or other crimes elsewhere. According to Brå, around 40 percent of reported rapes in Sweden in 2016 did not involve violence, something which was a requirement for a classification of rape in Spain, for example, up until 2020.
Sweden also counts every incidence of assault or rape as a separate incident, whereas in other countries repeated rape within a relationship are counted as one incident. In the city of Malmö, for example, more than a third of all reported rapes in 2019 could be traced back to one single court case of a man accused of raping another person more than 140 times.
And Sweden's reported rape statistics include every incident where the victim claims to have been raped, unlike countries which only register reported rapes once an investigation is concluded and determines that a rape took place.
Brå's researchers tested the extent to which these factors might skew the reporting rate by recalculating Sweden's rape statistics using the legal and statistical definitions in Germany.
Eurostat figures show that Sweden had 64 reported rapes per 100,000 residents in 2016, compared to 10 in Germany. When Sweden's figures were recalculated using the German definitions, the new figure was 15 reported rapes per 100,000 residents.
That's still 50 percent more than in Germany, but it would place Sweden around the middle in terms of reported rape in Europe if the same standards were used as in Germany (although without recalculating other countries' statistics using the German definitions).
“Those things are clear mathematics. So we can easily recount the statistics in ways that are more comparable, which we did with Germany. The next question is could there be differences in the propensity to report rape? We cannot know the true amount of rapes, but the difference between many south-eastern European countries [and Sweden, as well as northern European countries] could also be linked to differences in the likelihood to report a crime. Sweden and other countries with a high level of confidence in legal systems and high gender equality have the highest reported rapes,” said Holmberg.
Reporting rates could also depend on how individuals define rape, and in their trust in the authorities.
The researchers carried out the study “to highlight the problems that arise when comparing the statistics from different countries on reported rapes and case outcomes, but also to illustrate how other factors affect the statistics, beyond the actual incidence of rape and the effectiveness of the justice system”, according to a statement from Brå.
The agency added that it hoped the study would “contribute to a more nuanced and fact-based discussion about the numbers of rapes and other sexual offences reported to the police in different countries”.