Why confusion over genitalia word made Swedish court clear man of rape

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Why confusion over genitalia word made Swedish court clear man of rape
The man was found guilty of rape by the district court, but the appeals court tore up the verdict. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

A Swedish appeals court's decision to clear a man of raping a 10-year-old girl, after the judges could not confirm what a common word for female genitalia actually meant, has sparked a social media storm.


What’s happened?

A 50-year-old man was found guilty by a district court in Sweden of raping a 10-year-old girl in 2021. But the appeals court recently tore up the verdict and cleared him of the charges, as Aftonbladet columnist Oisín Cantwell was first to report.

What did the district court say?

The district court heard that the man had “by sticking his hand inside the plaintiff’s shorts and underwear, holding his hand on the plaintiff’s ‘snippa’ and having a finger inside her ‘snippa’, performed a sexual act” on the girl, in the prosecutor’s words.

The man denied the allegations, but the court found the girl’s testimony credible, supported by the fact that she had told her mother of the incident on the way home.

It sentenced him to three years in jail.

What did the appeals court say?

The appeals court by and large agreed with the district court. It found it had been proven that the man had touched the girl between her legs and put his finger in her snippa, according to the court judgment which has also been read by The Local.

Then it got thorny.

Four of the judges on the appeals court argued that it was not clear what the girl meant by the word snippa and exactly how far the man had inserted his finger.

After consulting a dictionary, they concluded that snippa referred to the external parts of the sexual organs, i.e. the vulva, and was “not synonymous with vagina, which is described in dictionaries as a ‘channel that connects the external genitalia with the uterus’.”

The girl had said that his finger was “far in” but could not explain exactly how far. The court therefore found it could not establish beyond doubt that the man had inserted his finger in her vagina rather than the vulva, a requirement for it to be classified as rape.

Because the prosecutor had only charged the man with rape, the appeals court could not consider other potential lower-grade offences such as sexual abuse or molestation.

One judge dissented.


What does snippa mean?

Snippa was invented by sexual educators in the early 2000s as the female equivalent of a boy’s snopp (similar to the English word willy) – a child-friendly word for genitalia. At the time the Swedish language lacked a word for the female genitalia that was neither crude, sexualised, stigmatising, overly medical or a euphemism.

The word quickly took off and was added to the dictionary in 2006.

Today it is widely used and is typically the word that parents and preschool teach to children. In 2015, public broadcaster SVT produced a video featuring cartoon genitals called snippan and snoppen who danced and sang to help children learn about private body parts.

What are people saying about the court verdict?

It’s safe to say that Cantwell’s column stirred debate.

Feminist influencer Caroline Svelid started a campaign on her Instagram to protest against the verdict, using the hashtag #jagvetvadensnippaär (“I know what a snippa is”). It has been shared thousands of times and was trending on Twitter on Monday.

The dissenting judge said that the girl had demonstrated how it happened and that it could be interpreted in no other way than that the man had penetrated her vagina.

Åke Thimfors, another judge, argued that the prosecutor had not produced sufficient evidence to convict the man.

He told SVT: “It was unclear what was meant by the word snippa and she was not given a clear follow-up question about what she meant or was to describe. We only got these words and it’s then important how it is interpreted.”


Cantwell, who said it was “the most bizarre” judgment he had ever read, noted that snippa is a relatively modern word and the four judges who voted to clear the man were all males with an average age of 66, whereas the only dissenting judge was a woman.

Sweden’s Equality Minister Paulina Brandberg, a former prosecutor, was unable to comment on the specific case when approached by the TV4 broadcaster (Swedish government ministers are not supposed to interfere with independent courts).

But she said that she recognised the judges’ confusion of an ostensibly common word from her time as a prosecutor. “There have definitely been cases where I was surprised. You notice there’s a generational gap and that you live in different worlds,” she said.


What happens now?

The prosecutor has one option left: to appeal to Sweden’s Supreme Court, the top court in the country, which only accepts cases that have the potential to set a precedent.

If the Supreme Court chooses to look into the case, its role will not be to assess the evidence, which has already been done, but rather to examine, for example, how the appeals court treated the fact that it wasn’t sure how to interpret the girl.

Anna Kaldal, a law professor at Stockholm University, told Swedish news agency TT that the appeals court had failed to try to ascertain what the girl meant by snippa.

“They looked in the Swedish dictionary, but there’s so much more you could do when it comes to such an established expression. If we had been talking about a car engine or a data breach, they would probably have brought in an expert,” she said.

“In this case they could have asked the prosecutor to explain what a snippa is. The girl could also have been questioned again, or a children’s psychologist who is used to how children use words could have been called in.”

The Supreme Court could, if it decides to look at the case and finds that the appeals court did not take appropriate steps to understand the girl, for example hear the girl again, call in an expert or send the case back to the appeals court for a retrial.


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