The Other Swedish Model

Gender, sex and culture, by Laura Agustín

Violence Against Women: Too much of a bad thing

It might sound odd to talk about silences on the topic of gender equality in Sweden, since discussions of it seem to run non-stop. But that is how hegemony works: a constant bombardment of words, most of which reiterate the opinions of a single powerful group. Differences of opinion are usually quibbles over details to a central idea that’s accepted as being indisputable because it’s supposed to be normal.

Gender equality in Sweden is a perfect example. Voices that want to question its foundations are not heard, which is what Maria Abrahamsson, a veteran editorial writer for Svenska Dagbladet, meant when she said that ‘open discussion’ is missing about certain aspects of gender law and policy. 

Some of what you hear from state feminists refers to assuring that women are represented in government and paid as well and have the same opportunities to work as men, and that men have the same opportunities to be good parents that women do. These are the policies for which Sweden ranks highly compared with most other countries. When the word jämställdhet is heard here, chances are that the details of these issues are being discussed. I say details because the policies have been in place for some time, and no one questions the need to make citizens in general more ‘equal’ in a democratic-type society. 

The problem is that much of what state feminists say centres around the concept of Violence Against Women (våld mot kvinnor, often referred to as kvinnofrid, the legal protection of women). The mantra is ‘We have a big problem with violence against women’. Repeated over and over, it becomes a truth difficult to break into questionable pieces, rather providing a reason for endless conversations about how to stop men from committing aggressions against women. A point of view that says ‘Wait a minute, all those things you’re talking about shouldn’t be called violence!’ is rarely heard in public discussions. 

It’s not that people in Sweden, feminists and non-feminists alike, never discuss this exaggerated notion of violence in bars, cafes, emails, blogs and occasional seminars. The issue is that the basis of policy, the quite extreme definition of violence and the reductionist idea of what’s ‘good for women’ is so rarely questioned in any visible, public way, whether the mainstream media or parliament. And by questioning I don’t mean the occasional online article with its cloud of comments; I mean a sustained conversation. 

Violence Against Women (often known in English-speaking countries as VAW) is problematic when it relies on the idea that women are always, innately weaker than men. More than physical strength is at stake, although the words heard most are abuse,  assault, battering. VAW has come to signify different sorts of coercion, threats, and moral strangleholds men are conceived as naturally committing on women, just because men are born that way. Women’s bodies are conceived as inherently vulnerable to men’s invasion and use, which oddly doesn’t produce a demand that women be granted full autonomy over their own bodies. 

Partial autonomy is granted: women shall be allowed to have abortions and be listened to when they say No to sex. These are great as far as they go. But on other issues, women’s bodies are conceived as objects for government policymakers to decide about: a contradiction that drives many women, the world over, round the bend. Gender policy is also problematic when it assumes that women are innately better than men – kinder, more peaceful, more capable of love, less capable of violence, preferring certain forms of balanced, meaningful sex. 

Louise Persson’s blog frihetspropaganda is the best place I know to hear the other point of view in Sweden. Blogging since December 2003, Persson is the author of Klassisk Feminism. Discussing an H&M advert that showed a woman wearing underwear in her home, which one state feminist, Gudrun Schyman, not only denounced as soft porn but also equated with hard porn, prostitution, trafficking and slavery, Persson complains that Schyman presumes to speak for All Women. In the case of the underwear advert, we can ask: What about women who want to wear sexy lingerie at home, or be photographed wearing it, or make money being photographed wearing it or wear it as a prelude to selling sex? 

It was a rare occasion the other night when Aschberg brought Abrahamsson together with Schyman to discuss how gender-equal Sweden is. Abrahamsson said yes, Sweden is gender-equal, especially relative to the rest of the world, and would like to stop talking about jämställdhet and switch to jämlikhet – another word for equality that hasn’t got the baggage of gender and sex. Schyman said no, Sweden isn’t gender-equal and, interestingly, complained that she has no one to discuss the problem with. (Would she like to talk with the model in the H&M ad?) 

I’ve got questions about the idea of equality in the first place. Must it mean sameness, exact balance, symmetry? Especially in the area of sex and bodies, that will always be impossible. The core complaint against Sweden’s version of gender equality is that the diversity of women’s mental, spiritual and sexual desires is not recognised and that women who conceive of their bodies differently, who feel empowered in other ways than VAW hegemony recognises, are ignored.

This difference of vision is the subject of exhausting, resource-wasting battles all over the world – which I wrote about some years ago under the title Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes? The conflict, if possible, has only grown more venomous since then. How is it that Sweden, with its cultural value on avoiding conflict, can reconcile causing so much of it?

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10 responses to “Violence Against Women: Too much of a bad thing”

  1. Streja says:

    The reason why some women want to be photographed half naked in sexy attire is because that is what society wants from women and they like the attention. It’s not because women have a gene that make thm want to do that.
    Why should female sexuality only be about being selling and not enjoying? Is female sexuality only there for men to look at? I don’t agree with you.
    It’s time to have some balance as we’re bombarded with images of women that are sexy. Make over shows tell women to be sexy at work. There is no need for that. Sometimes we just want to be humans and do our job.

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  2. Dick says:


    Who claims that women have a gene that makes them wanting to be photographed naked? But you can’t blame “society” for that some women find it comfortable and enjoying to do so. One can, in that case, also claim that “society” is to blame for that some people dislike those pictures (because society has learned them to think so). But does it give them the right to decide for others in a political “correct” way? What right have you or “society” to condemn such pictures when there are lots of people enjoying them? And who has the right to stand up and say “I know what is right for everyone, my opinion must be followed by everybody”? I dislike campaigns that scientifically wrongly points out men as evil and violent and women as victims and peaceful (or, to talk about TV-shows, soap-operas), and I’m definitely not alone having that opinion. But does it give us the right to demand regulations and prohibitions against such campaigns (or soap-operas)? (Beside that we can question if tax money is to be used for such campaigns). Tolerance is to accept that humans are different, not to rise yourself to some elitistic “best knowing” level that gives false legitimacy to decide for everybody what is “right”. And why is your definition of what “humans” want more correct than mine?

    I agree with Laura.

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  3. Hi Laura,

    Thank you for writing this article. It helped me clear up some things I think about quite often.
    I understand that it can be difficult to question the ‘status quo’ of how these issues are treated, but it is important to challenge these attitudes otherwise no real progress will be made.

    To address just a couple of the things you’ve brought up here, I appreciate the point about equality – what type of equality, for whom. Indeed there seems to be an inherent paradox in current policy about this. On one hand, we have the cultural biases you have mentioned – women as kinder, more peaceful, etc. These biases seem to create, for me, a divide in humanity. Two things happen for me: one, as a man they make it appear that there are things that I cannot be (kind, peaceful, agreeable), and two, it separates the genders so that each sees the other as “an Other,” or at least as two creatures that are innately separate and irreconcilable.

    The paradox being that, while these biases are in place, there is policy that states that no, there are no differences, and everyone must be treated equally. The short-sightedness of these policies is that they are not capable of seeing that there ARE differences and the acknowledgment of that does not in any way mean that equal treatment is impossible.

    It seems that we as a society focus on the wrong differences – we make some up, and we ignore the real ones. Both genders are damaged in the process. I for one have been twisted by the impression that, as you put it, as a man I naturally commit moral strangleholds and coercion on women. This isn’t true of course, but the doctrine I have been raised on certainly has suggested to me that it is, and that is hard to live with. How are we supposed to have normal relationships if we are told we’re bad by nature? How are we supposed to feel we can do any good with our lives?

    The policies make such a great confusion because they ignore real problems facing women, or at least the full breadth of problems, and they also ignore the effect of these on men (Violence Against Women is after all a problem for all of us). It is ignorance of similar differences and different similarities, not recognizing them and not treating them. That is, each sex does have differences, but each sex are still both human and are participating in the same life.

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  4. Magnificent article and fascinating!

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  5. BobW says:

    People are equal, not congruent.

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  6. Not congruent? Science just proves otherwise. Equality of people only exists as far as man/ woman wants to take it. And turn that into another science. In fact, layer after layer finally comes equality of man, and another half of science when man and woman becomes equal. This is why the author wrote of a certain process & development.

    PS Congruent as a term used here, therefore is quite an error on the thinking side.

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  7. backstudy says:

    quote from the article: “But on other issues, women’s bodies are conceived as objects for government policymakers to decide about: ”
    I´m not sure what the author is trying to say here? It seems beyond sloppy to introduce this statement to support the idea that women are made crazy by government laws without any supporting details or examples.

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  8. Gwrhyr says:

    This debate on gender parallels in some ways Sweden’s drug policies, which lag behind the rest of Europe and the Western world tremendously due to the overriding goal of the ‘drug free society’ and the almost religious view that all mind-altering substances are inherently evil. There is a serious lack of open discussion about this in Swedish society as well and a similar ignoring of reality when it comes to how government policy misses half the picture.

    In the gender issue, government policy does miss half the picture, it misses the half where some women want to be sexy and not necessarily just because society tells them to, but because it’s human nature to want to feel sexy and attractive, female and male alike. Being gay I have a very interesting perspective on this because obviously the gender debate in Sweden is extremely heterosexist. Contrary to what a lot of naysayers complain, it does not assume that men and women are equal and without differences, or should be. It assumes that women are weaker and constantly in need of protection, even from their own thoughts, as Streja shows by assuming that no woman would naturally want to pose in a sexy outfit in front of a camera.

    The problem is that gender isn’t all that static. There are guys prostituting themselves online as well as women, who enjoy doing so. There are men who want to feel sexy, there are women who hate seeing objectified images of females everywhere. Reality is much more varied… traditional gender traits are spread out among people regardless of biological gender. There are straight men with various feminine tendencies and straight women with various masculine tendencies, and so on and so forth throughout the gamut of sexuality and gender expression. This is actually ignored in the Swedish debate… in true Swedish fashion women who want to be in porn or prostitute themselves are told they need their thinking to be corrected by society, and the existence of those same two desires in men is completely ignored because it’s assumed that men are always the consumers of sexual gratification and women are always sacrificing their dignity to give that gratification.

    Like the drugs policy debate, the official line on gender is based on rigid moralism that ignores human nature and variation.

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  9. Streja says:

    I never said that.

    Some women do I said. I analysed why.

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  10. Lorenzini says:

    After much thought I believe your title “violence against women: too much of a bad thing &#8211 the other…” is straight-out and I can tell that you are very bright.

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