Is rape rampant in gender-equal Sweden? Re Assange and Wikileaks

Given the considerable confusion about Julian Assange’s sex with a couple of women in Sweden, perhaps what I wrote last year about Swedish rape law can be clarifying.

As regular readers know, I’m trying to figure out how the lovely utopian goal of Gender Equality landed us in a future I never expected, where ‘progressive’ and ‘feminist’ could be associated with policies that position women as innately passive victims. Activists interested in sex-industry legislation usually cite Swedish prostitution law as the fount of all evil, with its criminalisation of the buying of sexual services. This law is a cornerstone of an overall Swedish policy to foment Gender Equality, and so is rape legislation that has led to bizarre statistics commented on in this story published in Sweden’s English-language daily The Local.

The Local, 11 May 2009

Is rape rampant in gender-equal Sweden?

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 (Sweden report here).

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, 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.

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, the Naked Anthropologist

26 thoughts on “Is rape rampant in gender-equal Sweden? Re Assange and Wikileaks

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  3. Dave

    The more I read about the charges against Julian Assange in Sweden, the less I seem to understand. I gather that, while the sex was consensual, doing so without a condom was not. The fact that neither girl reported the event to police until days later, after they met and compared notes, makes me suspect that they didn’t feel the event rose to the level of a crime at the time it occurred.

    I suspect events snowballed because they encouraged each other and may have been further encouraged by law enforcement and prosecutors.

    The fact that the complaint of a broken condom ultimately exploded into a high profile international manhunt culminating in Assange’s incarceration without bail may have a lot more to do with the fact that Assange is presently viewed by most western governments as the antichrist. There is no way of knowing whether the rape charges are simply being used as a tool to rein in his other pursuits. We probably won’t know the whole story until some whistle blower leaks it to Wikileaks and it gets reported in the New York Times…

  4. Djiril

    I think you might have a point about the limits of the law, but a lot of what you are describing above as vague sounds like pretty clear-cut sexual assault to me.
    Are you honestly saying that having sex with an unconscious woman isn’t rape? I can see where it could get confusing if both parties are intoxicated and conscious, but that one seems pretty clear-cut to me.
    I also don’t see the vagueness in the idea that continuing to have sex with someone who has withdrawn consent is rape, especially if physical force is used to keep the other person from getting away.
    Also, what is “feeble resistance?” Are you talking about vague verbal signals? Pushing someone away, but not hard enough?

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  8. Laura Agustín

    I think this is an area where ‘clear-cut’ situations are not so common. Legal discussions talk about abstract notions but events on the ground unfold in mysterious ways so that we cannot know, the next day, when ‘unconsciousness’ began, or when the condom broke or at what point someone said no and how.

    Feeble resistance could mean not actually wanting sex to happen but being too tired to resist effectively and giving in to get it over with. Some people call that rape, some don’t.

  9. Eivind Berge

    The funny paradox is the more serious the state takes rape, the less serious it seems to people. Rape is now mostly a trivial crime with a draconian punishment thanks to feminism. Rape in Sweden is a worldwide joke because Sweden is the world leader in expanding the concept and accommodating accusers. As a man and anti-feminist, I am gloating over the mounting backlash against women for crying rape beyond the point of absurdity. But other countries are not far behind; it is almost as bad here in Norway. Hopefully the ridicule Sweden is currently incurring will help discredit rape accusers everywhere.

    Rape is sexual intercourse resisted by the victim to the best of her ability unless she is threatened by death or serious injury. Until rape law reverts to this only reasonable definition of rape, the legal concept or rape cannot be taken seriously.

  10. Sheldon

    Unfortunately, that same ridicule will be used to discredit legitimate rape accusers, so this is not a happy occasion, but a tragic one. But, then again, I am a profeminist man, not an ‘anti-feminist’ who refers to his own views on the subject as ‘rape advocacy’ on his own blog.

    It is not uncommon for both sex-negative feminists and women-negative anti-feminists’ to channel their bitter personal experiences into their sexual politics.

  11. Thaddeus Blanchette

    I’ve been re-reading James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” and E.P. Thompson’s views on the enclosure of common lands in England and it’s given me an interesting insight to this.

    The State abhors ambiguity and unclear, non-contractual relationships. And yet, a good portion of human social life is precisely built on ambiguities.

    The law devides sexual intercourse cleanly into two kinds: consensual and non-consensual. The second type is called “rape”. But this is built upon an underlying notion that “consent” is clear-cut and obvious and that both partners are acting as clearly rational entities, maximizing their benefits. Any sexually mature human can think of several situations where consent is not so clear, where parties aren’t acting 100% rationally.

  12. Christina

    Elvind, I would like to know what you think of sex with a heavily drunk woman. She is not in the state of concluding binding civil contracts, but do you believe she can give in to “consensual” sex? If this is what you think, I wonder how you would perceive the situation if your average heavily drunk man with little sense left to talk or to stand is “consensually” penetrated by a homosexual?

    I doubt men who uphold the “consensuality” paradigm for drunk women (because it’s quite comfortable for them, I imagine) would agree to be measured in consent by the same standards when it concerns approaches by gay men. In fact, I believe if gay men were not so civil, it seems, rape discourses like the one you touched upon, Elvind, would not be existant any more.

    What do you think of a woman who during intercourse wants to stop? Is this not rape in your definition, either?

    The only difference I so far saw regarding Swedish rape laws and practice is the admirably progressive stance towards drunken sex (where no reasonable person can assume a half-blind drunk or even unconscious women “consents”), and possibly a more progressive and victim-friendly interpretation of withdrawal of consent.

    As for the argument in another post the victims’ filing of a complaint with the police only days after the incident – after any experience of violence, coercion or other unpleasant human encounters anyone who experienced them can confirm after such an encounter or trauma many people want to go home, be alone, maybe talk to very close ones. While it is difficult to warm up the experience days later, some find it impossible to talk to potentially cold and intrusive police right afterwards. Shame and insecurity in sexual and private matters plays a role, too.

  13. laura agustin Post author

    Sorry, I was away and did not see that one commenter was turning this into a nasty place. I left the original comment and took out others (including yours, Sheldon, because it didn’t make sense without the others, hope you understand).

  14. Jameson C. Johnson MAEd.

    For this to make sense, all countries would have to gather information on crime in a standardized fashion, and each country’s judiciary would have to prohibit plea bargaining. I work in criminal justice in Arizona. We recently had a client accused of mortgage fraud plead to a charge of Misprision of a felony. Anyone making a cursory examination of his criminal record would have no idea that this man was responsible for literally hundreds of people being made homeless.

    Before accepting this report at face value, it is important to examine whether or not rape is being parsed from sexual assault and molestation in Sweden. I seriously doubt that Sweden has a cultural indifference to sex crimes. More likely, the anomaly is in reporting.

  15. Sheldon

    It’s all good, Laura.

    Incidentally, Naomi Wolf wrote a powerful denunciation on the Huffington Post of the Swedish authorities, including an expose of their poor record of prosecuting rape in Sweden. The implication is that they are using Assange as a diversion from their inadequacies.

  16. Laura Agustín

    yes, i read that and by now there have been dozens more. the reason the swedish attrition rate is poor is that the definition of rape is too inclusive. i don’t think getting all anti-feminist or anti-swedish is warranted and i don’t notice a single symptom of ‘inadequacy’ feelings here!

  17. asehpe

    Ms Augustín, I’ve just found your blog and am delighted to see the amount of careful argumentation you put into the points you make. You’ve earned a new faithful reader here.

    I have one question: considering the current situation in Sweden (which you defined as a ‘pimpocracy’ in another post), what chances do you see for the situation changing? I mean, it would seem that radfem views with respect to e.g., prostituion or rape, enjoy wide support in Swedish society. Do you see this changing in the near future?

  18. Laura Agustín

    thanks, asehpe. i haven’t personally ever written the word pimpocracy, so it must come from a site that brought you to me.

    swedish rape law forms part of Gender Equality strategy, which most western or westernising countries have instated, in different ways. these are both legal and bureaucratic moves, coming from government employees, which just become the norm – how life is – for most ordinary folk. i don’t buy the idea thatsupport is meaningful and conscious support. as for predictions about the future, i imagine that Gender Equality mechanisms are going to increase everywhere, not diminish – seems to be part of the zeitgeist.

  19. asehpe

    Indeed, Ms Augustín, it was from “The Honest Courtesan”‘s website. Sorry for misattributing her words to you.

    I suppose you are right — but it seems the Zeitgeist has some internal contradictions of probable theoretical origin (a conflict between autonomy and protection from oppression, the boundaries of which seem to float sometimes in dangerous directions).

    There seem to be particularly Swedish aspects to the Gender Equality path being followed there — prostitution laws being an oft-discussed example. The radical feminist (radfem) influence, which sees a deep, Marxist-style interconnectedness between , seems to be following the dogmatic path that other activist movements (e.g., communism) followed in the past. Doesn’t that lead to a danger of self-implosion?

    I am often curious about the real degree of agreement that there is among Swedish citizens on topics like the definition of rape, or anti-prostitution laws. Do current policies in Sweden actually reflect popular opinion (has radical feminism really reached and influenced the opinion of so many people — including men — in Sweden?), or are they the result of political alliances and political compromises?

    Historically, both Communism and Trade-Unionism were reactions against perceived (and actually quite real) injustice against workers. Communism, however, at least in its past historical incarnation, led to dictatorship and ultimately less freedom and lower living standards for workers than trade-unionism and socialism in Europe and the US. Could it be that radical feminism in Sweden will also actually lead to a worse situation for women than other approaches to the world-wide Gender Equality question? (It would be somewhat ironical if Sweden, a country often obviously proud of its progressive, human-centered policies, were to be the theater for this play).

  20. Laura Agustín

    these are pretty deep questions that swedes themselves debate constantly and there are interesting books theorising about them. you might look at what i have said in other posts by checking the sweden tag on this blog.

    i have lived in many many countries and think all embody both progressive and conservative tendencies – or liberatory and repressive – at the same time. so this is not suprising for me about sweden, as it wasn’t in england or holland or spain. on the gender equality topic, sweden wants to be leader but what they are doing does not seem different in kind to me from what everyone else is doing.

  21. John

    I couldn’t help but read this article–I’m from fairly liberal Boston here in the U.S., and while rape rarely seems to be much of an issue here (or one I rarely hear about/encounter) at the least, I’m still pretty stunned as to Swedish definitions/meanings for rape.

    I do think in our (the American) “say what you mean and mean what you say” and more literal mentality, the boundaries appear more cut and dried.
    If you’re a male with a female, and she says no, then that’s that. If she says yes, then that’s that. If she says stop, then stop. If he gets violent during consensual sex, then that’s not rape but just assault–and not sexual assault.

    I suppose it’s hard for me to understand why Sweden seeks such expansive definitions, when while it’s important to consider a variety of potential scenarios, exacting definitions that seek to clarify rather than expand seem to make things clearer for all parties involved. Anyway…

  22. laura agustin Post author

    I think you’ll find that it’s not so cut-and-dried where you are, either, though it may appear more so than in sweden. one can track rape laws and definitions changing everywhere over the last few decades, in an attempt to make them more functional – by which i mean more just, more actually catching people who did something wrong and not punishing the victim. often these are local laws – i know one cannot refer to ‘american’ laws in this area.

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  24. David

    the new laws to protect women are ridiculious. The only reasonable legislation is the one that already existed 50 years ago.

    Surely all this legislation will come in a increase of the violence.

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