Why Sweden was ready for Metoo

Signe Svallfors. Foto: Leila Zoubir/Stockholms universitet
Signe Svallfors. Photo: Leila Zoubir/Stockholm University

Author: Signe Svallfors, PhD student in Demography at Stockholm University and active in RFSU (the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education, IPPF Sweden) No-one can have missed the massive wave of societal debate on sexual violence and harrassment against women that awakened in October 2017 through Metoo. The campaign has gained such global impact that debaters have started talking about a feminist revolution. In Sweden, Metoo has grown into a broad movement that engages from grassroot to the ministerial level. Thousands of women from widely different sectors have written testimonies calling attention to the sexual assault and harassment they have been exposed to.

As Ann-Zofie Duvander discussed in a previous blogpost (only in Swedish), it remains to be seen what lasting effects Metoo will bring. But no matter what long-term consequences will follow, it is clear that Metoo has had a huge impact in Sweden. There are some trends that are specific to the Swedish context that I believe have contributed to why Metoo has evolved into a mass movement in Sweden.

Firstly Sweden, like the other Nordic countries, has had a long tradition of non-governmental organisations. These are more democratically structured and have higher membership rates than in other countries. The Swedish civil society is deeply involved in public debate and political advocacy (Vogel, Amnå, Munck, & Häll, 2003). Organizations like RFSU (the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education), FATTA, the Swedish Women’s Lobby and MÄN (“MEN”, my translation) have long advocated on issues such as sexual consent, masculinity norms, and women’s right to their own bodies. Civil society organisations have influence; when the government orders reports on for example gender equality policy, comprehensive sexuality education or sexual consent legislation, they are often consulted.

As a result of many years of activism, there is now a broad political support for gender equality and feminism in Sweden. Gender equality was introduced as a separate policy area in 1972 after years of advocacy by women in the labour movement. Initially the policy area aimed primarily at women’s labour market participation, but since 1999 included in all policy areas in accordance with the strategy of gender mainstreaming (Tollin, 2011). Sweden is highly regarded for its gender equality and women’s rights, and most parties in Swedish parliament today call themselves feminist. The current government declared itself Sweden’s first feminist government in 2014 and appointed a sexual offense committee the same year to examine the possibilities of a sexual consent legislation – after pressure from civil society – whose final report received a very positive response from Swedish parliament.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the gender equality policy agendas of the government and (most) parties in parliament, it is internationally unique that such an ambition pervades the country’s highest decision-making and governing bodies. Above all, this results in vastly different prospects for a feminist mass movement compared to, for example, the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi or the US of Donald Trump, where the country’s top leaders have been able to gain and maintain power despite sexist and misogynous actions.

Metoo is not the first major debate in Sweden about sexual assault and harassment. After Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was accused of sexual offenses in 2010, the credibility of the reporting women was questioned. Journalist Johanna Koljonen then started the hashtag #prataomdet (in English #ididnotreport) in support of women who have the courage to report sexual assault, even though they are often faced with guilt, ridicule and doubt. The hashtag gained big impact and the following year Koljonen was awarded the Roks yearly award (the National Organisation for Women’s Shelters and Young Women’s Shelters) as well as the Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism in the category “Innovator of the Year” together with Sofia Mirjamsdotter.

In Swedish media, numerous cases of sexual assault that did not result in conviction have gained attention and criticism. Already in 2002, journalist Katarina Wennstam problematised how Swedish courts and media blame women who are exposed to sexual abuse, in the award-winning book “Flickan och skulden” (“The Girl and the Guilt”, my translation). Following the acquittal in a violent sexual assault trial in the Umeå District Court 2013, Vanessa Marko, Ida Östensson and Nathalie ”Cleo” Missaoui and others launched the FATTA (“Get it”, my translation) campaign. The campaign contributed to the appointment of the governmental sexual offense committee, with the mission to explore the introduction of a new sexual consent legislation. In the midst of Metoo, the so-called Fittja case gained much attention, as none of the five men who were tried for violent sexual assault against a woman in a Swedish suburb were convicted.

By all accounts, there is a long tradition of feminist activism and debate in Sweden. In my opinion, this tradition has both strengthened and been reinforced by what is now called the Metoo movement. That is not to say that all Swedes claim to be feminists.

In the Swedish survey Ungdomsbarometern from 2016, youths were asked which five words they identified with most. Young women’s choices were feminist, anti-racist, dog person, environmentalist and big-city person. Young men chose gamer, sports fans, gadget-geek, computer-geek and training freak. There seems then to be a discrepancy between young women and men as to how much they identify themselves as feminists. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that young women in Sweden above all identify themselves as feminists. This suggests that gender equality and feminism will not become less important in Sweden – quite the opposite.

Metoo has gained success in Sweden as a consequence of many years’ civil society advocacy work to influence gender equality policy and the debate on sexual violence. This journey is far from complete, as men’s violence against women and other aspects of the gender power order still exist. The movement has nevertheless achieved substantial feminist goals by broadly mobilising against sexual harrassment and violence, which are now being widely acknowledged, discussed and questioned. Regardless of what happens, it is obvious that Sweden was ready for Metoo.

References

Tollin, K. (2011). Sida vid sida : En studie av jämställdhetspolitikens genealogi 1971-2006. Stockholm: Bokförlaget Atlas.

Vogel, J., Amnå, E., Munck, I., & Häll, L. (2003). Föreningslivet i Sverige. Stockholm: Statistiska centralbyrån.


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