Saying #MeToo in the Swedish Legal System: The Importance of Believing Women
This is part of our special feature, Me Who? The Audibility of a Social Movement.
The #MeToo movement came as a bit of a shock to Sweden, a country known for its progressive politics and institutionalized commitment to gender equality. Despite the surprise, the revelations of sexual violence had a wider reach and stronger impact than in most other countries outside of the United States. The Swedish government heeded the call for change, including passing a new consent-based rape legislation the following spring after years of negotiation and debate. But in one of the most visible cases of the Swedish #MeToo movement, journalist Cissi Wallin was accused and convicted of slandering a fellow journalist, Fredrik Virtanen. She was sentenced to pay him damages despite strong evidence that she was telling the truth about the assault. In this article, I elaborate on the case and argue that until the criminal-legal system believes women, legislative or policy reforms, laudable as they are, will not be able to advance gender equality when it comes to sexual violence.
Cissi Wallin, a Swedish actor and media personality, was one of the first women in Sweden to publicly accuse a famous man of sexual assault during the early days of the Swedish #MeToo movement. It was not the first time she had disclosed that she had been drugged and raped in 2006 by Fredrik Virtanen, a Swedish-Finnish journalist for the popular Swedish paper, Aftonbladet. In 2010, she first disclosed the rape publicly but without naming him. In the 2010 article, she detailed how after a media party several years earlier, she was drugged and raped by a high-profile “media man.” After the incident, she heard from many others who experienced similar episodes of harassment and assault by this particular man. After hearing their stories, she tried to rally the victims together to make a group report, but one by one, the women withdrew. In 2011, without the group support, she reported to the police that she had been raped by Virtanen five years prior. Not surprisingly, the case was closed in 2012 after a brief investigation, citing a lack of substantiated evidence. This outcome echoes the broader trends in Sweden (and the other Nordic countries) in regard to the attrition rate of sexual crimes (see, for example: Skilbrei, Stefansen, and Heinskou 2020; Jehle 2012).
Inspired by the #MeToo movement, Wallin finally named her alleged perpetrator in the autumn of 2017 as Virtanen. Further investigatory journalism revealed that twelve other women had disclosed being sexually harassed and assaulted by Virtanen from the early 2000s until 2015. Among these women was one who received a Facebook message from him in 2007, when she was fourteen, asking her to sleep with him.
Virtanen vehemently denied the accusations, left his job at Aftonbladet, and changed his name to his wife’s maiden name to avoid further attention. On the defense, Virtanen took to the legal system and accused Wallin of gross slander.The judge found her guilty in December 2019, and she was sentenced to pay Virtanen SEK 90,000 (~8400 euros). In Sweden, a gross slander case must pass two tests in order to secure a conviction: if the allegation was disproportionately harmful compared to the public good, and whether the allegation is credible. Wallin’s claim was deemed disproportionately harmful since her social media posts reached so many, and thus its veracity was never evaluated. She has appealed the verdict, and the case is pending.
This case is a bit of a shock for a country like Sweden. Sweden has one of the most “feminist” governments in the world, with gender equality explicitly on the political agenda since the 1970s (Tollin 2011; Freidenvall 2018). Sweden, along with its Scandinavian neighbors, has been called a “gender equal utopia” (Fiig 2009:199). But even in Sweden, prevalence studies reveal that sexual violence is still an everyday reality for many women (Lundgren et al. 2001; Andersson, Heimer, and Lucas 2014; EU Fundamental Rights Agency 2015). Sexual violence persists despite strides in other areas of gender equality, and remains persistently gendered: in the country, 98 percent of reports of sexual violence to police are female victim-survivors, and 99 percent of alleged perpetrators are men (Brå 2019).
In July 2018, a new consent law went into effect in Sweden, and has been celebrated as a feminist victory (Government Offices of Sweden 2017). Many see the new consent law as one that will lead to important changes to gendered norms around sexuality, not only within the legal system but within society at large. But when there are women like Cissi Wallin facing legal consequences for a very credible accusation of sexual assault, can a government claim to be receptive to the issue of sexual violence and a promoter of gender equality? Does legislative reform to address sexual violence make a difference when survivors of sexual violence are routinely dismissed, doubted, and in some cases, criminalized?
I argue that legislative reform is important and necessary, and it can serve as a signal that a government is prioritizing sexual violence as a public policy issue. Moreover, the implementation of policies that lead to more victim-centered practices within a criminal justice system can encourage reporting by treating victims with respect and dignity and taking their accusations seriously. And in my broader dissertation project, I argue just this: a high incidence rate of rape in Sweden, as documented in the number of assaults reported to the police, reflects the Swedish government’s commitment to the problem of sexual violence, including policies that lead to more sensitive and responsive treatment by law enforcement. The government has also been integral in shaping a discourse on sexual assault and rape that encompasses forms of violence that may be normalized (and thus not reported) in other countries.
But on the other hand, the Swedish #MeToo movement has revealed a fundamental hypocrisy when it comes to sexual violence and the law. The case of Cissi Wallin and Fredrik Virtanen makes visible the fact that the Swedish legal system, despite significant policy reforms and legislative changes, is still not yet fully prepared to believe and validate women’s stories of sexual assault and rape. Without believing women, these policy changes and institutional practices do far less to hold perpetrator’s accountable and find justice for victim-survivors.
#MeToo in Sweden
The autumn of 2017 brought the #MeToo movement in full force to Sweden. Largely organized around workplace harassment, groups of women revealed in newspapers and on social media experiences of violence they had endured at the hands of their colleagues or bosses. Individual women spoke out against abuse they had suffered and broke the silence around violence they had experienced from friends, acquaintances, and partners. The #MeToo movement in Sweden revealed the rampant nature of sexual violence and harassment in Sweden, most of it committed with impunity.
Like the United States, powerful, famous men were accused of sexual violence. But unlike the United States, the #MeToo wave in Sweden came more unexpectedly. According to Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg (2017):
This reckoning in a country that sees itself as best in class on gender equality has been particularly painful. With a feminist government, a feminist foreign policy, a national agency tasked with upholding all things equality and a prime minister who calls himself a feminist, shouldn’t we be better than this?
Along with the increased attention #MeToo brought to sexual violence came a renewed commitment by the Swedish government to signal their dedication to gender equality. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven noted in a TV interview that the pervasiveness of sexual violence in Sweden that was being disclosed publicly was “a shame to our society.” Women members of the Swedish parliament held a debate on the #MeToo movement where they disclosed stories of sexual harassment and called on the government to act by passing a consent-based law that feminist anti-violence activists had been demanding for years.
In the spring after the #MeToo movement, the Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, put up the new sexual crimes legislation for a vote, after years of pressure from anti-rape feminist activists. The Minister of Justice, Morgan Johansson, remarked that “[i]t should sit in the spines of every boy and man in Sweden that this is how it is. That you have to make sure that the one that you intend to have sex with is a voluntary participant” (as quoted in Anderson 2018). There is hope among feminists and anti-rape activists that this law will not only aid in finding justice and validation for victim-survivors in the legal system, but will also be a “normative” law preventing sexual violence by emphasizing the importance of full, active consent in all sexual encounters and upending gendered norms that reinforce male aggression and female passivity.
Naming Sexual Violence
The conviction of Cissi Wallin is held in stark contrast to the many rape investigations that are dismissed and dropped. In Sweden in 2018, 17 percent of reports ended in a trial and conviction; up from 11 percent in 2017, but still low (Brå 2019). Even if we as feminists are critical of the criminal justice system and its role in sexual violence intervention and justice, these numbers are revealing of the priorities of the system in believing women and their experiences of assault versus supporting the men who assaulted them.
Naming sexual violence is often treated as more deviant than perpetrating it: what we see in Wallin’s case is that women are often punished more for publicly voicing experiences of sexual violence than the men who commit the violence. This is not limited to Cissi Wallin and the Swedish context: in the United States, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford faced death threats and was forced from her home for her accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.She was harshly interrogated during the congressional proceedings (as many sexual violence victims are in a criminal court) but remained calm, confident, and clear. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, was aggressive, loud, and defensive. His “evidence” that he did not commit the assault was flimsy. He was given one of the most powerful positions in the country anyways. One year later, Ford still had not returned to her job or home, and additional stories of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of Kavanaugh have been reported.
For two decades, the Swedish government has been working toward creating a more responsive and victim-centered criminal justice system: reforming laws, instituting policies that reduce secondary victimization, and devoting resources to addressing the problem. However, until the legal system does not punish those who credibly accuse men of sexual violence, these reforms carry far less meaning as a signal of the government’s priority to gender equality. Sexual violence is so often perpetrated behind closed doors and in intimate spaces, unlike many other crimes. In the criminal justice system, often the only form of evidence is the testimony of the victim; the primary defense, that she consented. Until society believes women and validates their stories of violence at the hands of the men in their lives, sexual violence will continue with impunity. Kelly (2010) argues that “we need to ask why in the case of rape—a gendered crime—does the spectre of false allegations cast a sceptical shadow over the words of every woman and child when what they speak about is sexual violation” (1346). Policy and legislative changes oriented towards gender equality must put trusting women as the foundation.
I argue then that the main intervention in sexual violence justice and in prevention is to first and foremost believe women and their experiences. The Swedish consent law, laudable as it is, does little if the justice system continues to doubt women if their assaults fall outside of what is considered “real rape,” violently perpetrated by a stranger in the woods, even though we know that most sexual violence happens within families, among acquaintances, and in relationships (Estrich 1987). Although there are some aspects of the new Swedish sexual crimes legislation that can do this, like its provisions on negligent rape and the reinforcement of the policy to provide free legal counsel for all victims of sexual violence, the cases will still come down to one person’s story against the other’s. Of these people, who the criminal-legal system, and society in general, chooses to believe makes the biggest difference.
Along with raising awareness more broadly in society and supporting those who have been victimized, one of the major feminist projects to bring sexual violence out of the private sphere and into the public has been that of increased government attention to rape and sexual assault in the form of legislative reform and criminal justice interventions (Orloff and Schiff 2015).
But legislation or political attention to the problem of rape, though it is symbolic and can be important, is not enough to eradicate gender-based sexual violence. Goodmark (2018) articulates it well: “Relying on the law to change a culture in which such behavior flourishes is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.” Policies can promote more victim-centered responses to the problem within state institutions, but they often fail to fundamentally alter gendered understandings of sex and sexuality that normalize sexual violence and allow it to continue with impunity.
There have been changes recently though, with the #MeToo movement particularly. Feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon (2018) argues that #MeToo is bringing about change to sexual violence norms in a way the law never could, in that survivors, “they are being believed and valued as the law seldom has.” She is arguing that although the criminal-legal system has failed women, the social movement has magnified the voices of survivors and provided validation to their experiences. The Cissi Wallin case demonstrates the too-frequent ineptitude of the law in providing justice for sexual violence survivors, but despite this, she has had widespread support from Swedish society. Although her slander indictment is a blow to the goals of the Swedish #MeToo movement, perhaps the real travesty would be if she had not had the courage and support to speak out at all.
MacKinnon (2018) goes on to write that although it is “widely thought that when something is legally prohibited, it more or less stops… it is not true for pervasive practices like sexual harassment, including rape, that are built into structural social hierarchies.” Although the Swedish government has claimed that the new consent law will change how sexual assault and rape cases are processed by the justice system, there is some doubt among legal professionals and anti-rape activists that there will be much change. If the law continues to doubt women and their stories, then how will this process change?
Ultimately, sexual violence cannot be addressed until the stories of women’s experiences with assault and abuse are believed and validated. To some victim-survivors of sexual violence, the validation that they are listened to and not alone can be a more important source of justice than a conviction (Herman 2005; Daly 2017). From the US to Europe, feminist scholars and activists call for a more victim-centered approach to the processing of rape reports in the criminal justice system (Herman 2005; Daly 2017; Antonsdóttir 2018). The first step is to believe survivors when they report and treat them with respect and dignity as they share their stories of violation and assault. We need to talk more about what it means to believe women, why stories of rape and sexual assault are so routinely dismissed as unfounded both by the criminal justice system and in society more generally, and how we can move forward following the #MeToo movement.
Caitlin Carroll is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin in the US. Her research focuses on sexual violence and the law in Sweden. During 2018-19, she was a visiting doctoral researcher at the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University.
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 For statistical data on police-reported incidence of rape, see Eurostat (https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/crime/data/database).
 Even when a case is “real rape,” victims can still not be believed. In Washington state in the U.S., one young woman was charged with the misdemeanor of filing a false report after going to the police when she was raped by a stranger in her apartment. Years later, it came out that a serial rapist had in fact broken into her house and raped her. See Miller and Armstrong (2015).
Photo: Umea, Norrland Sweden – November 1, 2019: a puma statue symbolizing the MeToo movement | Shutterstock
Published on March 10, 2020.