Global wave of protest against rape 

2011-07-07 The debate over the legal rights of rape victims is crossing borders. Nordic researchers believe that the victims' encounters with the police and legal system can be improved.


Tøsemarsj i Oslo 30. maj 2011. Foto: Henriette Kværneng Johansen

They dress in short skirts, high heels and short tops. They paint their lips red. And the world over, they now take to the streets with clenched fists and banners with slogans such as: “Do not tell us how to dress. Tell men not to rape!” and “Believe it or not. My short skirt has nothing to do with you.”

It started in Toronto as a protest against police officer Michael Sanguinetti’s statements that women should avoid dressing up as “sluts” if they do not want to be subjected to sexual abuse. Since then, the protests have spread like wildfire, first to large parts of the United States and Canada. In the last couple of months “the sluts” have also marched in the streets of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo. In July, “the sluts” will march in Reykjavik, while a march is planned in Helsinki in August.

It has been a long time since an issue has mobilized people so widely and across borders. Globalization and the spread of social media have fuelled the protests. Although there are large differences between North American and Nordic sexual cultures and how the police and judiciary handles rape, there is also a growing concern in the Nordic countries about how the police and legal system handle rape. The United Nations shares this concern. Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland have all been criticized by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women for a lack of protection of and legal safeguards for rape victims.

Finland provides the poorest protection

In 2008, Amnesty International published the report Case Closed. Rape and Human Rights in the Nordic Countries, which mapped the institutional challenges for the Nordic states’ human rights obligations to prevent, investigate and sentence rape.

Amnesty International concluded that Finland, which at the time did not have a national plan to combat violence against women and did not define sex with a defenceless or intoxicated person as rape, provided the poorest protection for victims of rape. In Finland, sentences for aggravated rape average 35.5 months. In Sweden, the equivalent figure is 70 months. In Norway, the police rarely talk about the victims’ clothing, but this is not the case in Finland. Police Sergeant Marja Vuento made headlines a few years ago when she said that women should wear less revealing clothing and not get quite so drunk when going out. Vuento and others who agree with her can expect to be challenged during the planned SlutWalk in Helsinki in early August.

Since Vuenta made this comment, Finland has introduced the called-for plan of action on violence against women and changed its sex crime legislation. The rape of defenceless and intoxicated persons is now punishable as rape rather than as sexual exploitation.

Stereotypes about sexuality

Last year, Helena Jokila defended her doctoral thesis in law,Consent Against One’s Will and the Price of Undue Trust. The Legal Constructions of Knowledge in Finnish Sexual Crimes. Her findings suggest that the language used to describe sexual crimes in Finnish criminal law and court cases are influenced by stereotypes and prejudices about the nature and sexuality of women. These stereotypes are not included in the written reasons for the verdicts, but the identities of the victim and the accused and the context of the rape nevertheless seem to determine the perception of legal and illegal sexual behaviour. According to Jokila, a major problem with the Finnish criminal law is that it defines rape on the basis of violence and intimidation while more subtle forms of coercion are ignored. Jokila calls for a stronger focus on perpetrators and on how rape can be seen as a breach of trust.

Lack of consent

When the Oslo police in May presented a report on reported rapes in which they concluded that there is an increasing tendency for rape victims to engage in sexual experimentation and be highly intoxicated, they were sharply criticised. While some thought it should be possible to talk about women’s responsibility for preventing rape, for example by limiting risky behaviours like intoxication, others argued that there was too much focus on the victim’s behaviour rather than on the perpetrators’ responsibility and consensual sex.

Political advisor at Amnesty International Norway, Patricia Kaatee, believes that the lack of effective police investigations is an obstacle to the legal protection of victims of rape. “The Oslo police’s easy acceptance of the high percentage of dropped charges in rape cases is a concern”, says Kaatee. She notes that the Director of Public Prosecutions and the government-appointed Committee on Rape documents obvious weaknesses and deficiencies in police investigations of rape cases. “There are several examples of cases that lie dormant for several months, witnesses are not questioned, and the police fail to request medical documentation from the Rape Crisis Centres.

The government has not followed the Committee on Rape’s recommendation that a special unit for investigations of sexual crimes (SEPOL) should be created. The jury system, which has been criticized for being prejudiced against rape victims, is being debated these days after a government-appointed committee last year was commissioned to examine whether the jury’s lack of justification in criminal cases may be in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The committee is split down the middle. On questioning, the Ministry of Justice and the Police says that it is unclear when one might expect a decision on the future of the jury system, but that the Committ

Raped and dropped

In Denmark, rape victims also struggle in their encounters with the police and legal system. Denmark has one of Scandinavia’s lowest reporting rates – almost half of the Norwegian reporting rate – and researchers have documented that the police have prejudices about women who report a rape. In Camilla Laudrup and Helle Rahbæks investigation of the police handling of rape cases, an informant in the police said, “When you go out and talk to witnesses, you discover that she danced on the tables and pulled off her clothes at the pub. It does not justify her being raped, of course not. But her conduct was a major contributing factor to giving these guys certain hopes and expectations.”

According to Amnesty International Denmark, rape cases are often dropped due to insufficient evidence if a suspect claims that the sex was consensual and the parties already know each other. Amnesty International believes that it is a violation of human rights that so large a proportion of reported cases never come to trial. In contrast to Finnish and Norwegian law, Danish law does not consider forced sex with an intoxicated or defenceless person to be rape. Forced sex in these cases is considered to be a form of sexual assault and carries a lower sentence, and the law only applies if the forced sex occurs between people who are not married. “In practice this means that someone can rape their spouse with impunity if the spouse cannot defend themselves, for example due to intoxication”, says Stinne Lyager Bech in Amnesty International Denmark. They recommend that the legislation be amended so that it is evident that the starting point for the legislation is the protection of the victim’s right to sexual self-determination.

The Danish Penal Code § 227 also allows a penalty reduction if the victim and the perpetrator marry each other or enter a registered partnership after the rape. The same is true when a couple remains married or partnered after a rape. Two years ago, the Danish Minister of Justice asked a so-called Sentencing Advisory Panel (strafferådet) to evaluate this section, but there is little momentum in the case, according to Bech.

Challenges remain in several Nordic countries in relation to the prevention, investigation and sentencing of rape. The SlutWalks are both a sign that girls and women throughout the world demand to be able to dress as they want and claim their sexuality on their own terms, and a reaction to the institutional issues related to the police and legal system’s handling of rape.

By Anne Bitsch is geographer (social geography) and political editor at the journal, Fett


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