Last week, Sweden rewrote its rape law. As of 1 July 2018, rape will be defined as sex without explicit verbal or physical consent. There will be no need to prove violent coercion, bringing Sweden into line with nine other Western European countries.
The legal change comes after years of campaigning by women’s groups. In 2013, protests erupted across the country when three men were acquitted of raping a 14-year-old girl with a glass bottle. The ruling stated that: “People involved in sexual activities do things naturally to each other’s body in a spontaneous way, without asking for consent.” The absence of explicit consent, the court ruled, did not constitute rape.
Whether the new law will improve Sweden’s meagre rape conviction rate remains to be seen. But campaigners argue it signals a step change in addressing sexual violence in the country, and that by promoting conversations about consent it could help to prevent countless assaults.
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“A huge milestone”
According to Monica Costa Riba, senior women’s rights campaigner at Amnesty International, making the law dependent on lack of consent, not use of violence, “could” lead to more prosecutions for rape. The number of reported rapes in Sweden has quadrupled during the past 20 years, but only around 20% of them lead to trial and fewer still result in convictions.
The impact is likely to be small, however. In the UK, where rape has been defined as sex without consent since 2003, only one in every 14 reported rapes ends in a conviction.
But Linnea Hakansson, a campaigner at Swedish women’s rights group Fatta, described the change as “a huge milestone”, not because of the potential for convictions to increase but because it has forced the idea of consent into the mainstream.
The concept of consent, she said, is “a whole new term which wasn’t in our criminal law until now… We’re already seeing young people and the media talking about consent – we never saw that before.”
Those conversations, activists hope, will become normal for sexual partners. That could eliminate sexual violence stemming from miscommunication or misunderstanding, and change existing social norms that encourage sexual dominance in men.
Hakkansson said the new law could have a “preventative element”, stopping assaults in the first place: the prison sentence might have a deterrent effect.
Talking about sex, clearly labelling abusive behaviours, and discussing consent have, in some settings, reduced the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence.
A project in Uganda that teaches people to discuss power imbalances between men and women and mutual respect cut the rate of intimate partner violence by 52% in rural communities.
Another intervention which educates high school athletes in the US about communication, healthy relationships and consent significantly increased the number of times men intervened to prevent sexual violence taking place.
“The law is just one part of this,” said Hakansson. The conversation that follows might be the real change Swedish women have campaigned for.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Chase Carter)