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Rape, As Sweden Redefines It

STOCKHOLM, Feb 7 2011 (IPS) - The number of reported rapes in this Nordic country has increased dramatically in recent years, especially after the Swedish Sexual Crimes Act was reformed in 2005. This does not, however, necessarily mean that the actual number of rapes has increased, according to analysts.

In some international media reports about the accusations against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is wanted for questioning by the Swedish police, the Sex Crimes Act has been described as very strict and tough – a stand supposedly taken by the Swedish government to deal with sexual crimes committed by its citizens.

But according to Mårten Schultz, associate professor at the faculty of law at Uppsala University, that description is not true.

“I think it is a bit of a myth that the Sexual Crimes Act is so much tougher than in most other countries. The truth is that it is not that different,” Mårten Schultz tells IPS.

In 2005, the definition of rape in the Swedish Sexual Crimes Act was broadened to include, for instance, having sex with someone who is asleep, or someone who could be considered to be in a “helpless state”. This applies to situations when someone would not be capable of saying “no”. A typical situation where the law could be applied is if someone who is drunk at a party falls asleep only to wake up and realize that someone is having sex with them.

That would constitute rape according to the 2005 law, and not “sexual abuse”, which was the case before the law was amended. In this respect the new law did not criminalize behaviour that previously had been legal, but rather broadened the definition of what constitutes rape to include a larger number of sexual crimes.

The fact that the definition had been broadened could soon be seen in the rape statistics – the number of reported rapes more than doubled between 2004 and 2009, a year when almost 6,000 cases were reported. According to a Crime Survey made by BRÅ, the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, there were, however, no indications of an increase in the actual number of people who fell victims to sexual crimes between 2005-2008.

The increased number of reported rapes has not led to a corresponding rise in the number of convicted rapists. According to Klara Hradilova-Selin, research analyst at BRÅ, this can partly be explained by the fact that more Swedish women now go to the police to report the abuses they have suffered. This results in a higher number of reports which come down to the word of the victim against that of the accused.

“These crimes are always difficult to investigate, but it is even harder if there are no injuries or other technical evidence – the kind of cases that maybe were not reported at all earlier,” says Klara Hradilova-Selin.

The number of unrecorded cases is probably still very high, but she says the attitudes towards sexual abuse and rape have changed in Swedish society during the last ten to 15 years. Rape victims might still blame themselves thinking that ‘I should not have become drunk’, or ‘why did I wear that short skirt’, but it is not as common as before.

“This has been so widely debated and the attitudes have changed a bit – which leads to more reports. People have lowered the bar for what they are willing to report,” says Klara Hradilova-Selin.

But one relevant question to ask is what really has been achieved if more reports are being recorded – while at same time the likelihood that it will end with a conviction is even less today?

Last November a governmental commission recommended several changes to the legislation, in order to better protect victims of sexual abuses. Among the proposals is one that aims to broaden the definition of the condition “a helpless state” for rape victims, to make the application of the law more efficient. The proposals are now under consideration with several bodies, and a bill may be ready by 2012.

Klara Hradilova-Selin says the intention with the Sexual Crimes Act is not just “to nail people”. She says the law also has a normative function.

“It is very important to try to prevent actions, especially when it comes to these kinds of crimes that are so intertwined with attitudes and values. Laws have a very symbolic value,” she says.

The debate about the case against Julian Assange has in Sweden led to a more general discussion about what kind of sexual behaviour is ok, and what is not. And this is something Klara Hradilova-Selin welcomes.

“Yes, I have myself been in a debate that was supposed to focus on the accusations against Assange, but instead it transformed into a larger discussion about where the line should be drawn,” she says.

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