After a major change in the law in Sweden two years ago, the country’s rape conviction has risen by 75%, with calls now urging others countries to undertake similar legal reforms.
In 2018, the Scandinavian country changed its law on rape to sex without consent. The legal change means that prosecutors no longer have to prove coercion or that the use or threat of violence took place.
The conviction rate for rape in Sweden has increased from 190 in 2017 to 333 in 2019. These figures, which indicate the significance of the legal change, were somewhat unexpected. Stina Holmberg, senior researcher at The National Council on Crime Prevention (Bra), highlighted: “We were surprised there was such an increase.”
Speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Stina Holmberg added: “It’s a good sign. This has led to greater justice for victims of rape.”
Talking about consent
Emphasising the importance of talking about what is and what is not consent, the organisation hopes that the legal definition will encourage conversations throughout the country and open dialogue at homes and in schools.
“Sexual activity must be consensual. Anything else is rape,” said Katarina Bergehed, senior policy adviser on women’s rights at Amnesty International in Sweden.
Many European countries including the UK, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Cyprus, Belgium and Luxembourg already define rape as sex without consent.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 covering England and Wales and Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 state that the definition of rape is the intentional penetration with a penis of a vagina, anus or the mouth of another person without consent. In Scotland, the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 also has a definition of rape as sex without consent. In Scotland, the law states that a person commits rape if penetration occurs “to any extent, either intending to do so or reckless as to whether there is penetration”.
Several countries including Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Finland have set out that they plan to introduce reforms similar to those in existence in these countries.
Further awareness and understanding of what constitutes as rape is required to overcome stereotypical and misleading perceptions of the crime. Katarina Bergehed explained to Reuters that while many still associate rape as a crime committed by a stranger, studies in Sweden show that in almost all cases, the victim knew their attacker.
Guilt, blame and shame are common emotions for people who have been raped to feel, and this misinformation is preventing clarity on the reality of what constitutes rape. Freezing and not fighting back are common reactions. In one Swedish study conducted by an emergency clinic, 70% of people who had been raped experienced a “frozen fright” reaction, Bergehed said. A growing body of evidence is demonstrating that many people who are raped experience temporary paralysis.
“These stereotypes are not helping victims to step forward – it makes them unsure of whether they really experienced rape or not,” Bergehed added.
To shine a spotlight on tackling rape and sexual assault in Sweden, the country announced in 2019 that its police force would be recruiting more staff to tackle sexual crimes and domestic violence.
The new offence of negligent rape was also introduced in 2018. This crime refers to cases where the courts find that consent was not given, but the assailant had not intended to commit rape.
Stina Holmberg calls for the courts to have a better understanding of this offence, with senior judges providing support and information to the courts.