Being a native of Iceland and Norway – two progressive Nordic welfare states – while living in Brooklyn, I often find myself boasting of my home countries’ feminist social policies, such as the one-year long parental leave, the low cost of childcare, or their high rankings on lists of the best countries to be a woman. However, just as often I feel compelled to offer a counter narrative to the idealization of Nordic countries in American popular discourse. The most recent incarnation of this phenomenon is arguably the frequent references by Bernie Sanders and his supporters to Denmark as a model for their politics. Denmark also topped the 2016 list of the happiest countries on earth. This Nordic exceptionalism has been skillfully torn apart by Michael Booth, a British journalist who has spent a decade in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Booth reminds his readers of the high tax rates, the racist discourse in the media, the immigration politics, the Swedish weapons production, the high CO2 emissions and the Norwegian oil industry. He even addresses gender inequality by pointing out the high rates of domestic violence in Nordic countries.
As much as Americans may like to think that the Nordic model represents a feminist End of History – in which feminist ideals are universally accepted and put into practice at all level of society – the struggle for gender equality is still real in Nordic countries like my native Norway. The current state of the debate on sexual assault and rape is alarming and has caused an upsurge in feminist protest and organizing. The recent upsurge in Norway was sparked by a decision in a gang rape case where all three defendants were acquitted. The decision was made jointly by professional and lay judges, a common practice in the Norwegian legal system in which volunteers are appointed and trained to assist a judge in a trial. While the majority, including all the professional judges, found the defendants guilty, a minority of three lay judges argued the evidence was not strong enough to convict. Their justification? They claimed “it had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants understood the claimant was too intoxicated to refuse the sexual acts,” even though a taxi driver testified the victim was so intoxicated one of the defendants had to throw her across his shoulder and carry her “like a sack.” The decision caused widespread outrage in Norwegian media, including critical statements by prominent lawyers. The decision called into question the use of lay judges and thousands showed up at protest rallies in cities across Norway to demand justice for rape survivors.
Perhaps more disturbing than the acquittal – personally, I’m not convinced criminal convictions are the most effective approach to eliminating sexual violence – were statements made by conservative commentators regarding the ruling, including prominent figures within the judicial system, which revealed troubling attitudes underlying the current state of impunity. Four quotes in particular undermine the idea that Norway is some type of feminist utopia.
“Just like we would advise people to use reflectors when its dark out, girls need to make responsible choices about who to party with or whether to attend an after party.”
This comment was made by Norwegian lawyer Brynjar Meling during a radio interview. In a brilliant response to Meling, Susanne Kaluza, a well-known feminist blogger, compiled a list of all the “dangerous situations and people” women need to stay away from to avoid getting raped. The list included everything from spending time in church, to staying at home with your stepdad, to going to a party with a kindergarten teacher, to enlisting in the military – all situations in Norway in which sexual assault has occurred.
“I completely agree that women should be able to party with strangers and still feel safe. It’s just that it’s so naïve. No, you can’t go to anybody’s house and expect everything to turn out ok every time. You have to take responsibility for your own safety – because there are people out there who won’t.”
This statement was made by the self-proclaimed feminist and member of the Far Right Progress Party Ulrikke Holmøy. She mirrors Brynjar Meling and draws a parallel between locking your door when you leave your house and the need for women to “assess the risk of time, place, situation and people.” She claims common sense precautions do not amount to victim blaming. However, it is alarming when a feminist suggests limitations to women’s social life and mobility as a strategy to combat rape while blatantly disregarding the fact that in most cases the perpetrator is someone the victim knows well. One Norwegian study found that 93% of perpetrators where either romantic partners, close family, colleagues or friends of the victim.
“Women often say no, even when they don’t mean it … Rape can be many things. It can be a young man, with an immaculate record and good career prospects, who then risks getting a criminal record for a short extravagance. Or it can be a husband, making use of his marital rights, who overlooks his wife’s ‘no’.”
Yes, you read that right: “short extravagance” and “marital rights”. Who said this? Gunnar Nerdrum, a prominent Norwegian lawyer who frequently appears before the Supreme Court. He made the statement in an interview in which he argues that the reason for the low conviction rate in rape cases is the recent increase in the minimum sentence for rape to three years imprisonment. He claims this increase deters judges from convicting in cases of “less serious rape.” He leaves out what is clearly the real reason behind the low conviction rate: attitudes like his own. He seems to think it’s okay for “a young man” or “a husband” to rape women. His statement invites reflection on what types of attitudes can be found among other powerful figures in the Norwegian judicial system.
“It’s time we make a clear distinction between rape and drunken mishaps.”
Cited above is Elin Ørjasæter, a conservative political commentator, who argues Norwegian courts convict too often, especially in cases of what she calls “sex between two somewhat equally and excessively intoxicated parties.” She goes on to claim that these convictions occur because the Supreme Court’s interpretation of rape is too broad, a claim that is not supported by any evidence. In fact, no Norwegian court has ever upheld a conviction in a sexual assault case in which parties were proven to be equally and excessively intoxicated. Only a marginal number of rape cases are ever brought before a judge – just 1 percent of all rape cases reported to the police result in conviction. Of the small number of cases that do make it to trial, 30 percent still result in full acquittal. The low conviction rate clearly demonstrates just how weak legal protection is for rape survivors in Norway. Ørjasæter’s attempt to mask her blatant victim blaming behind false claims of wrongful convictions and rhetorical phrases such as ”broad legal interpretation” is therefore deeply disturbing.
Even in the feminist utopia of Norway we are faced with regressive attitudes like those presented above, including what I find particularly disturbing: blatant ignorance about what constitutes consent. You are not consenting to be the object of your husbands “marital right” to sex for life when you marry him, you are not consenting to sex if you are a woman and attend a party, the status and record of the perpetrator has absolutely nothing to do with consent, and you are not consenting to sex if you take a large enough dose of MDMA to the point where you can’t walk.
My takeaway from observing this debate – as a Norwegian and a global gender justice advocate based in New York – is a powerful reminder that ingrained patriarchal values are present in all societies and institutions. I’m reminded to check my Nordic exceptionalism. I’m also reminded of the importance of a well-organized and united feminist movement. The Norwegian Women’s Front (Kvinnefronten) have been organizing and advocating for stronger legal protection against rape for decades. When the acquittal in the gang rape case stirred national outrage and the 21-year-old victim bravely entered the public debate and offered a voice for other survivors seeking justice, this represented a rare instance of massive public outcry for gender justice. The Women’s Front took advantage of this moment, using their convening power to gather thousands in cities all over Norway. My hope is that the renewed attention to justice for victims will move the public discourse in a positive direction. Still, the debate has left me with a sobering feeling that the gatekeepers of patriarchy will not be silenced for good – and the best we can do is to be prepared to be louder and better organized when moments like this one arise.