When three men raped a woman in Sweden on Facebook Live earlier this year, the shocking incident made headlines worldwide.
Now, Sweden is planning to change its sexual assault legislation to make it easier to prosecute offenders, the government announced this week.
The changes come after the #MeToo movement has exposed sexual assault cases worldwide in recent months. Demands for tougher Swedish legislation were first voiced years ago, and became an even more pressing issue in the country after a debate over a number of sexual assaults committed by refugees in recent years. Sweden took in more refugees per capita than any other European nation.
A representative for Sweden's Embassy in Washington said that the "Swedish government has been working to update legislation concerning sexual offence since 2014," and stated that the law proposal was neither triggered by the more recent refugee debate nor the #MeToo movement.
Under the new law, victims need only prove the lack of an explicitly stated consent to prosecute offenders, while before it was necessary to prove the existence of violence or a threat. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is supporting the bill, and it now needs to pass parliament.
“It should be obvious. Sex should be voluntary. If it is not voluntary, then it is illegal . . . If you are unsure, then refrain,” Löfven said at a news conference.
Sweden is the latest country to look into tougher laws against sexual offenders, responding to a growing awareness of the prevalence of such cases. France, for instance, is trying to introduce on-the-spot fines for street harassment to ensure swift punishment, starting in 2018. The fines would be part of a broader crackdown on sexual violence and harassment, proposed by the country’s equality minister this fall. Finland already introduced on-the-spot fines in 2016, even though critics have argued that the fines relegate sexual harassment to the status of a mundane violation such as illegal parking.
In many European nations, various proposals to pass tougher sexual assault or misconduct laws had already been discussed for years but gained new momentum after sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein resulted in the global #MeToo social media campaign in October.
Victims of sexual harassment from across the globe subsequently shared their experiences with other users online, with country-specific hashtags emerging across Europe.
A European Commission study last year, however, found major disagreement on what constitutes rape here. In some European countries, up to 55 percent of those polled say sexual intercourse without consent would be justifiable or acceptable if the victim was drunk, had flirted beforehand or wore “revealing” clothing. Overall, about one-fourth — 27 percent — of all Europeans held that opinion.
Despite the growing awareness about how widespread sexual assault is under the #MeToo campaign, the whole issue risks being subsumed into Europe’s attitude toward the large numbers of immigrants descending on their countries in recent years.
Europe’s unease with the prevalence of cases among migrants emerged as a key political issue following the mass sexual assault cases on New Year's Eve two years ago. That night, more than 1,200 women were sexually assaulted in various German cities, including more than 600 in Cologne and about 400 in Hamburg, according to prosecutors.
In response, politicians across the continent debated the introduction of tougher assault legislation. Ireland passed a measure that explicitly outlaws sex with individuals who are passed-out drunk. Meanwhile, the German Parliament voted in favor of a law that eases deportation rules for refugees convicted of sex-related offenses, and similar demands were echoed in Sweden where a rising far right was increasingly attempting to use concerns over such cases to make political gains.
A Pew Research Center study conducted in early 2016 indicated that 46 percent of Swedes believed that “refugees in our country are more to blame for crime than other groups.” Reports about alleged police coverups of refugee crimes might have contributed to distrust in official statistics, which offer a more nuanced assessment.
Two of the perpetrators in the Facebook assault were Afghans and the third was a Swedish citizen of foreign origin, further fueling the widespread belief in the country that immigrants are behind a rise in sexual assaults.
The government, however, reports that the percentage of people admitting to have been the victim of sexual assault has not changed dramatically since 1978, and while the number of reported rapes has increased, it cautions this could be due to a more expanded definition of rape in recent years.
People from foreign backgrounds, meanwhile, are more than twice as likely to be suspected in crimes, but the majority of those implicated in crimes are still those with two Swedish-born parents. The government cited research saying that the higher percentage involvement of those born abroad could be linked to a generally lower socioeconomic status.
Regardless of the perpetrators, however, it will soon be much easier to prosecute people for sexual assault in Sweden.
This post has been updated with a statement by the Swedish Embassy in Washington. A Swedish representative said that there are no direct connections between the proposed law and the debate over alleged sexual assaults by refugees or the #MeToo movement.