Is Sweden Dangerous for Women?

Should I be worried on my trip to Sweden this summer?

I keep seeing headlines and Facebook posts about how Sweden is the rape capital of Europe and how the police are advising women not to go out alone at night.

Is there anything to all this or has it got more to do with the fact Sweden has opened its doors to numerous refugees and for many people refugees = bad people and an increase in crime?

I’ve visited Sweden several times, most recently two summers ago when I walked the first part of the Kungsleden. I travelled as a solo female to the far north, the bottom south and lots of bits in the middle.

I’ve never felt in danger or threatened in any way.

But the last time I was there was two years ago and a lot more refugees have entered since then, so maybe things have changed. Could it be that these news reports and Facebook posts are accurate and it’s my perception of refugees as being basically decent people fleeing their homes and in need of sanctuary that is inaccurate?

My female friends in Sweden haven’t mentioned anything about living in fear, but maybe they just don’t like to talk about it.

I decided to do some research of my own.

This report in the Independent seems to back up these claims. It quotes findings by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights as showing that between 80 and 100 per cent of women in Sweden have said they have been sexually harassed as adults.

To put this into context the EU average is 55% with Britain and the rest of Western Europe showing at 60-79%.

What?

I live in Britain and have travelled all over Western Europe. If I’d been asked what I thought these figures would be, I’d have guessed way less than this.

The article doesn’t define what is meant by ‘sexually harassed’. It does later claim that 60-79% of women in the UK have been sexually assaulted which is the same amount as those who have been sexually harassed, but shouldn’t these be two different things?

Sexual harassment could be something like a wolf-whistle when passing a building site or a ‘get yer tits out’ comment from a gang of lads on a street corner. Not very pleasant and very demeaning, but not the same as an assault.

The article also doesn’t mention if the researchers imposed temporal reference periods on their questions. If the question about harassment is asked in such a way as allow women to answer ‘yes’ if they have ever been sexually harassed then I can understand the high figures.

The type of comment I mentioned above was much more prevalent 30 or 40 years ago and most women, myself included, would have to answer yes. It’d be far more unusual for a woman to answer no.

But times have changed and there aren’t many men now who believe it acceptable or condoned to behave in this manner towards women (yes, I know some will still do so, but even they will be aware they are behaving in an unacceptable way).

If asked at the time, many women would probably have answered ‘no’ to the sexual harassment question as this type of behaviour from men was just a fact of life and something to be put up with. I dare say there were even women who would have took it as a compliment.

So for this study to have any real meaning I’d need to know how sexual harassment had been defined and if the women had been asked only to report on incidents in the last five years or so.

As the colour-coded map in the article shows Portugal and the countries to the East of Europe as having much lower rates of sexual harassment, with Turkey being amongst the lowest with ‘only’ 20-39%, I had to wonder if something else was going on here.

I got the feeling that this isn’t so much a study of the amount of sexual harassment against women and more a study showing in which countries women are less likely to see poor behaviour by men as unacceptable and report it as sexual harassment.

Rather than believing the Independent’s interpretation of the results I decided to look up the research itself.

I searched the European Agency for Fundamental Rights’ website and found this survey on Women’s Well-Being. Section C covers sexual harassment. The definition includes inappropriate suggestions in person or by text or on social media; inappropriate touching; leering and staring in a way that makes you feel intimidated; stalking; indecent exposure; offensive comments about your personal appearance and intrusive personal questions that make you feel uncomfortable.

It doesn’t include sexual assault as that’s a different section.

Women are first asked how many times, if at all, they have experienced sexual harassment since they were 15 years old. It then goes on to ask how many times in the last 12 months.

Other sections of the survey cover different types of violence and intimidation towards women, both above and below 15 years of age.

The results, reported in 2014, don’t make pleasant reading and show women are in receipt of a lot more harassment, violence and abuse than the 14% of ‘most serious’ incidents that are reported.

It is noted that when comparing rates of violence and harassment towards women in the different member states, it has to be remembered that each country’s definition of rape, for example, differs as do the reporting rates and the prosecution and conviction rates. So just looking at criminal statistics doesn’t provide an effective comparison.

In sum, official crime statistics say more about official data collection mechanisms and the culture of reporting rape than they do about the ‘real’ extent of rape.Given that existing studies to date all indicate that rape is grossly under-reported, this would seem to indicate that the higher the recorded figures are when compared across EU Member States – the more this reflects that the system for encouraging reporting,recording and prosecution of rape is working. (pp13-14)

An example of this can be seen in the figures from 2005-07. In Sweden 47 rapes per 100,000 people were reported making rape seem much more prevalent there than in England (25 per 100,000) and Greece and some Eastern European countries where the reported rate was as low as 2-3 per 100,000 people.

When statistics are compared with those of the previous decade, rapes seem to have risen in the UK, Sweden and Belgium. But when these figures are contrasted with improved reported procedures and women’s greater confidence in reporting such incidents it can be concluded that this is the reason for the apparent rise.

The research demonstrates that increased gender equality seems to lead to an increased risk of sexual violence and intimidation. Two possible reasons are given for this. One is that increased gender equality means a greater number of women are spending time outside of the home (e.g. studying, working or taking part in leisure activities) and are thus more ‘exposed’ to these incidents. The second reason is the greater likelihood of women reporting such incidents in a more gender-equal society.

When it comes to talking about sexual harassment Sweden does come out highest with 81% of respondents saying they have been sexually harassed since the age of fifteen. The researchers point out, however, that what is perceived as sexual harassment is personal and will differ from woman to woman and between cultures.

Although the data is much worse than I’d imagined it to be, I got the feeling that the impression given by the Independent is misleading. When I go to Sweden this summer I’ll be just as safe, if not more so, than I would in many other countries. The difference seems to be if anything was to happen, it would be dealt with much more effectively than in would in many other places.

In 2005, legislation in Sweden was updated to include a much wider definition of rape. It is because of this change in definition, and not because of immigration, that the amount of rapes appears to  have increased in Sweden. Each incidence of a sex crime is also recorded separately, thus inflating the figures. Add to this the improvements in gender equality and in handling the reporting of such crimes and it can be understood why women are more likely to be aware and unaccepting of a crime perpetrated against them and more likely to report it.

As for those reports of police advising women not to go out alone at night? These reports in the Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Mirror are representative of the British media. Why they all suddenly feel like reporting news from a small town (pop. 45,000) in mid-Sweden, I don’t know. Unless of course their agenda is to nurture fear of immigrants and refugees. Hmm …

I’ve been to Östersund and never for a moment felt unsafe there. According to this local paper, the women who live there (and the mayor) are furious that the police should issue such advice saying,

It’s wrong if it calls on women to adapt to the criminals. It risks leading people the wrong way, if the victims must adapt to the perpetrators.

So, although I’ll be sensible and keep my wits about me, I don’t think I’m going to be in any particular danger in Sweden.

After all, you can’t believe everything you read in the papers.

Have you been to any countries that have received undeserved bad press? Share in the comments below.

Author: Anne

Join me in my journey to live a life less boring, one challenge at a time.
Author of the forthcoming book ‘Walking the Kungsleden: One Woman’s Solo Wander Through the Swedish Arctic’.

6 thoughts on “Is Sweden Dangerous for Women?”

  1. Hi,

    I have read 4 posts on your blog – all of them are very helpfull.
    I added invertedsheep.com to favourite websites.
    What do You think about Brexit? Are You proponent or oponent?

    Greetings!
    name

    1. Thanks for reading my blog! I was definitely for remaining in the EU and was very upset when the vote went the other way.

  2. Hi, Ane, your latest blog post was very interesting. I hope you dont mind my Greek-influenced opinion on Sweden’s rape-capital-of-Europe image.

    In Greece, from time to time we hear about Scandinavian women claiming that they have been raped while on their Greek holiday. So for a long time in Greece, we’ve been yawning over yet another rape claim by Scandis. This is of course not supposed to be a sign of ignoring or condoning rape – in Greece, we regard rape as a very serious crime. But why mainly (possibly only?) Scandis?

    I think it’s got to do with what you say – they have a broader definition of sexual harassment – and Scandis treat the law as a religion. So if the state defines rape as something much broader than penetration, then they in turn use that definition to interpret what may have happened to them during their Greek holiday.

    Then there is another issue: I have heard about tourists taking out travel insurance against rape. I dont know enough about this, but we also wonder about that: are tourists taking to the law because they know they may make a profit from such claims?

    This is definitely a culturally specific issue. Some things would not come into my Greek mind – but they do come to my NZ mind. That’s where the culture gap exists between my and my family – they think of me as ‘English’ (!!) when I make politically correct statements!!!

    Anyway, have a great holiday!

    1. Hi Maria, this is really interesting. I hadn’t thought about how the concept of rape travels with the person when they go to another country. I hadn’t come across rape insurance before either. It would be interesting to know the statistics of how many people ‘claiming’ rape ask for insurance forms to be filled in.

      1. I have never even heard of a “rape insurance” and I think I’d be more willing to believe it is just an urban legend… (Though I suppose there are companies where you can get an insurance for everything.)

        1. I have googled this and not found anything that seems relevant. So I’m inclined to agree that it’s an urban myth. I’ve only googled English language sites though. As you say, there are probably companies out there where you can get insurance for everything if you look hard enough.

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