This is really not about Sweden at all

Some in the media are having a hard time processing the fact that sex without consent is rape. Unfortunately, that might be the case with a lot of their readers, too.

Tijana Cvjeticanin
Tijana Cvjeticanin Istinomjer, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Source: Istinomjer
This is really not about Sweden at all - NewsMavens
A man reading a newspaper, Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

New changes to Sweden’s criminal code define nonconsensual sex as rape. Although it wasn’t the first country to do so, the announcement struck a chord with right-wing websites who responded with claims that Sweden will force people to obtain “written consent for sex” or fill out a “sex consent card”.

After the law went into effect, some media in the Balkans poisoned their pens with the brilliant move of inserting a “notary” into the original fake story. As notaries are instantly associated with excessive bureaucratic procedures, a story about criminal justice was efficiently turned into a ludicrous tale of a law designed to make sex impossible:

Sweden has adopted a law which requires people to get written consent for sex from the other person Furthermore, it must be verified by a notary, or else that interaction will be considered a rape.

The Balkan countries still have a long way to go in battling sexual violence. Even when rape is proven in court, the sentences are light, more often given in months than in years. Judges typically gravitate towards the lower end of the penal code, describing it as “sufficient to deter such behavior in the future”. Reparatory justice is virtually nonexistent, as are support networks. Talking about sexual assault and calling out sexual predators is not encouraged. And along with all that, news about one country's actual steps to improve the legal handling of rape, is instantly diminished and twisted into a seemingly funny fake news story.

But that’s not what this is. It’s a deliberate attack on the idea that consent is what separates sex from rape and that consent should be asked for and respected. In societies where justice systems are much kinder to the rapist than to the victim, this can only be read as a knee-jerk reaction of those who’d like to keep it that way.

(Facebook page Our daily sexism shows dozens of comments with the same message - "she got what she asked for". They were commenting on a media report which emphasized that a rape victim was drinking alcohol, and that she and the rapist were "friends on Facebook".)

Is this story really about Sweden?

Definitely not. This fake news was presented as a threat that might be looming over “us”. 

Here’s one of the headlines:

  • SWEDEN GOES FIRST, THE REST OF THE EU WILL FOLLOW You want sex? Head to the notary first to get “verification”!  

While it is not true that this is the first such law adopted in Europe, that was a useful addition for a better “there goes the neighborhood” effect. And although no such laws are currently being debated in any of the countries of the Balkans, some titles looked like this:

  • WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN IF SERBIA PASSES THIS LAW?! If you want sex, you’ll have to visit the notary first!
  • The Swedes will have to get A VERIFIED PERMIT FOR SEX from the notary, is this something Bosnia and Herzegovina will also face?

Most of the criminal codes in the region stipulate that rape is a sexual act committed by use of force, or under “threats of a direct attack” against the person. In rape trials, courts sometime weigh in on whether the victim really tried to fend off the attacker. 

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