Cissi Wallin was sitting in a TriBeCa diner this October when she first saw the story on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual assaults and harassment of women. An actor and writer based in Stockholm, the 32-year-old Ms. Wallin had come to Manhattan on vacation with her husband and toddler son, and as she kept on reading, she silently asked herself:
“What if people would believe me now?”
Ms. Wallin had filed a police report in 2011, a few years after she was sexually assaulted only to see it dismissed within weeks. This time she decided to do something different: She put the name of a well-known columnist for Sweden’s largest left-wing tabloid newspaper on her Instagram page, alongside a statement saying he had drugged and violently raped her in Stockholm more than a decade ago.
Soon more people came forward about the man. I was a co-author of an investigation into his behavior.
And suddenly, just as in the United States, stories of other national figures in the arts and media began pouring forth. About men who had used their professional power and influence to harass or abuse younger, often subordinate women, often at work. About situations in which “everyone knew,” but men viewed as indispensable had been protected by management for years (sometimes the perpetrators were management). In contrast to the situation in the United States, however, the wave quickly grew beyond accusations against the famous and powerful: Tens of thousands of Swedish women have signed a series of appeals in the national press detailing incidents of brutal sexual assault and harassment in almost every professional field, from law, medicine and academia to politics and defense. Committed by Swedish men.
So yes, it happens in Sweden, #too.
This reckoning in a country that sees itself as best in class on gender equality has been particularly painful. With a feminist government, a feminist foreign policy, a national agency tasked with upholding all things equality and a prime minister who calls himself a feminist, shouldn’t we be better than this? Shouldn’t these impossibly perfect-looking, tall men who go on government-paid paternal leave be a little, well, more evolved by now?
As someone who has lived and worked in both places, I’ve been privy to a decades-long personal study of sexual harassment in both Sweden and the United States. In my experience, the American workplace is more openly sexualized and flirtatious, a place where women are expected to be open and enthusiastic to advances by men, whether in the form of offers of mentorship that must happen over dinner or as more direct abuses of power.
Sweden, on the other hand, is more cold, correct and asexual on the surface. But give a Swedish man a drink or two after work, and you’ll be surprised how quickly many of them will take out their various frustrations in the form of lewd behavior against women, only to seamlessly go back to voicing egalitarian ideals the next day. As an acquaintance who immigrated to Stockholm from Britain once observed, “Sweden is a progressive, but not a sophisticated, society.”
How well can reams of pro-gender equality rules and regulations really protect women in this cultural context? According to those who study such things, not very. Sweden is an open society but one that retains “traditional sexual norms,” said Madeleine Leijonhufvud, a criminal law professor who is retired from Stockholm University. Women work alongside men and move freely in society, but ultimately, it’s still always viewed as a woman’s responsibility to protect herself from men. In that sense, women are not yet fully protected by the justice system: Very few rape charges even lead to a trial, and Ms. Leijonhufvud says that when they do, “a woman’s circumstances and appearance are always questioned — only in this type of crime is there a peculiar presumption that victims of crime will lie.”
Sweden is also not a place where pretty much anyone gets fired. Ever. A full-time staff job is perceived as a right, and the employer’s responsibility to handle and protect a problematic employee will often supersede the concern for a safe workplace environment for women. So most men accused of sexual harassment or even rape in Sweden still hold their jobs.
The generous take on why #MeToo has prompted stories from women across Swedish society is that its women are brave and empowered enough to rally, albeit largely anonymously. (As perhaps befits a culture that focuses on the collective rather than the individual, most of the stories in Sweden have left both accused and accuser unnamed.) The more depressing thought may be that in a society where there is a law, a fine-tuned rule and a government agency for each aspect of life, pervasive abuse may be more effectively denied or trivialized for longer. We find ourselves incredulous that such things could happen here, despite all of our (very expensive) efforts at becoming the world’s best place to live.
Because who can really stand that in the place where a little girl has the best chance of being born with everything — a free education, health care and a social welfare cushion to fall back on — when she attempts to do meaningful work, there’s still no escaping from the pervasive law of male supremacy?
In some ways, perhaps it has been less painful for all of us to join the silence about our own professional lives, instead moving on to what we imagined were bigger, better things, things that contributed to “the greater good.” When feminism morphs into a collective consensus and an abstract truth, rather than an individual act of struggle and personal responsibility, maybe we fail to be brave.
Victims of anything is not who we want to be, and certainly not how we, the free and unbroken pioneers of gender equality, can bear to see ourselves. It also makes our shame deeper now — because to how many younger colleagues have we coldly and pragmatically hinted that this too shall pass?
The really desperate thought is that if this is Sweden, where is the rest of the world?
While we all ponder that notion, Sweden’s diplomats and foreign aid workers will continue to deliver lectures on gender equality to other countries. We’re experts at that. And The New York Times, along with other publications, will continue to report on curious and beautiful Swedish customs and traditions, to entice readers with the fantasy of a country that seems to have gotten almost everything right, in both aesthetics and quality of life.
Call it the Swedish way.
Jenny Nordberg is a Swedish journalist and author.