By Niklas Ylander

After the #MeToo events, launched in 2017, the Swedish government adopted a law that criminalised sex without consent. For the government with a declared feminist foreign policy, it was a historical decision according to the Prime Minister. This article however will problematize the absence of debate on what consent actually means, the key concept during #MeToo. What is sexual consent in the eyes of decision makers?      

In 2016, shortly before Donald Trump was elected president, he was famously exposed in a tape discussing his relationship with women: “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” For the most powerful decision maker in the world, sexual consent is a fuzzy concept hard to grasp. However, one year later in 2017 the #MeToo campaign got sexual harassment and violence on the global medial agenda. 

For months the media was full of stories of powerful men who had exploited women for years. In the USA, celebrities in Hollywood became the symbol of raw cynicism. In Sweden, old cultural institutions like the Royal Dramatic Theatre and the Swedish Academy garnered the attention. Within the Swedish #MeToo movement, it was said to be a time of social revolution just as 1968 was a time for students advocating for radical change. Consent was the new political buzzword. 

In 2018, Sweden submitted the Law of Consent (samtyckeslagen) with the intention to stop non-consensual sex. This was seen as a major victory for the struggle against violence towards women. According to Amnesty, Sweden was one of eight European countries to have laws with consent as the ruling principle in 2018. In the Law of Consent, the principle of consent is formulated (by my translation): 

When assessing whether a participation is voluntary or not, particular consideration should be given to whether voluntary expression has been expressed through words or actions or in other ways.”  

This principle of common sense was now a law. Before the law was fully adopted, the government stated in a press release that the public must be informed on this matter by two state agencies which will be “…producing information and running sexual offences education campaigns…” The government also states that “The responsibility of men and boys must be clarified…

With this in mind, more than two years after #MeToo, the debate should be flourishing on what consent is and how to show respect for each others in intimate situations. 

The law received criticism for putting too much attention on the behaviour of the victim, on what the victim had said and done in the sexual encounter. Otherwise the practical implications of sexual consent has been absent in the public debate on how it should be interpreted. In an article in the weekly magazine Fokus with the head line Antisexuel revolution a scholar in Media and Gender Studies was quoted as simply saying “In general people know the difference between an unwelcome invitation and the opposite”.  

The final decision falls to the courts to assess whether there is a case of sexual consent or not. It means that judges and jurymen are those who are going to implement the law and classify what consent means and whether each case had consent or not. Even the chief judicial author of the proposal of the Law of Consent maintain the key role of the courts to interpret the law bill. If the idea of sexual consent is kept in the courthouse the law will be implemented in the absence of a public debate with important input from sociologists, behavioral scientists, sexologists, anthropologists and others with knowledge on human behavior.

Another reason to problematize the absence of a public debate on the meaning of consent is that the law would be more effective if it would maximize its public reach. For example, in the article The Sex Recession, published in the magazine the Atlantic, several stories from young people inform us that social interaction today is changing. Having a basic conversation with a stranger is unusual for many today, and flirting is totally unthinkable. For most people, the Trump version of consent is absurd, but the lack of knowledge make them avoid typical grey zone situations. They simply need input on how to behave. 

If the idea of consent in sexual interaction stays in the courthouse these young people will automatically be forced to go on Tinder and fora with explicit purposes. If the typical grey zones of flirting would make people passive, the idea of mutual respect and consensual sex would be weakened. 

In the Swedish political culture, the tradition is to spread universal ideals in international politics. The promotion of the feminist foreign policy since 2014 is therefore not a new phenomenon. Last year a former Swedish minister even advocated for a “Law of MeToo” on EU level against sexual harassment. However in order to continue this brave tradition Sweden must be seen as credible at its own premises. Sweden can and should be the frontrunner on how to behave properly in flirting.

Cover photo: Matt Popovich

Niklas Ylander has a master’s degree in political science with a special interest in Scandinavian politics. After his studies in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, he is constantly wondering about the differences and similarities between the countries.

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