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Work-based Campaigns Have Shifted the Focus From Victims to Structures

A look at Sweden and sexual harassment

This post was originally published by Eurozine and was accompanied by three other posts that Public Seminar will repost throughout the week.  

Following the first wave of the #MeToo movement, a new phase of reflection has set in. Here, four authors and journal editors from the US and Europe assess #MeToo’s achievements and potential, but also its limitations in changing a culture of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in Sweden – who would have believed it? For good reasons, or perhaps because of our inflated self-image, Sweden is seen as a world leader in matters of gender equality. So it may be surprising that #MeToo had an unusually strong resonance in this country.

We are used to thinking of feminism as something coming in waves, bringing change (though we also know about backlashes). However, change depends on being heard. Towards the end of 2017, we saw a new tide rising. The threat of sexual violence stopped being perceived as coming mainly from asylum seekers and instead started to be seen as coming from ordinary men. By mid-October, #MeToo was no longer about a powerful man from Hollywood. Starting with the exposure of a few well-known male media personalities – accused of rape, sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior towards women – the #MeToo hashtag motivated tens of thousands of women to sign open calls. The world of literature and the arts was heavily in focus: one widely reported case pointed directly to the very rooms of the Swedish Academy. It was scandalous and so obviously important that it was pulled out in the open.

However, alongside the celebrity cases, there have been many appeals published in major print media and communicated online. Sector after sector, profession after profession, went public with testimonies of sexual harassment and assault. Actors, academics, artists, doctors, DJs, military employees, lawyers, restaurant workers, members of the building trade and many more. Under their respective sub-hashtags, it was possible to see the campaign broaden, deepen and infuse group after group of women with the feeling that collectively speaking out and going public was important. It was also obvious that victimhood is something completely different when shame is shifted from the individual to a structure – whether because of bad leadership, precarious employment or a ‘culture of silence’. As journalist Annelie Dufva said on Swedish Radio, #MeToo was not a disclosure but a confirmation of what women already knew.

This professional, working life-related aspect of the #MeToo campaign in Sweden has a specific importance. It expresses a sentiment felt, and an intellectual analysis made, by many women. For so many years, we have been part of the professional life and the workforce of this society. We have contributed economically, we possess skills, we do art, we work. But we have endured a lack of respect for our bodily integrity. We have been shamed by sexism at the workplace, we have not told our stories loud enough. We will now.

It is important to note that the professional emphasis of the Swedish #MeToo movement is not the whole story. There have been several very big calls and Facebook groups that had the tone of ‘all of us’, meaning all women, regardless of professional identity, where the lid has once again been opened on experiences of sexual assault in families and close relationships. But this too gains momentum from these ‘trade specific’ calls, from these working life-based mobilizations. They grounded the calls in the experience of the many.

But haven’t there been problematic cases of naming and shaming? Yes, for sure. But the vast majority of stories shared and told have not identified the perpetrator in an easily recognizable way. More important is that the stories had self-named victims. The #MeToo campaign has had the effect of shifting the focus and the blame from the victim to the offense. Moreover, the collective turn taken by the Swedish campaign has shifted the focus towards structures. There have also been a few cases of high ranking executives in culture, politics, civil society and the media who have resigned or been ousted from their positions in the aftermath of #MeToo. Some not even because direct sexual harassment has been claimed or proven, but because of the apparent emergence of a new moral standard of leadership. Aggressive masculinity has lost some of its attraction.

The power of men cracks, says Swedish author Nina Björk, when they are collectively afraid of being among the accused. After so many years of women being collectively afraid of being among the attacked, maybe this is a greatest change. The public sphere, the media, legislators, and all of us as citizens will have to monitor the aftermath of #MeToo. A shift in both private and public norms will be the result of the calls and accusations, and of the reactions to them. If we want greater respect for women’s bodily integrity, that’s where we need to keep the focus. If we want structural change, we need to think how.

Whether or not a new law in Sweden on consent to sex is passed – it has been discussed and proposed several times in recent years – a dramatic rise in rape convictions isn’t expected. However, the reform could mean that, at a rape trial, the defendant’s claim for believing the sex to have been consensual will be more difficult to prove. The mere absence of threatened or actual violence, or of resistance from the victim, would no longer be a sufficient argument. On the other hand, real change must be social as well as private, and can’t remain in or be led by the legal sphere.

To some extent, the #MeToo debate has made some conflicts more visible rather than resolved them. Sex – notably heterosexual sex – will stay a politicized issue. And that is a good thing. Leadership, not least in the cultural sector, won’t be the same again. Leadership can no longer be acted out via sexual or sexist harassment. But, more important still: it can’t involve or rely on looking the other way. Because this time around, the victims won’t stay quiet.

Ann Ighe is lecturer in economic history and European studies at Gothenburg University, and a freelance writer, moderator and editor of the cultural journal Ord&Bild.

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