From time to time, I invite colleagues to write a guest blog. Jorgen Lorentzen and Oystein Holter are both prominent in Norway as profeminist men working to promote gender equality and end all forms of violence against women. All opinions are those of the authors.
In Norway, Gender Equality Does Extend to the Bedroom
by Jorgen Lorentzen & Oystein Holter
A New York Times article, “In Norway, Gender Equality Does Not Extend to the Bedroom” by Katrin Bennhold (October 24, 2011) has been widely circulated. Unfortunately, it gives a wrong impression of gender equality in Norway. It does so by implying that rape is a greater problem in Norway than elsewhere and suggests the cause is a lack of gender equality in the bedroom.
First, let us be clear: It is true that rape is a problem in Norway, just as it is elsewhere. But for us as researchers and activists, we feel the NYT’s article is misleading and, thus, does not help the cause.
According to several widely-respected surveys, home and bedroom gender equality is generally greater than anywhere in the world. Three important factors are: Most married women work outside home. Many men participate to a large degree in childcare and household work (For example, men now do 40 percent of total housework – that is, closing in on equal sharing of domestic work – and two-thirds of new fathers take between 1 and 3 months of paternity leave.). Finally, violence against women is decreasing.
Second, the ten percent figure used by the Times is an estimate provided by our colleagues at a shelter and includes rape, attempted rape and sexual harassment. Norway does not have a national representative study of the extent of rape, but the Norwegian White Paper on how to fight rape (NOU 2008:4 Fra ord til handling. Bekjempelse av voldtekt krever handling) refers to several studies. They report (p. 33) that the rate of having ever experienced rape is 2 to 5 percent among women. This is 2 or 5 percent more than any of us should tolerate, but it isn’t 10 percent. However, the rate of ever having experienced some form of sexual abuse was significantly higher: 10 to 15 percent.
Studies of youth show the highest incidence. One study that uses a wide definition of sexual assault says that an alarming 16 percent of young women have been assaulted. In particular, it appears that party rape of young women is most frequent (often with alcohol involved) This would be most close to what is known as date rape in US, although Norway does not have the same culture of dating.
The White Paper puts this in the context of several US studies, including one showing that 18 percent of women had experienced rape in adult age (Tjaden and Thonnes 1998) compared with the 2 to 5 percent figure in Norway. One college survey suggests 20 percent had experienced rape, and according to a study of women in the US military a staggering 36 percent have been raped. (p.35) All in all, it seems that the US proportion is clearly higher than in Norway and the other Nordic countries, although there are many comparison difficulties.
There is a third problem with the article: Unlike what is hinted in the article, Norway has no discrimination in the law about where the rape was conducted, that is, rape in the home is not treated more lightly than stranger rape. The problem, in Norway as elsewhere, is that it is much harder to prove rape at home. It is true, as the article states, that rape “is all too common and rarely reported, and those who commit it are even more rarely convicted.”
One serious issue not mentioned in the article is the current increase in stranger rape. This has been a prominent issue in the news because of assaults every weekend in Oslo in the last few months.) Half of the convicted are illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who often come from cultures where gender equality is not yet as advanced. Both the politicians and the police are struggling with this and, as activists, it challenges us to confront this violence without feeding into racist generalizations.
There is no doubt that rape remains a serious problem in Norway as elsewhere. But we don’t help our cause through a loose use of statistics. And we certainly don’t help our cause by mis-diagnosing the nature of the problem. Research shows that gender inequality is what increases the risk of rape and violence, not gender equality. We must end all forms of sexual violence to ensure that women and men are truly equal and that the equality is never threatened by sexual assault.