Breaking the silence on my rape
A few weeks ago, an ordinary-looking man in a grey suit came on the television and said something which made me cry.
The man was Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, announcing that his government would introduce new consent-based rape laws.
To understand why the news of some legislation would reduce me to tears, it is necessary to understand the journey that I have been on for almost two years: a journey that began one summer’s night, when I was raped.
I wasn’t raped by a stranger in a dark alley but by someone I considered a friend, in an apartment where I thought I was safe. I was staying over at his flat in Copenhagen, as I had done before, when he came into my room.
He wanted sex. I refused. He got into my bed. I resisted. He put his arm around my throat, pinned me to the bed and raped me.
I wasn’t raped by a stranger in a dark alley but by someone I considered a friend, in an apartment where I thought I was safe
The morning after, I was in a state of shock.
It took me a whole day before I was even able to say the word 'rape'. Instead I found myself using the word 'accident', and in many ways the sensation was not so dissimilar to the disorientation one feels after having been involved in a violent car crash.
Over the following days, I struggled to report the rape to the police. It took four attempts - and on the second attempt I was taken to a small office and warned that I could go to prison if I was lying.
For the next year-and-a-half, I struggled to navigate the complex, slow and, at times, intrusive justice system. The worst aspect of the experience was the focus by the police, the lawyers and the judge on whether there was evidence of physical violence: on whether I had resisted, rather than whether I had consented.
Although I had told the rapist many times to stop, I was repeatedly asked questions about the physical evidence that I had resisted.
I found myself using the word 'accident' instead of rape, and in many ways the sensation was not so dissimilar to the disorientation one feels after having been involved in a violent car crash
This focus reflects the fact that Danish law still does not define rape on the basis of lack of consent. Instead, it uses a definition based on whether physical violence, threat or coercion is involved or if the victim is found to have been unable to resist. The assumption that a victim gives consent because she has not physically resisted is deeply problematic, since “involuntary paralysis” or “freezing” has been recognized by experts as a very common physiological and psychological response to sexual assault.
This is not just the case in Denmark.
Paradoxically, despite their image as a land of gender equality, the reality for women in Nordic countries is starkly different. As revealed in a new report by Amnesty International today, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have disturbingly high levels of rape, and survivors of sexual violence are being failed by their justice systems. Flawed legislation and widespread harmful rape myths and gender stereotypes have resulted in endemic impunity for rapists across the region.
Paradoxically, despite their image as a land of gender equality, the reality for women in Nordic countries is starkly different
Under the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty ratified by all the Nordic countries, rape and all other non-consensual acts of a sexual nature must be classified as criminal offences. Whilst Sweden reformed its laws last year, Finland, Norway and Denmark still use a definition based on whether physical violence, threat or coercion is involved or if the victim is found to have been unable to resist due to, for example, sleep or heavy intoxication.
This focus on resistance and violence rather than on consent has an impact not only on the reporting of rape but also on wider awareness of sexual violence, both of which are key aspects in preventing rape and tackling impunity.
Last year I found out that the man who raped me had been acquitted. The court had been unable to prove beyond reasonable doubt his intention to commit violence.
I was upset, frustrated and angry. I felt the residual trust that I had in the justice system evaporate. But rather than give up, I decided to take action.
I contacted Amnesty International and other organizations. I met with other survivors and together we formed the #LetsTalkAboutYes campaign to raise awareness of the lack of justice for rape victims.
The purpose of the campaign was to open people's eyes to the realities, to encourage them to take a stand and to change attitudes to the way rape is viewed and is dealt with. But most importantly, our aim was to change the law so that it was able to give us as citizens what we are entitled to: protection from violence.
I hope that the journey that began on the night of my rape will culminate soon in the passing of consent-based legislation
For the campaign to be effective, we recognized that it would be necessary to break the wall of silence that surrounds the issue of rape. Together with several other rape survivors we began to tell our stories publicly: first on Facebook and then more widely.
It was not easy at first, speaking about such a painful and personal experience to strangers and journalists beneath the glare of studio lights. But it became easier, and I found it also gave me strength.
In February I joined a delegation delivering 50,000 signatures calling for a change in Denmark’s law to the Minister of Justice. In March, together with other survivors, I spoke to more than 100 journalists and policy makers at the launch of Amnesty International’s report on rape which contained my story.
And not only did we speak: we were heard.
What this experience has shown me is that – when women come together and bravely speak out – change is not just possible: it is inevitable
New legislation to amend the legal definition of rape in Denmark could be voted on very soon. We look forward to seeing the law, and we hope it will reflect the priorities set out by survivors.
I hope that the journey that began on the night of my rape will culminate soon in the passing of consent-based legislation not just in Denmark, but in Finland and Norway too.
What this experience has shown me is that – when women come together and bravely speak out – change is not just possible: it is inevitable.
Kristine Holst is a journalist who has worked with Amnesty International on their #LetsTalkAboutYes campaign
This article was first published here by Newsweek.