Sex Crimes In Iceland

Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir Bachmann highlights a delicate subject
25.9.2009
Words by Louise Petersson
Sexual violence seems to be somewhat of an epidemic in Iceland. The fact of the matter is that, aside from Greenland, Iceland holds the record for sex crimes in the Nordic countries. Sad, kind of scary, but true nonetheless. Let’s take a look at some hard facts: an average of ten rapes get reported per 100,000 inhabitants in Denmark, Finland and Norway per year. In Iceland, this number reaches 24. Also, a notably higher percentage of Icelandic children experience sexual violence before the age of 16 compared to the other Nordic countries.

Now why is that?

Enough is enough

Although sexual violence is a subject that has been widely debated in Iceland, little has been done by authorities to improve the local situation. Very little money and effort is put into the battle against sex crimes. Apparently, no one has bothered to investigate the entire system and research where things can be improved.

Until now. Þórdís Elva Þorvalds-dóttir Bachmann has decided enough is enough. She is an actress turned playwright turned writer who just published a book about gender and sexual violence in Iceland in an attempt to highlight the subject.

“I wrote the book after reading about an acquittal in a rape case I found particularly heinous. Part of the reason for the acquittal was the fact that the woman didn’t fight her attacker enough, according to the court. In my mind, that’s simply blaming the victim,” explains Þórdís.

Initially she meant to write a letter to the papers protesting the verdict. In the end, though, she had written an entire book on the subject. Fully aware of the fact that she was perhaps not the best person to pen it (not being an expert in any fields relating to sex crimes and all), she dropped everything and moved in with her parents, as nobody was paying her to write it.

“I sought out skilled professionals and experts who were generous enough to give me interviews, advice, sources and vast information. Basically, I did my best to track down every prevalence study that has been conducted on gender and sexual violence in Iceland. Also, the book cites numerous international surveys and researches, to get a better picture of Iceland’s status in these matters in an international context.”

A neglected matter

The book is a critical and current view on how sexual violence is handled within the justice system, in the media and in public debate. According to Þórdís, her main conclusion is that sexual violence has been seriously neglected by the Icelandic authorities. For example, she summed up the total amount of words that five out of the six political parties decided to spend on the issue of gender and sexual violence before the 2007 elections. The result: 154 words, in total. In comparison, the paragraph you are now reading totals 93 words.

Þórdís claims authorities are ignoring and/or neglecting a long list of matters concerning sexual abuse. And she has some tips as to what needs to be done to improve the situation: “The resources for survivors of sexual violence are financially starved. The main counselling centre in Iceland, Stígamót, often struggles to make ends meet. The Rape Crisis Clinic had to fire all of their specially trained nurses this spring due to cutbacks. More so, law reforms are sorely needed. Also, people who exhibit violent behaviour are not court ordered to have any sort of treatment, only incarceration. Lastly, victims of domestic violence are still removed from Icelandic homes, as opposed to removing the perpetrator. For the past years, around 70% of rape cases handled by the Attorney General—who litigates all cases of violence on behalf of the state—have been discontinued. The list goes on and on. Basically, it would be easier to list the things that have NOT been neglected, than the things that need changing.”

The silent problem

The book also sheds light on sexual violence against men, a topic that is rarely spoken about or heard of. Little is known about these crimes in Iceland, but the numbers are considered to be higher than previously believed.

Between 1993 and 2008, 57 men sought help at The Rape Crisis Clinic in Reykjavík. The stereotypical rape in mainstream culture takes place in a dark alley, where the perpetrator is a dangerous, armed lunatic and the victim is a young woman, who screams and fights her attacker with all her might. All things considered, this form of rape is very, very rare.

“I think this lack of awareness stems from the fact that we generally don’t think of men as possible victims,” said Þórdís. “A man once told me how he took a cab home from downtown after a night of partying. He passed out in the cab and woke up in the Öskjuhlíð area, as the cab driver was raping him. This man didn’t dare tell anybody about the incident, because, as he stated, “these things should not happen to anyone, and especially not to guys.”

Getting through it

One might wonder who would have the stomach to read through a book about something as heavy as sex crimes. Fear not, Þórdís ensures that the subject is approached with certain lightness. “This may sound strange, but some chapters are actually quite humorous. Besides, some of the misconceptions surrounding rape are so ridiculous, it’s hard not to make fun of them. For example, last year, local authorities in Malaysia ordered women not to wear lipstick and high heels to prevent them from being raped. This is rather mysterious to anybody who has ever owned lipstick and stilettos, and doesn’t connect these items to sexual attacks. Seriously, what’s with them Malaysian heels?”

Getting back to the fact that there is such a high amount of sex crimes committed in Iceland: what’s up with that?

It’s quite a mystery. I think we have to face the simple fact that violence of this nature simply seems to be more common in Iceland for some reason. In my opinion, it is of utmost importance to figure out that reason, and the Icelandic authorities should treat it as an urgent matter. 

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