By Siân Kavanagh and Laura Galante, photos by Siân Kavanagh
“I haven’t shared this story with anyone before,” says Emma*, 19, visibly upset. Standing in front of a room of people in Filmbyen Aarhus on an overcast October afternoon, she takes a few deep breaths, and sits down cross-legged on the floor to start again. “It was a year ago, almost exactly now, since I was raped.”
The sharing of experience of sexual assault is not new, yet it is freshly emerging in the guise of a new online movement: #MeToo. According to Facebook within 24 hours, 4.7 million men and women had shared the two-word phrase. Millions more had shared it on Twitter, Instagram, and other social media networks.
In Aarhus, the impact of #MeToo continued to ripple through the week. On October 22nd, student and business developer Joel Foighel organized a forum based on #MeToo to start a conversation through shared experiences of sexual assault. After seeing his friends sharing their stories online, Foighel felt it was necessary to create a space to continue the dialogue about sexual assault, even after the use of the hashtag had died down since October 16th.
“I realized that a lot of my friends have been catcalled or raped. This is why I feel an impulse to [create the event],” remarked Foighel, “ This is why I was personally affected by the stories around me. If I feel this injustice then I want to act upon it. Every time I read through status updates I got more emotional. I know that if you want to see change you have to be the change you wish to see, so I created this space.”
The Danish police have on record 425 sexual assaults for 2016 in the Jutland area alone. This is the highest it has been in the past ten years. There is a heavy stigma in discussing sexual assault because very few victims manage to seek out treatment or report the offense to the police. This means that though we have official numbers, it is difficult to know exactly how many instances of sexual assault actually occurred.
From 2012 to now there has been an exponential increase in reported rapes in Jutland and Denmark, it seemingly looks as though the numbers have doubled in the past four years. However, these figures are also an indication that women now feel more safe to come forward and report these types of agressions. “We are running a campaign to…encourage [women] to speak up about what happened,” says Thomas Kristensen, Head of Media Relations for Rigspoliti Copenhagen. Though the campaign started a few months ago, the number of reports has been rising in the past four years already. The increase in number of assaults cannot thus be entirely related to that, notes Kristensen.
31 people came together in Aarhus to continue to share their stories and open a dialogue about what comes next, after the hype from the hashtag fades. At the end of the meeting, participants wrote promises to themselves about what to do when faced with rape culture, sexual assault, or harassment. The promises ranged from talking to and educating their friends and family to calling out sexual assault or harassment when they see it in action.
As the stories of assault were shared, and though each one was different, the themes among them were common; the helplessness of being attacked, the inability to stop their attacker, their confusion about whether their attack “counted” as sexual assault immediately afterwards, and their guilt and anger in the aftermath.
“We should recognize that sexual assault is not just rape. It’s everything within that frame [of harassment and assault],” says Mette, 31. The frame of rape culture ranges from physically violent assaults to emotional manipulation, as well as personal boundary violations. At 16 years old Mette’s ex-partner made her believe that if she was the cause of turning him on, it was her job to give him relief. “that conviction followed me from then on.”
It was obvious from the first speakers of the afternoon it was not easy to share their stories with the group, many of the women who spoke were visibly upset but managed to talk through their trauma.
“I came here because I did not want to feel alone,” says Neena, 24, “It’s hard to ask my friends to listen because I don’t want to burden them. I came to speak out without victim blaming and to be a part of a movement that addresses this problem.”
Despite the obvious pain these women carried with them about their attacks, very few of them wanted to portray their attackers as evil: each person who stood in front of the circle made it clear that they did not want to share their story to demonize the men who hurt them, but to reclaim ownership of themselves. People left the event with a sense of calm; though the past two hours had been emotionally intense, hugs were shared, numbers were swapped, and promises were made to not let the conversation die with the hashtag.
The men who attended also felt that it was important to listen. “It feels like everyone has experienced it,” says Eilif Landsend, 27, a participant in the discussion. “It’s important to recognize that this is a problem in [modern] society. It is admirable to witness this bravery.” Another participant, Eirik Haddal remarks, “[T]he male participants here today are ready to learn and find out how we can help, it is simply too important for us not to listen.”
Though #MeToo was shared by men as well, the event was focused on female survivors. “The reason why I started off by not writing any gender was not a conscious decision […] I later changed [the event] to being addressed to women,” said Foighel, “It’s tricky [that 300,000 men also used #metoo]. To me it’s about taking a space that is not yours.”
According to the Center for Victims of Sexual Assault in Aarhus (CfV), there were 229 women and 9 men who visited the organization for support in 2016. Though the ratio is quite big, it is still significant that these men sought treatment after their attack, as there is a stigma surrounding the idea of male sexual assault, stemming from societal toxic masculinity. There are many ideas ingrained in boys and men from young ages that they must not express emotion in order to be tough and not classified as girly or feminine.
Hyper-sexualization is also a problem, with many men and boys being taught to sexualize women and highly value sexual experiences. This stigma means that even if a man is sexually assaulted, harassed, or feels he was involved in an experience were he was not consenting, he will statistically not speak out about the issue to his friends or family, let alone report the issue to the police or seek professional help.
The apparent increase in recent reports of sexual assault in Jutland and Denmark may demonstrate that more and more people are willing to talk to the authorities and go on the record about their assault. #MeToo may feel like a small step in the dialogue, but it allows for room to keep the conversation going.
There are nine clinics in Denmark, four of which available in Jutland. The Center for Victims of Sexual Assault in Aarhus offers physical examination, STD testing, therapy sessions and access to a social worker who can help with other issues.
If you or someone you know have been a victim of sexual assault and need to seek help in the Jutland area, please visit http://erduitvivl.dk/ or use the resources below to contact your local Center for Victims of Sexual Assault. It is also recommended to contact your local police for further information and assistance.
*name has been changed for privacy
Clinics for Sexual Assault Victims
Aalborg Universitetshospital Syd
Hobrovej 18-22, 9000 Aalborg
Nørrebrogade 44, bygning 7
8000 Aarhus C
Emergency Phone: 7846 3543 (within one week of the assault)
Phone: 7846 4835 (general help)
Akutmodtagelsen, Gammel Landevej 61
Phone: 7843 2250
Afd. for Kvindesygedomme
Phone: 7636 2439