Although Denmark is known as one of the world's top countries in terms of gender equality, it ranks rather poorly on gender-based violence. Society still seems deaf when it comes to acknowledging the issues women face. Kirstine Holst saw the man she accused of rape acquitted by the court in 2018. Following the acquittal - in the face of political resistance, hostile media coverage and anonymous death threats - Kirstine successfully led a movement to reform the Danish rape laws to a consent-based framework.
Kirstine Holst hasn’t played her grand piano for over four years. It still occupies a prominent position in her living room, but now serves as a quiet spot for her young Labrador Retriever, Louis, to curl up under. She started playing when she was just ten years old. She used to practice twice a week. But in August 2017, Kirstine’s life was turned upside down. That month, she accused her friend of raping her.
Kirstine began working as a journalist in 2012. “I started as a columnist, writing on topics of general societal interest, like individual rights and freedom of speech,” she says. “My opinion back then was that we had equality in Denmark. I didn’t agree with all the feminists,” she says with a chuckle. While she was, at the time, slowly becoming more aware of gender inequalities in Denmark she was also, by her own admission, “still conservative.”
Everything changed in August 2017. “I was in Copenhagen,” Kirstine recalls. “I had a meeting and I decided to sleep at a friend’s house. It was that night, when I was at his place, that he came to my room and raped me.” Kirstine says she repeatedly rejected his advances during the assault, which then prompted him to grab her by the throat. She didn’t scream or fight. “Instead of fighting with him, I tried to speak to him. To the person I know—knew. To make him relax. But I couldn’t… so I just disassociated.”
The next day, she visited two other friends in Copenhagen and informed them of what had happened. They accompanied her to the Centre for Sexual Assault for a physical examination and recommended that she report the incident. “It was difficult for me because I knew him, and I was in shock,” Kirstine recalled. “I went to the hospital and got examined. Two days after it had happened, I reported him to the police.”
“In rape cases in Denmark, there has to be very strong evidence, especially in cases where there are two parties who know each other... in such instances the perpetrator usually gets acquitted for lack of intention.”
A painful bureaucratic process followed, with Kirstine asked to jump between police stations to have her complaint registered. Each time she was required to relive the traumatic experience. Six months later, the case finally appeared before the court. To Kirstine’s shock, the police hadn’t conducted a technical analysis of her clothes from the night of the incident, despite the fact that she had explicitly stated they bore visible semen stains from the assault. The judgment only refers to the report from Kirstine’s visit to the Centre for Sexual Assault and the statements given by three prosecution witnesses.
Two of these witnesses were the friends Kirstine visited the day after the incident. In their presence, she confronted the man whom she accused over the phone. Both testified in court that they heard him acknowledge the assault. One of them, Simon Krathalm Ankjærgaard, even wrote an article about his testimony following the acquittal.
In a subsequent article, the accused man denied ever admitting to an assault, terming it a “gross and baseless accusation” that was “both untrue and incredibly hurtful.” In court, he argued that he had consensual sexual intercourse with Kirstine that night, and refuted that he had grabbed her by the throat.
Ultimately, on 26 February 2018, the Copenhagen City Court acquitted the man Kirstine accused. According to the Court, the prosecution had not established beyond reasonable doubt that he had used “premeditated violence or threat of violence.” Kirstine speaks with a determined voice as she recounts these facts, often breaking into a loud laugh at the absurdity of the Danish legal system. But when she recalls her experience in court, her voice breaks momentarily to reveal the trauma that lies behind it.
In 2018, the law against rape, under Section 216 of the Danish Penal Code, stated that an individual would be guilty of rape only if they “enforce[ed] sexual intercourse by violence or under threat of violence.” The law also required a perpetrator to have the criminal intention to commit the offence. “In rape cases in Denmark, there has to be very strong evidence,” Kirstine explains. “Especially in cases where there are two parties who know each other… in such instances the perpetrator usually gets acquitted for lack of intention.”
The start of a political struggle
Sitting at her dining room table with a resolute demeanour, Kirstine doesn’t try to suppress the pain of her ordeal. On the contrary, she is empowered and motivated by the recognition of its importance.
Following the acquittal, Kirstine contacted the NGO Amnesty international, which was, at the time, preparing a report about the prevalence of gender-based violence in Nordic countries. The report, titled ‘Case Closed: Rape and Human Rights in the Nordic Countries’ was published in 2019. “My evidence supported Amnesty’s findings—about the police and the court,” Kirstine says.
The acquittal marked the start of a campaign spearheaded by Kirstine, and supported by other individuals and organisations including Amnesty, to reform the rape law in Denmark. “I went to politicians and the minister of justice and spoke to them about the problems faced by women and the need for a new law,” she says, recounting the road to reform. “I spoke in public at demonstrations, protests and conferences. I went to the foreign media. I had columns in TIME and spoke to journalists from Al Jazeera, The New York Times, Deutsche Welle.”
Nevertheless, parts of the Danish media – as well as some politicians – were resistant to the reform. “A lot of men thought that a consent-based rape law was a bad thing, and there were always new hurdles,” she says. “The media, the union of judges, the union of defence attorneys, and politicians, were all against such a law. […] I think the middle-aged men [were afraid that] the law would count in their own bedroom, that they would have to respect their wives and seek their consent. I think it was as simple as that. The politicians and judges are just ordinary men, with ordinary minds, and they are a part of the culture.”
Kirstine rose to the challenge. She sat in front of the parliament, holding a sign saying that everyone had the right to consent. “We formed a ‘consent guard’, and every day a new person would hold the sign outside the parliament building,” she recalls.
Finally, in December 2020, nearly three years after she began her movement, and on the back of huge pressure from the activists, Denmark passed the law that defined sex without consent as rape. It was only the twelfth European country to do so. “They also wrote in the law that marriage and partnership do not in themselves constitute consent,” Kirstine adds, triumphantly.
According to Gyrithe Ulrich, deputy state attorney, the new law has already been used to convict an individual for rape. She is quoted in a recent report by the Danish broadcaster DR, which evaluates the effects the change in law has had over the past year. According to the data, 2,126 people reported a rape in 2021; a 50% jump compared with 2020. Among these cases, however, only 1,682 suspects were charged: 740 were indicted by the court, and 248 were convicted.
The Nordic paradox
The fact that countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland, which consistently report high gender equality, also witness high gender violence is known by researchers as the ‘Nordic Paradox.’ In October last year, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) published the sixth edition of the Gender Equality Index, in which Denmark was ranked the second-highest gender equal country in the European Union, just behind Sweden. In 2017, however, according to another EIGE report, the country recorded the third highest score for violence against women in the EU.
"The societal exceptionalism in Denmark, the notion that we live in this exceptional welfare state, masks gender and other inequalities in the country."
Back in 2014, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) had already published a landmark survey on violence against women based on a sample across 28 EU Member States. It revealed that Danish women reported the highest levels of physical, sexual and psychological violence in the EU, as well as the greatest prevalence of sexual harassment. According to the survey, an astounding 52% of Danish women reported having experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15.
At the time, the Danish media ignored and even rejected the findings. “They wanted to show that what was said in the report was wrong. The men in the Danish media succeeded in closing the debate in 2014,” Kirstine says.
But here, yet again, a bunch of women were determined to shine light on the facts. In November 2019, Atreyee Sen, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, and two others, Marie Leine and Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen, published a research paper on sexual violence in Denmark and the response to the FRA report. It demonstrated how the Danish political elite—including the media, politicians and political institutions—worked to present the findings as being “grotesque,” “misguided,” and “untrustworthy.”
According to Atreyee, the “societal exceptionalism in Denmark, the notion that we live in this exceptional welfare state, masks gender and other inequalities in the country […] there was a strong concerted effort to silence the voices of the women who spoke out,” she adds. “Several political figures—including prominent female politicians, conservative female academics and scholars—all came out raging against the report.”
Atreyee and her colleagues demonstrated how the Danish media relied upon an argument put forward by a prominent voice in Danish academia, Karin Helweg-Larsen, as a way of challenging the report. This former senior researcher had stated that “the supposed high occurrence of male violence against women in Denmark was related to the high degree of gender equality in Nordic countries – with privileged women in these countries simply putting up with less than women in Southern Europe.”
Atreyee found this particularly interesting, because it was exactly the kind of response she would have expected from a deeply patriarchal society. “The narrative backlash in India for example, is often that ‘girls deserve[d] it,’ or ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘why were they wearing skirts?’ You would assume that in a welfare state, in the privileged first world, there wouldn’t be such a pushback.”
She also points to confusion among women themselves about the issue. “Some women feel that they have been raised in such a ‘trust economy’—where they are supposed to trust men, trust other people, which is also a part of Danish exceptionalism—that they distrust themselves.”
Atreyee believes this sense of exceptionalism is central to understanding the prevalence of gender violence in Denmark. “The myth of gender equality and the propagation of that myth is one of the exceptional qualities of Danish society,” she insists. “Any kind of challenge to that image or self-understanding leads to this particular kind of denial of anything negative or pejorative about Denmark.”
"I really think that, alongside the culture, the media is part of the problem"
After the acquittal, Kirstine faced many people accusing her of being a liar on social media. “The public debate is very harsh,” she says. “At different points over the next three years, many men and women in the media wrote rude columns about me.” Based on her testimony, the Danish media and public discourse are far from protecting of assault victims.
“I really think that, alongside the culture, the media is part of the problem,” she says. “Because if they don’t want to publish articles about the issue, we can’t have a public debate about it. I think the most important thing we should do is to tell the victims’ stories and share their experiences.”
Katrine Bindesbøl Holm Johansen, a researcher with an independent Danish organisation called Lev Uden Vold (Live Without Violence), has often addressed the shortcoming of the gender equality index, for example. “If we want to study the relationship between gender equality and violence, we have to understand the causes of violence,” Katrine points out. “These are not necessarily related to the ‘six domains’ [ed. measures of the equality index]—it’s more complex than that. There’s no single cause, we’re talking about a complex relationship between different social, psychological and cultural conditions here.”
Between 2011–2019, Katrine worked as a researcher and pursued her PhD on the topic of young people’s perceptions and experiences of sexualized violence. She recounts a common metaphor used by the young Danes she interviewed to explain the gendered understanding of heterosexual relations: “A lock that can be unlocked by all keys, that’s a bad lock. But a key that can unlock all locks, that’s a super key.” Katrine adds that while this “stud versus slut dichotomy” is not unique to Danish culture, “what is exceptional for Denmark is perhaps our self-perception.”
Kirstine’s work on sexual violence in Denmark didn’t end with the enactment of the new law. In January 2021, she joined four others to co-found the organisation, Voldtægtsofres Vilkår (Rape Victims’ Interests). “We keep an eye on how the police handles cases by talking to victims, and hearing their stories, what they are experiencing in real life,” Kirstine explains. “We look at the cases in the courts and how they handle the new law. We are also about to set up support groups for victims, so they can help each other.”
All three women—Kirstine, Katrine and Atreyee—agree that the most important thing for Denmark at present is to build a public understanding and conversation about sexual violence in the country. According to Atreyee, one of the ways to fight gender-based violence is to create more funding, more opportunities for research, findings, and reports, and for dissemination of these materials.
“Denmark doesn’t have gender equality yet,” says Kirstine. “#MeToo has revealed that. It shows that women do not have the same protection as men in the workplace. And the first step is to acknowledge the problem. I think we’re about to do that. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
To this day, Kirstine hasn’t resumed playing the piano. When asked whether she knows when she might do so again, she breaks down in tears for the first time across multiple interviews. “It was a gift from my father,” she explains. “He died a few months before the rape, and I didn’t even get to grieve properly because of everything that happened. Sometimes I think I’ll sell it; sometimes I try to sit and play but I can’t,” Kirstine continues. “It will happen when it happens.”
In Cyprus, women risk losing their hard-won rights
In 2021, the Chamber of Representatives of Cyprus elected a female President for the first time: Annita Demetriou, aged 36.
A few months later, however, when the new minister Ioannis Kassoulides entered into office in January 2022, he shut down the only department for gender equality, attached to the ministry for foreign affairs. “We struggle to gain some rights, but they are easily lost,” explains Maria Angeli, sociologist at the Mediterranean Institute for gender studies (MIGS). The sudden disappearance of the department elicited no debate on the Cypriot political stage.
According to the gender equality index of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) Cyprus ranked among the last countries to apply gender equality with regard to ‘domains of power’ in 2021.
There is a surprising media silence about those issues, that also applies to gender-based violence on the island. To date, there is still no collection of femicide data in the country, mainly because of the absence of a definition of femicide in the criminal code. Nevertheless, around 13 women were killed by their husbands between 2019 and 2020, according to the MIGS. This represents an important share of the 1 million inhabitants.
In addition, reports to the police about sexual assault are rarely taken seriously. According to Maria Angeli, “the system stifles the complaints.” One recent example of this can be seen in the case of a British female tourist who was forced by Cypriot authorities to withdraw her accusation of gang rape towards a group of Israeli tourists in 2019. She was convicted to a suspended jail sentence for fomenting public mischief. It was only in January 2022 that the Cypriot Supreme court overturned the conviction, acknowledging that the woman had not been given a fair trial.