Last month, the greater Icelandic public was reminded that the MeToo movement never really went away.
This was kicked off when two women came forward on May 5th saying that the well-known podcaster and media personality Sölvi Tryggvason had sexually assaulted them. Sölvi used his platform to make a tearful denial of what he called slander aimed at ruining his reputation. Another media personality, Sigmar Vilhjálmsson, in turn posted a video of himself watching the video of Sölvi crying, and exhorted the general public to consider how Sölvi must be feeling. This prompted untold many Icelanders, most of them women but including some men and nonbinary people, to take to social media and employ the #MeToo hashtag to talk about their own experiences with sexual assault, and there has been an upswing in people reporting to the crisis centre Stígamót as well. Many of these testimonials urged men to talk to other men about consent and boundaries. Some men seconded this sentiment, encouraging other men to examine their own behaviour.
It’s a familiar cycle: a well-known public figure is accused of assault, more survivors come forward while others stridently defend the public figure in question, prompting a broader public discussion where other sexual assault survivors relive painful experiences—often compiled into embedded tweet collections in online news stories—until news outlets decide that the narrative has run its course, and move on. Until the next time it happens.
Considering that this is a cycle we re-visit, with or without hashtags, on a fairly regular basis, the main question that arises is: how do we end this cycle for good? At the risk of being utopian, can we as a society ever have a healthy understanding of and relationship with consent?
Different this time around
For Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir, an author, playwright and gender equality activist, it’s something she’s thought about—and spoken very frankly about—for years. She recently penned a column for Stundin, ‘An open letter to the good guys’, and told the Grapevine that she also noticed the familiar cycle.
“This is how it goes: there’s the famous dude who gets accused of having been abusive, and then survivors – overwhelmingly women – step forth with these painful anecdotes and memories, and lead this difficult debate, and then there’s a token statement from the authorities about reform which they never follow through on because they never actually invest money in this cause,” she says. “One of the hallmarks of this cycle. And the very few men who ever say anything are usually defending said celebrity; feeling sorry for him or supporting him. But there was a slight shift in this MeToo wave, I felt, in that there were more men who wanted to be a part of the solution, and there was also some criticism on how they went about that.”
How to go about that is indeed the question, to which there are many possible answers. One of them, Þórdís points out, is education early on.
“I would say that consent isn’t being taught enough in schools,” she says. “I do not have 100% insight into the curricula, but I have children who are preschool and elementary school age, and my gut feeling is that we’re not doing enough to teach healthy approaches to bodily integrity. I also think that we go about it a bit wrong.”
Whose responsibility is it?
That said, there is also the question of upon whom the onus of consent lies, and for Þórdís this distinction is crucial.
“Until a few years ago, in consent discussions with adults, we were primed for the slogan ‘no means no’,” she points out. “We’ve been discovering and dismantling what’s wrong with ‘no means no’, in that it’s basically still leaving the responsibility on the person who does not wish sexual activity to take place to state that, and that is just the wrong way to go about this. We should of course always be holding the person who’s trying to instigate sexual activity accountable and responsible for making 100% sure that this is done with consent. So instead of saying ‘no means no’ we should be saying ‘get consent’. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that has trickled down with consent education with small children. We still haven’t shifted the emphasis enough, so that we free the child from that burden of having to be the gatekeeper of their own bodies. That relates back to this victim-blaming culture, that if you are not the one who is stating those boundaries entirely clearly, so that it is in accordance with the law, then basically you have no rights, and a crime against not you is not a crime, according to these sets of rules. But we have now realised that some 70% of those subjected to sexual violence have some form of freeze-or-flight reaction. So that means that many of them will not be in a position to state boundaries clearly. That is of course why it was great that our authorities passed a new rape legislation three years ago. That sent a clear message that we need consent for something to be considered sex and not abuse.”
Here, she refers to a law passed in Parliament in 2018 that made a very important distinction: that consent, by legal definition, now means being told “yes” instead of not being told “no”. It would some obvious to some, but it was actually not codified this way when it comes to instances of sexual assault until about three years ago. As Þórdís points out, the law has long had this understanding of consent when it comes to other facets of society.
“It seems to be a no-brainer with [material] possessions,” she says. “I know it usually strikes a nerve when people’s bodies are compared to material possessions, but it’s still interesting that I would not be allowed to just assume that you would allow me to borrow your car. Like, I don’t have to go around saying to people ‘I don’t want you to borrow my car.’ If you were to do it without asking me, you would be committing a crime. The law is pretty clear on that. And it should be just as straightforward when it comes to our bodies and bodily autonomy. We’re definitely closer with this updated legislation, which is great. But I feel that with children, it’s even harder for them to take hard boundaries towards adults and people that are in positions of authority over them. I think that we could definitely do better when it comes to consent education of children.”
Íris Ellenberger, a historian and assistant professor at the University of Iceland School of Education, seconds the notion that education from a young age is important in this area.
“What we have been discussing for a while is that sexual education is quite poor in Iceland,” she told the Grapevine. “It depends on specific teachers having the ambition and capacity to do these things well. Also when it comes to consent, of course, being a part of sexual education in Iceland which I think in very many cases is not the case.”
Porn and more
Another contributing factor to the poor understanding of consent within far too many people, Þórdís believes, is the proliferation of porn, and the effect this has on young minds who have not yet really developed a healthy relationship with sex and boundaries.
“Given that we have such enormous access to porn, in so many cases it erases the distinction between what is sex and what is abuse,” she tells us. “With such material so readily available to children, I feel that we’re definitely not doing enough to counter those blurred lines and undo the harm that such material risks doing to children that have no comparison, as they have no sexual experience of their own. We risk setting them off in a direction where consent isn’t as stated and as involved as it should be.”
Where that is concerned, it was striking that the first public reaction that the Icelandic police had to the latest resurgence of the MeToo movement was to announce that they intended to go after content creators on OnlyFans, which was most likely due to the fact that one of Sölvi’s accusers met him through the platform.
Not everyone felt this was the right approach, amongst them Pirate Party Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, who told Parliament last month: “If people who create and distribute porn on OnlyFans are people we care about, then we want to make sure that their rights are respected and that they have all the help that is available. We should not threaten confiscation, arrest, and imprisonment. It’s wrong, it’s completely wrong.”
Íris agrees, and cites the history of such legal approaches to sex and porn, and who is hit hardest by them.
“I’m an historian, so I come to these things from an historical perspective,” she says. “From that perspective, you can see throughout history people trying to regulate sexuality. To make some sort of laws or rules around sexuality. The people lowest in the hierarchy tend to suffer the most from these laws, while people higher up in the hierarchy tend to be able to use their social position or the capital that they have to avoid sentencing or otherwise get out of the situation easily. With everything that has been going on, and it brought these historical facts back to me.”
She continues: “Take OnlyFans for example, it was just so apparent that they have been trying to do something about internet porn for a while. The first thing that they imagine being able to do, or that they feel they have in their power to do something about, is to go after the young women who are creating the content on OnlyFans.”
That said, there are more insidious ways in which young people can be taught the wrong lessons about consent. Films and television in popular culture often portray what would be, in most cases, creepy or boundary-crossing behaviour as romantic.
“What really irks me is that popular culture tends to make it ‘romantic’ if a man is being persistent,” Þórdís says. “But at the end of the day, he’s not being persistent; he’s just not taking no for an answer, and that is disrespectful, harmful and predatory behaviour. Having that put forward as romantic is disturbing, to say the least, and does not help in creating healthy attitudes. But there are TV shows and films out there that show these situations in a more nuanced manner, I feel, compared to when I was growing up. So I do feel that we’re making baby steps, but considering that we have a massive porn industry now that we didn’t have when I was growing up, I don’t know if it’s making an overall difference.”
For Þórdís, this is inextricably tied in with toxic ideas of masculinity and femininity which are reinforced by such popular media.
“Unfortunately, attached to traditional notions of masculinity are certain messages, such as masculinity being dependent on how much you can conquer your environment or the people in it,” she says. “That sort of urges you to seek that sort of behaviour out, and with that comes dominating and aggressive behaviour. We’ve sort of cemented it and heralded it in popular culture.”
James Bond and gender roles
A classic example of this, she points out, is the James Bond franchise, whose titular protagonist is portrayed as a respectable, if not admirable, masculine symbol, in part because he doesn’t take “no” for an answer, for targets of espionage and sexual conquest alike.
“I’m not urging people to cancel James Bond,” she says. “But I would love to see a deeper analysis of how generations of men have grown up with this as a role model, and how he does not exemplify consent in any way, shape or form. So I would love to see the up-and-coming James Bond of our times incorporate that. If we’re going to keep him as a part of our pop culture library, then I would love to see him ask his lovers at every step ‘Is this OK? Can I kiss you now? Does this feel good?’ Because that’s how consent works; you can’t smear it onto an entire situation. You have to check at every step. Consenting to a kiss is not the same as consenting to sex, for example.”
Reinforcing this is the popularlised idea that men and women simply cannot understand each other; that they are too different from one another to possibly be able to see things from the other’s perspective, with non-binary people left out of the discussion altogether, as if they do not even exist.
“We have to think about what messages we’re handing down to children via gender roles and stereotypes,” Þórdís says. “We’re too stuck in separate camps, where we’re sending the message to kids that they can’t possibly relate to one another if they’re born this way or another.”
She relates to us a recent message she received on social media from someone who works in the publishing industry, who disclosed that one of her jobs is telling prospective authors to change the genders of their protagonists so that readers of the gender intended to be marketed to could “relate better” to the story.
“How can we expect anything to change if we don’t think that boys can relate to girls, or identify with a female protagonist?,” Þórdís says. “And then of course there’s the trans community as well. Where do we place the nonbinary children in all of this? It’s just so harmful to pit kids against one another, that their gender identities mean they can’t relate to one another. That is an idea that I don’t think any child is born with. That’s bullshit that we teach them. It’s on us. We have to change that. The revolution starts here with me, now.”
Change starts at home
For Íris, if we are to seek any kind of broad social changes, we cannot rely on the police and the courts.
“What I’ve been thinking for a while, what we need in my ideal Iceland, we wouldn’t have to rely so much on the judicial system or the laws and police to get justice,” she says. “I don’t think that institutions like that, when looking at history, are equipped to deal with these sorts of issues well or in a manner that favours the people who are lowest in the hierarchy, which are usually the victims, in the case of sexual abuse. It’s usually the people who need the most protection who are the worst off where the law is concerned.”
Instead, she says, we as individual members of society need to shoulder responsibility ourselves.
“I think we, as a society in general, need to have these conversations with each other; not just the teachers,” she says. “To be able to recognise the power structures that are dominant in these conversations. So much depends on the power position of the people involved, if the people who have been trespassed upon are to get any justice. Sex education needs to take power structures into account as well.”
The education of each other
On the subject of the future of sexual education in schools, Íris is optimistic, in no small part because she is teaching some of the next generation of Iceland’s teachers.
“I feel these things are changing a lot,” she says. “My students, who are going to become social studies teachers [which includes gender studies and sexual education], they are very interested in sex ed, and not just in the anatomy of it, but also in sexual violence and consent. I think education definitely needs to change and it needs to address sexual education in a much larger range than it does right now. I think, in a few years, we’re going to see a lot of changes, because we’re going to see more teachers who are equipped to have these conversations with their students.”
Þórdís also sees education as crucial, and that such an education extends beyond the walls of the school.
“I think that at the end of the day, it’s attitude changes that create the biggest shifts, which leads us back to education,” she says. “I would say that the school system has a big role to play in that, but we all have a role to play. There’s not been a single revolution throughout history that changes or fixes things fundamentally that does not start with us as individuals; where the individual does not play an active role. Being a parent, it’s become apparent to me that I can start teaching bodily integrity to a child from infancy.”
This notion touches on so many aspects of parenting, including teaching that even something like tickling needs to be consent-based. Teaching these lessons to the next generation of Icelanders would, by Þórdís’ estimation, have a great positive impact.
“It’s such an intimate relationship when you’re raising kids,” she says. “It’s so hands-on. Therefore it’s an excellent opportunity to start with this understanding of my body being mine and your body being yours, and all of it—even the playful stuff—should be subject to consent. I think so much would be won if that understanding were imprinted in children from an early age. But instead, we send them all sorts of mixed messages. It’s important to always keep the onus on the person who’s seeking to engage, whether it’s sexual activity or physical activity of any sort. If we have that, if we just have that one thing down, it would make a tremendous difference.”
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