To the frontpage
spacer spacer spacer

When Swedish men are violent

There are three main theories to account for Swedish male violence against women. But according to Inger Lövkrona, ethnology professor at Lund's University in Sweden, theories on the "testosterone", "agressive" or "sick" male simply serve to excuse men's violent behaviour against women.

FORUM/July 2002 There is nothing like a hard-hitting, provocative statement to ruffle the feathers of complacency - particularly a statement by a woman about men.

Gudrun Schyman, leader of the Swedish left-wing party, Vänsterpartiet, probably knew this when she said in a speech, that Swedish men are just as bad as Taleban men, when it comes down to the oppression of women. She probably had no idea, however, that her statement would cause a major uproar in Sweden, that land of gender equality.

- The good thing is, that ever since Gudrun Schyman made the remark, various feminist concepts have entered into the realm of public debate. For scholars like myself, who are involved in gender research, it's almost a revolution to finally hear words like patriarchy, gender as construct and gender/power relations in general usage. It is not that these theories have gained broad acceptance outside universities as plausible explanations for men's violent behaviour against women, but they are now discussed and referred to. And that is something new, says Inger Lövkrona, professor and deacon at Lund's University. Her main field of work is to put the debate on men's violence against women into perspective and she is driving force behind NORFA's 4-year interdisciplinary research programme "Gender and Violence in the Nordic Countries". The programme has organised various conferences and workshops and has published the anthology: "Murder, Abuse and Sexual Violence - Historical and cultural perspectives on gender and violence" (Mord, misshandel och sexuella övergrepp - historiska och kulturella perspektiv på kön och våld, Nordic Academic Press, 2001). ....

Do you also believe that Swedish men can be compared with Taleban men?

- No, no. It was obviously a provocation, but Gudrun Schyman's observation was fundamentally an expression of the fact, that we look very differently at men's violence against women depending on whether or not that violence is committed by a "native" Swede or an immigrant. When men from immigrant communities are violent against women they act against the backdrop of their culture of oppressing women. When we want to explain why men from our culture are violent, it never has anything to do with culture. On the contrary we have three different explanations to account for male violence, based on the theory of "The testosterone man", "The aggressive man" and "The sick man". It's the same in both Sweden and Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries.

Can you offer an explanation for why the culture card is always and only played when it has to do with immigrants?

- I think it has to do with the fact that Swedish men see themselves as more civilized, rational and intelligent - more modern, than minority men.

Culture is something "the others" have and are governed by, and culturally determined patterns of behaviour are associated with that which is not modern and pre-industrial, according to Lövkrona. She describes the three theories that are used to account for the violent behaviour of all except minority men:

- "The Aggressive Man" is the sociobiological model, based on the evolutionary theory that men have developed aggression in order to become "the hunter", who goes out to kills his prey and fights to gain access to the best woman in order to reproduce his genes.
- "The Testosterone Man" theory is based on medical science and is focused on the chemical composition of the body. During the course of the 20th century male and female sex hormones were discovered and examined, and men's greater level of testosterone became the explanation for their violent behaviour and strong sexual desire. This theory frees men from responsibility from their actions - they can't help it, it is their hormones.
- The theory of "The Sick Man" is based on sociology and maintains, that men have been abused by society and women, and are under social and psychological stress. Either his wife nags him to death or he has been sexually abused as a child and needs to let off steam. If women have been sexually abused as children, they are seen as victims, says Inger Lövkrona and adds, that the underlying thinking behind each theory is, that essentially men are without blame when it comes to violent behaviour, and just as long as the woman keeps in line and doesn't bother him, he won't hit her.

Inger Lövkrona looks at male violence from a feminist constructivist point of view, which construes gender as a social and cultural construct. Within this context male violence is part of a cultural learning process and related to gender. According to Lövkrona men and women are subject to a cultural concept of violence. Male violence has to do with the construction of masculinity as equivalent to war and hunting. To get back to the three different theories, however, why are they not valid?

- When one has studied critical medical feminist research, as I have done, you discover that it is impossible to prove these claims. After all, people create research.

There is proof, however, that we are influenced by our hormones one way or another.

- Yes, of course, men and women are both influenced by hormones. Women can also be violent, but they have learned not to be. What actually explains how testosterone works? Everything is subjective, including research. We are very influenced by Christianity, and the natural sciences have taken it's images on board and tried to prove them. Research was undertaken into chimpanzees and what not and from this research emerged notions of what men and women are. If you atomise research and focus on 15.000 cells, you do not see the whole and this blocks understanding. We are all humans and operate from each our cultural view of things. I don't know whether women are less aggressive than men or whether they just haven't learned how to be aggressive. Women are not often violent, but history hasn't had a manuscript for female violence.

What do you say to the argument, that male violence is a reaction to so-called psychological violence, which some women are said to exert against men - particularly with regard to parental rights?

- Why do men have to react with physical violence against a form of psychological stress? Why does it become violence? We're back to the argument, that it is culturally legitimate for men to be violent - war is legitimate. We're back to the Icelandic Sagas, where men use violence to solve problems concerning honour, land and women. And with regard to children, men have the same legal rights as women in both Sweden and Denmark.

What's wrong with the theory of "The sick man"?

- Obviously there are violent men who are mentally ill, but this is not the typical picture. Most men who hit women are ordinary, sane men. According to a Swedish survey from 2001 a quarter of all Swedish women have been subject to male violence or been threatened by men. 10.000 women participated in the survey, which was undertaken by the feminist scholar and sociologist Eva Lundgren. The results were extremely alarming, and were heavily criticized by people against feminist research. People just don't want to believe it, says Lövkrona.

A similar survey has not been undertaken in Denmark, but according to official police records from the mid-1990s approximately 4.250 women are subject to 10.000 acts of violence each year. These figures do not include unreported acts of violence.

The Fadime case is a tragic but illustrative example of how male violence is perceived depending on who commits it. There was a national day of mourning, when 26-year old Fadime Sahindal was buried. She was the victim of a so-called honour killing, when her father shot her dead apparently because she had found a Swedish boyfriend and thus betrayed her Kurdish family traditions. Politicians were quick to comment and what was termed the culture of women's oppression in immigrant communities was up for public debate. 4000 people attended Fadime's funeral at Uppsala Cathedral and even more followed it on TV. Much less attention, however, was paid to the funerals of the16 Swedish women, who were killed by their Swedish husbands in 2001.

- The Fadime case is an example of how women are sexualised in a patriarchal structure. There is still this injustice that a woman is a whore if she has sex with several partners, while it is healthy and natural for a man. Our daughters can marry whomever they like, and have sex before they are married, and Swedish men don't kill their daughters. They do kill their wives, however. We relatively often read about Swedish men, who have killed their wives or ex-wives - Sweden also has a patriarchal culture. It is just not official. Officially we have equal opportunity. While it is perceived that immigrant men act against a backdrop of culture, it is perceived that Swedish men hit women because it is natural - it is interesting that this is looked upon as different stages in a development....

Is there a tendency in Islamic cultures to accept violence against women? An Imam in Denmark recently stated, that he could not speak against stoning women, because it was written in the Koran.

- I believe, that women in most Muslim families have the respect of their men. It's all about getting a perspective on what is happening in their culture and ours. Is it worse that grown women are murdered than young girls are murdered? These are two different expressions of the same thing. This is also why Gudrun Schyman provocatively said, that Swedish men are just as bad as Taliban men. What she means to say is, that women aren't necessarily safe in Sweden - women are also murdered in this country.

Not everybody was enthusiastic about Schyman's message.

- The negative thing about the Gudrun Schyman matter is, that her party considered ousting her as party leader because of her statement. Furthermore, as a kind of protest, her party has only listed men at the top of its electoral register for Southern Sweden - contrary to Schyman's wish. She has really been punished for what she said - criticized and threatened. She has been treated extremely poorly - not least by her own party members. If you are a feminist, you are still considered a man-hater, and the old dogmatic communist party way of thinking - which she has distanced herself from - that's on it's way up again. It's very interesting, that people got so riled up, says Inger Lövkrona with a smile as if to say, that it is something she had expected all along.

But it seems as though Sweden really is ahead of the rest of Europe when it comes to equal opportunity. All your party leaders claims to be feminists.

- Yes, that's true, but what do they mean by feminist? Certainly there is a fair amount of populism in their claims. Gudrun Schyman, however, really knows what she's talking about above and beyond the pedestrian debate on equal opportunity. She doesn't just claim to be a feminist - she is a feminist and acts accordingly and this has been too much for many people.

The Danish government has recently adopted a plan of action to stop violence against women. What would your suggestions have been, if you had been in the preparatory committee?

Inger Lönkrona answers with a large sigh and adds:
- First of all one had to awaken public opinion and speak in clear and unequivocal terms about violence. The main problem concerning violence is, that men don't hit women because they are drunk, sick, etc. Research has demonstrated, that violence most often is planned. They openly say: "I hit her, if she doesn't do, what I say, and if she does, what I say, I don't hit her". This is something, that needs to come out into the open before you can do something about the problem. We have to spread our knowledge and enter into dialogue with the political level of society - that's the only way we can get things to shift.
But it's difficult, because as soon as you vent one point of view, another researcher immediately says something else. There is a tendency for all of us to become very categorical in our statements and this rarely leads to anything constructive. I certainly don't have the recipe to solve the problem, but you have to get different ideas and approaches to the subject to interact.

In cases of domestic violence, the Danish Plan of Action suggests that the man is removed from the home rather than the women and children. What is your opinion of that?

- It's a good idea, but I don't know what to do about the man to protect the woman. It is not fair that a woman is more or less removed from the face of the Earth and that the children have to move school, while the man can stay in the home as if nothing has happened. In Sweden violent men are treated with medicine and therapy, because of a belief in that fact, that he is sick. The woman is also helped but by giving her a new identity and moving her as is the case in Denmark. But why is she punished? It's the same scenario, when it comes to bullying in school - the bullied child has to move school.

- Another thing we should change is the fact that minority men in Sweden are automatically allowed to bring a new wife into the country even though they may have criminal records for physically abusing their previous wife. The chance for a repeat offence is quite high. At the same time, men that are born in Sweden have to document, that they have known their intended wife for two years before the woman can get an entry permit. Then she has to stay with her husband for two years before she can get permanent residency, and if he abuses her, she won't go to the police, if she wants to stay in the country. These are examples that demonstrate that violence against women is tolerated, and ought to be stopped by changing the law.

- It is vital, that people at universities and institutions of higher education are trained professionally in this field, and that a gender perspective is included in this training. A gender perspective is rarely something, that teachers include in their courses. On top of that, it would be a good idea for the police to know about gender and violence. Today their attitude is mainly, that it's probably the woman's own fault if she has been physically abused. Attitudes really have to change. Generally there isn't just one big solution to the problem of violence against women - rather it is a question of implementing a range of many small measures.

It took Gudrun Scyman's hardhitting remarks to get a discussion in Sweden outside the universities about things like gender/power relations. What's it like to have all that knowledge and not be understood and at the same time know, that violence against women is such a huge problem?

- It's awful and sometimes you are just in doubt about your way of thinking, says Inger Lövkrona.
- Within this field of research, you are often subject to quite unpleasant things, also from people you don't know.

What are people so afraid of?

- I really don't know and I'd be happy if I only knew the answer. But feminism is still considered something, that has to do with hating men. You can pass all the rules and regulations you like, but people's cultural attitudes are very deeply ingrained. And that goes for men and women. We have equal opportunity, we have the vote, our prime minister is a feminist, but we still don't have equal pay and men still hit women.

Anne-Mette Klausen is a freelance journalist and is a regular contributor to FORUM.

Translation: Annette Nielsen

Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: