The Gender Myths of the Progressive Nation

Words by Sachini, 22 ACT

“So, what do you think of Denmark?”

I look over at Caroline, sipping my wine.  My boyfriend and his friends are engaged in easy conversation borne from growing up together in Denmark.  “It’s nice,” I say, and then because I can tell she wants more, “it’s beautiful. Everything is so innovative and user-friendly…”

She laughs, “I sense a ‘but’.”

“Well…” I hesitate, uncertain about sharing.  Maybe I’m looking for solidarity from another woman, because I relent.  “I don’t know, you guys don’t seem to talk about the stuff we do at Uni in Australia.”

From the look she gives me I can tell she knows where this is going, “What do you mean?”

“No-one talks about sexism here, it’s so alien to talk openly about consent – it’s almost like these things…don’t exist.”

Caroline stares at me. I internally cringe. I’ve had too much wine. If there was a new-girlfriend initiation test, I’ve just failed.

“You’re absolutely right,” she says.  “It’s crazy but I didn’t even realise sexism existed in Denmark until I left for the US.”

I sigh in relief that she agrees but am quickly confused. How was it possible to live two decades in a country and not notice any sexism that may be present?

As a foreigner I had a certain idea of Denmark’s image.  Progressive.  Untouchable.  And common data proves this – a top google result for the nation is “Denmark: A world leader in Gender Equality”. Judging from traditional markers, this is true, they have more women in leadership; normalise stay-at-home fathers; and achieved top marks in 2019’s Equal Measures Gender Equality study

But as my relationship with my partner grew, so did my experiences with Danish people.  I began to notice that this progressive image was not as pervasive as I’d expected.  Where the walls of my college dorm at home were decorated with posters for the #MeToo movement and reminders of disclosure processes, my partners were not.  In fact, findings from the Cambridge Globalism Project (2019) illustrated that two in five Danes disapproved of the #MeToo movement, regarding behaviours that I would consider harassment – like catcalling – as complementary.

“The US acknowledges that they have [sexism] and therefore bring it up more,” Caroline says.  “People are much more respectful there and aware of boundaries.  When I come back [to Denmark] and speak to my friends about it, they think I’m absolutely crazy.”

At this I am saddened, but unsurprised.  As a Residential Advisor at college, the hardest people to explain our compulsory ‘consent’ education to were always older European students.  They didn’t grasp the relevance of rape culture, almost thinking themselves above its grip. 

Caroline continues, telling me about the absence of consent-centred discussions in high school. While she felt she had an equal shot at getting good grades, boys would openly comment on girls’ bodies: “we were never [explicitly] taught to say no and that no is ok.” But this lack of discussion has consequences.  Earlier in 2019, Amnesty International found Denmark to have one of the highest rates of rape in Europe (19% prevalence and only 7% of those reported).

Later I summon the courage to speak to a male Danish friend about it.  He reluctantly admits that, in school “we didn’t really have any discussions on sexism…the people around me generally accepted there were no underlying issues.”  He then clarifies that the focus on sexism is much greater now, which might be the reason.

In essence, I can’t say my high school experience was much different to Caroline’s.  Girls were judged for their looks – by both genders – but the academic field felt even.  However, we had those conversations about consent and body positivity – and we had them loudly. So why is a society that is achieving the traditional targets of gender equality that we, in Australia, yearn to reach, so conservative in its acknowledgement of gender discourse?

Communications Professor Rikke Andreassen says culturally, Danes accept low-level sexual harassment if it stems from good intentions: “We have had a culture where what you say isn’t racist or sexist if you don’t intend it to be.”  But as a woman who has been raised to advocate forcefully for my rights, I struggle with this passivity. It hits too close to permitting elements of rape culture for me to fully accept.

I’ve never been heckled on the street in Copenhagen the way I have in Australia.  So maybe Danish people do have pure intentions like Andreassen suggests. But this success is also pushing gendered conversation into the background – and refusing to talk about it, isn’t the solution.

Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc

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