Shocking surveys: Norway’s reckoning with sexual assault and harassment in the ranks

Benedicte BjørnlandPhoto: Geir Olsen / NTB

The past few months have seen a reckoning of sexual assault and harassment within some Norwegian uniformed services. Both the Police and the Armed Forces have been at the center of surveys and investigations, of their owns employees, which highlights the unprofessionalism, danger, and harm rife within. With a worldwide reputation for gender equality and women a strong presence in power throughout Norwegian society, how is it possible that so many people protecting us can be allowed to be so heinously violated?

“Party” culture in the police academy

Late 2020 saw the Norwegian public learn of some of the scandalous behavior permeating throughout the Police. In October 2020, the Chief Inspector of Oslo Police, John Fredriksen, fronted the media to admit that researchers, conducting a study, had been concerned about a negative sexual culture within the Police.

Coinciding with the release of the study was a former policewoman, Tania Randby Garthus, who spoke openly to the media about her experiences of sexual harassment. This led to internal and external surveys being conducted which showed that some 904 employees had experienced sexual assault within 2020 alone.

The study, conducted by researchers Dag Ellingsen and Ulla-Britt Lilleaas, was about gender and diversity in security organizations. However, it was during their research that they uncovered a toxic culture in the Police Academy. A “Boys Only Club” mentality, coupled with various instances of abuse of power and position led to a toxic masculinity culture.

This toxic culture can be best represented by the so-called “fuck-Thursday” which was when instructors were encouraged to sleep with female students. Furthermore, a general “party” atmosphere permeated the Academy. Speaking to PolitiForum, last October, National Police Commissioner Benedicte Bjørnland noted that a heavy drinking culture and “…abuse of position to achieve sexual acts in exchange for favorable guards or good references” were present.

Armed Forces survey: 46% of women have experienced sexual harassment

This week has also seen the release of a survey conducted by the Armed Forces Research Institute (Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt, FFI). Some 10.000 people took part in the survey which had some chilling findings. Perhaps the most shocking was that 46% of women surveyed have experienced, at least once or twice in the past year, some form of sexual harassment.

The Armed Forces conduct this survey every two years. The Chief of Defense, Eirik Kristoffersen, did try to put a slightly positive spin on this current survey however when talking to TV2. There was a slight decrease in the numbers of both bullying and all forms of sexual harassment and assault compared to the previous survey.

However, the 2018 survey was a major wake-up call to the Armed Forces as it, amongst other things, highlighted that some 160 people had experienced rape or attempted rape during the course of that year.

The problem though is that these forms of harassment and assault are almost always targeted at young female recruits. If age is taken into account, then the number of females, under 30 years old, who experience any form of sexual harassment or assault, according to the survey, was a staggering 63%.

Soldiers Joint Viking
Photo: Ole-Sverre Haugli / Hæren / Forsvarets mediesenter / NTB

Past government initiatives at making a gender-equal society

What is most striking about these recent findings, is that they could happen in Norway. The country where there is this ongoing discussion about sexual harassment and abuse, bullying, and toxic masculinity pervading large sections of society is the same country that has a female Prime Minister, Minister of Justice, Minister for Foreign Affairs, National Police Commissioner and one of the most (gender) integrated Police and Armed Forces in the world.

Strong females in positions of power are rightly seen as so obvious and ordinary it is almost oblivious to the broader society.

This is a country that often tops (or near tops) the list for gender equality, gender payment parity, the gender makeup of parliaments, governments, and boards of major companies.

Furthermore, the government itself has made a key cornerstone of Norwegian foreign policy, since 2015, gender equality and women’s rights.

Norway has had a long role in progressively transforming into a gender-equal society. Successive governments, since at least the 1980s, have strived to establish Norway as a non-discriminatory society.

Since 2002, the Gender Equality and Discrimination Act (Likestillings- og diskrimineringsloven) has applied to both the public and private sectors.

Its enforcement arm is the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud, which promotes gender equality and prevents discrimination through reporting, research, and education.

Booming female recruits, gender equality training, and an all-female commando unit

It is this history of reforms, initiatives, and strong female presence in political power that has made the Police and Armed Forces some of the most gender-balanced, integrated, and equal in the world.

The Armed Forces (specifically the Army) has a long history of a female presence. Females have been able to join since 1985 whilst in 2015 National Service was made compulsory for both males and females.

Women are in prominent positions of power in all ranks throughout the armed forces. This strong female presence has also led to a world-first: an all-female special commandos unit, Jegertroppen (The Hunter Troops).

The Police, like the Armed Forces, have a long and proud tradition of gender equality. Both the National Police Commissioner, Benedicte Bjørnland, and the Director of the Police Academy,  Nina Skarpenes, are female.

The impact of passing the Gender Equality Act was to target
institutions, like the Police, which were traditionally seen as bastions of masculinity. Recent years have led to a boom in female recruits. Last year, Director Nina Skarpenes proudly announced to NRK that 51% of the intake for that year was female.

#Metoo Tysfjord Sami Parliament Sexual Abuse
#Metoo. Photo:

Toxic cultures in the era of #MeToo

Yet the fact remains that these surveys showed just how rife and rampant sexual harassment and assault is for many female recruits in Norway’s uniformed services.

Given the history and government-backed initiatives of striving to make gender equality the norm, that such assaults and harassment are an everyday part of life in some of the uniformed services is shocking.

The Armed Forces and Police have a strictly hierarchical chain of command. Traditionally, these have been male-dominated and thus have a long history of masculine working culture.

Regardless of the fact that women have played an important part for many years, old habits appear to die hard. Research undertaken by Lieutenant Colonel Lena P. Kvarving, for her Ph.D., showed that employees who promote a different gender perspective are broadly met with ridicule and mild forms of sexual harassment and bullying.

The release of both surveys should be understood in the wider context of recent discussions about gender relations, sexual assault, and harassment illustrated by the #MeToo movement.

This movement, which started with actresses in Hollywood speaking out against their experiences of sexual assault but morphed into a broader political and social movement against all forms of sexist behaviors, has opened the eyes of many societies to the plight of women in their everyday life.

Uncomfortable conversations about the abuse of power, sexual harassment, and assault are now part of a national discussion making it easier for these female recruits to “speak out” and report. The impact of #MeToo has also very much forced somewhat masculine-dominated institutions, like the Armed Forces and the Police, to go about reforming institutional culture and practices. More training, education, and women in positions of power are needed to enforce a much-needed change in operational culture.

Until this happens, the people that are, every day, so bravely protecting the country and keeping the peace in society are not adequately being protected themselves.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Norway Today unless specifically stated.

Source: #Norway Today / #NorwayTodayNews

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1 Comment on "Shocking surveys: Norway’s reckoning with sexual assault and harassment in the ranks"

  1. So sad& tragic! this has to end! for crying out loud! A rich super-rich country& super above/beyond “DEVELOPED country like Norway! sexual harassment is a backward mentality! Why don’t you go home to your wife at home! Are you so pathetic? From now on we will spread sexual harrassment& sue we’ll meet them in Court! Damn it! I can’t stand this! We are not a banana republic for Christ’s sake!

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