A controversial verdict by Denmark’s Eastern High Court has shocked the small Scandinavian nation. In mid-July, a 32-year-old P.E. teacher, Bjørn Christiansen, was found not guilty of raping one of his students, a 13-year-old girl, several times over a period of five months.
In her testimony, the victim described a situation where her teacher took her into the woods, handcuffed and tied her up, and then raped her anally. Christiansen pleaded guilty to all charges other than rape, stating in his testimony that the girl had encouraged the sexual relationship herself. She had initially confided in him because she struggled with her self-confidence, he said.
The court’s decision to only find the accused guilty on a number of other, lesser charges caused critics to question whether current legislation in Denmark sufficiently protects minors from sexual violence. If this isn’t rape, then what is?
“We’re very puzzled by the High Court’s decision,” says Kuno Sørensen, a psychologist with Save The Children in Denmark. “Based on the knowledge we have at hand, it is not fair to describe the relationship as based on consent. We have laws in place that should protect children from sexual abuse from adults, and in this case it is so blatant, so grave that it should be considered rape.”
It is illegal in Denmark to have sex with anyone under the age of 15, for any reason. And it automatically counts as rape if that child is under 12. But as this case has proven, having sex with a minor between the ages of 12 and 15 – even when you are in a position of authority over them – does not necessarily constitute rape.
The High Court overruled a previous sentencing from a district court, and the case was concluded with a reduction of the teacher’s sentence from six years down to just two, acquitting him of all counts of rape. Instead, a much divided panel of judges found the teacher guilty on charges that included sex with a minor both orally, vaginally and anally, indecent exposure to at least seven different underage girls, attempts to come in possession of child pornography, and witness intimidation. He has also been banned from working with children under 18.
“It is beyond any sense and sensibility that the High Court has acquitted him of rape. She was 13 at the time,” says Helena Gleesborg Hansen, president of the Danish Women’s Society, a feminist organisation working to promote gender equality. “A child cannot give consent to have sex with an adult. Especially not when we are dealing with this type of relationship, where a 32-year-old is in a position of power both physically and psychologically. The girl was a minor and has been a victim of grooming.”
Concerned critics from all ends of the political spectrum have reacted to the verdict with outrage. As the prosecutor also argued in court, even if a minor engages in an otherwise seemingly consensual sexual relationship, that should be considered “grooming” - that is, the activity of building a relationship with a child over a longer period of time in order to persuade them to have a sexual relationship.
“When you can’t, as a 32-year-old, be sentenced for the rape of a 13-year-old, but for intercourse, then it shouldn’t be that difficult to see that we have a legislative problem in this country. Children do not have intercourse with adults,” wrote Sandie Westh, a Danish columnist and former national radio host, on Twitter.
As the court saw it, there was limited evidence that Christiansen had forcefully coerced the girl into having sexual intercourse with him, and seeing as they were divided on the nature of their relationship in general, the judges found that he could not be imprisoned for rape. The verdict has served as an eye-opener to many in Denmark, which is usually considered one of the world’s most progressive countries, that women and minors may not be sufficiently protected against sexual violence by the current criminal code.
“We have worked to change the legislation on sexual violence for many years,” says Hansen. “But our society also needs to change how we speak about sex, sexual assault, and rape in general. There exists no possible scenario where a relationship between a 13-year-old and a 32-year-old teacher is equal and voluntary.”
According to Sørensen, the primary issue with the sentencing is that officials and others with authoritative powers in the judicial system lack education and knowledge about psychological violence and means of coercion, such as grooming processes. It should also be noted that the teacher had a pedagogical responsibility as part of his job to not exploit vulnerable students.
“Our laws are clearly antiquated in some areas. In the current rape-paragraphs, there is an emphasis on the application of physical force,” Sørensen explains. “What’s apparent in this case is that they did not understand the power of psychological dominance, wrongfully giving them the impression that their relationship was based on consent in a voluntary manner. It is important to recognise that the abuse happened by seduction, manipulation, and psychological exercise of power over the younger victim.”
A parliamentary majority constituted primarily of left-wing parties, including the ruling Social Democratic Party, is now weighing the option of amending the law to prevent similar scenarios in the future. And a council under the ministry of justice, “straffelovrådet”, which advises the government on criminal law, has been called on by several parties to examine the paragraphs that concern abuse of children and consider whether it needs legislative revision.
Jeppe Bruus, spokesman for legal affairs for the Social Democrats, told Berlingske, a Danish national daily, that he was open to scrutinising the current legislation in light of the “heart-rending case”.
“It is fair to question whether the law is good enough in its current form,” he said.
There are plenty of suggestions being considered on how to fix the law, the most common, and obvious, being to increase the minimum age an adult is automatically convicted of rape with a minor from 12 to 15, and implementing a law based on active consent to consider instances where young people around the age of consent who are within the same year group and age bracket have sex.
Amnesty International Denmark’s program leader for gender, Helle Jacobsen, believes the human rights organisation has long laboured to implement such consent-based law in Denmark, to ensure that it is underlined in the law that sex without consent is rape, and that both parties in a sexual relationship have a responsibility to make sure that consent is key.
“We always want to protect women and girls from sexual violence,” she says," “and in order to do that we must examine if a relationship has happened on a voluntary basis and consent therefore can be given freely in each individual case by asking: was one part in a position of power over the other? For example, by means of a large age difference or through workplace hierarchy,.”