Sisterhood Is Powerful
The Swedish Navy brass responded well to #MeToo. But real change came from the ranks.
The coffee was hot and strong, and the sugar-glazed, cream-filled doughnuts were baked that very day aboard the Swedish corvette HMS Visby. But this was no ordinary fika, or coffee break. Several women from the 4th Flotilla of the Swedish Navy were gathered on Sept. 18, 2018, 10 months after the November 2017 launch of the Swedish military’s #MeToo movement—called #givaktochbitihop, which loosely translates to “stand at attention and bite the bullet”—when more than 3,000 incidents of abuse in the armed forces over the past 30 years were detailed on one Facebook page.
Though the military’s top-down response to #givaktochbitihop was perceived as unequivocal—the supreme commander, Air Force Gen. Micael Byden, addressed a harsh video message to perpetrators—true culture change must happen organically. To that end, Swedish troops themselves have also been bringing about change among the rank and file.
A group of about 50 female sailors, out of about 400 total in the 4th Flotilla, have long been one another’s strongest supporters. They formed GRYM, an acronym that in Swedish stands for Community, Recruitment, Career guidance, and Mentorship, but can also translate to “cruel,” “savage,” or “ferocious.” This flotilla’s GRYM chapter was formed four years ago by its former commander Rear Adm. Ewa Skoog Haslum, the first female admiral in the Swedish Navy. The group encourages women to trade career planning advice, information on what to do when you’ve been harassed, and tips for balancing work and family (egalitarian Sweden offers 480 days of family leave per child for all citizens).
GRYM members also act as informal sounding boards for survivors of sexual harassment or assault. This is of particular use to those wary of official reporting. “It’s hard to be anonymous,” said Lt. Mia Rismalm, a member of the group. Nor do all women need the same thing. Skoog Haslum said she herself never needed women’s networks or female role models. Now deputy vice chancellor at the Swedish Defense University, she acknowledged some survivors prefer an empathetic conversation to an incident being brought to trial. Swedish law, she said, mandates investigation of reported incidents but doesn’t dictate how the commander must perform them. Skoog Haslum tries to reassure skittish subordinates that she “will never do something that [a complainant] doesn’t want to do. Never.”
While the responses are remarkable, the stories the women tell echo #MeToo experiences in other parts of the world. Navy Lt. Rebecca Landberg has a wide smile and a neat blonde bun, but these days, she doesn’t even wear skirts to rock concerts. About nine years ago, a drunken senior male colleague mistook her conversational tone for attraction during a talk about relationships at a shipboard Christmas party. Though alcohol wasn’t supposed to be served past midnight, most flaunted that rule. Landberg, sober, left early to prepare for a morning duty shift. When the senior colleague banged on her stateroom door several times that night, she waved him away, chalking it up to his inebriation. Around 3 a.m., she woke to the chilling click of her door locked from the inside. The male officer, completely naked, tried to drag her out of her upper bunk. Fighting to escape, she felt his penis against her back. She persuaded him to leave, saying her male roommate would arrive soon, and locked him out. When her roommate returned, he accompanied her to wake up other sailors and report the incident. Within 12 hours, Landberg was giving testimony to her command.
One junior enlisted sailor, the daughter of a Swedish Navy mine diver who asked to be identified by her first name, Malin, felt obligated to report her assault, a smack on her bottom that happened while she was changing into uniform. After the #givaktochbitihop campaign revealed the number of incidents buried for decades, she wanted to encourage other women who had been harassed to take that step as well and convey the message that reporting was not only okay, but necessary.
But while Sweden has been admirable in its approach, women often face social isolation after they report, as the rumor mill aboard ship speculates about their harassment or assault. Landberg said the colleague who assaulted her “was a good friend of so many.” She feared he’d told a version of his side of the story to everyone else. Further complicating her experience was that her command expected her to be immediately sure of what she wanted to do after she testified, but she was still processing the shock. In the end, the alleged perpetrator, who claimed to have no memory of the incident, was denied higher education. He then left the Navy.
For her part, Malin—who said her commanders were “very supportive”—felt out of the loop as her complaint made its way through Swedish military bureaucracy. Her relationship with colleagues changed, too; in the sailors’ mess, “it would be quiet when I would sit around the table … they wouldn’t want to joke around with me. It was really different,” she said. These dynamics make for a complicated balance between fitting in and speaking up aboard tightknit ships.
While Malin’s emotional support came from her closest female colleague, whom she explained she “really trusted,” no one in Landberg’s all-male crew asked her how she felt. Though their assailants were punished, “There’s one thing I think men don’t understand,” Landberg said, “and that is how you feel afterwards.” She had the sense that the unspoken narrative around her was, “‘Now they have their punishment, they have money taken away, so it’s fine! Now he’s not working here anymore, so get over it!’ But,” she added, she’s still wary, especially when aboard ship with drunk comrades.
It’s not just these women’s own experiences that have left lasting impressions. Malin said that friends’ similar stories have made her “always on guard” when she goes out on the town with colleagues. Though her male crewmates do not share the same fears of sexual trauma, Malin said plenty of them have empathized with her.
The Swedish military’s occupational health service offers counseling services for both survivors and perpetrators, and it can also refer troops to civilian providers. But one further lesson of the #givaktochbitihop outcry is that it’s crucial for all troops to learn basic communication skills. For example, Landberg’s attacker drunkenly assumed a deep discussion about relationships meant she was willing sexual prey. But, of course, just because someone talks about feelings with you doesn’t mean she wants to sleep with you.
All of this was eye-opening for Filippa Gode, a Navy cook who was in boot camp when #givaktochbitihop started (and therefore heard little about it). “I think men support men in Sweden, whatever happens … we [women] have to listen to each other and support each other,” she said.
Even so, that sexual harassment and assault are now discussed openly is a huge change from 15 months ago, before #givaktochbitihop broke the silence and denial that had previously permeated the Swedish Armed Forces. And then there’s that group—GRYM. It provides women—survivor and otherwise—sisterhood and support, coworkers and colleagues, as well as space to speak and learn. It’s not just women supporting women, though. While Malin, a former youth Sea Scout, said she remained in the Navy because of “these fantastic women” she has also seen over the last year a noticeable change in the culture of her male colleagues: In the wake of #givaktochbitihop, both the witness to her assault and the colleague who encouraged her to report it were men.
This work was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.