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Sexual harassment topic ignites social media debate

The online social networking service Twitter was the forum for a heated debate on Saturday in Finland, after several individuals posted tweets questioning why concern about sexual harassment seems to be limited to incidents concerning immigrants. The debate expanded to include numerous testimonials of unwelcome sexual advances from Finns, along with comments from several politicians.

mies pitää kättä naisen takapuolella
Image: Mika Viljanen / Yle

Twitter was ablaze on Saturday when a conversation about the prevalence of sexual harassment in Finland attracted significant attention. Yle reporter Tiina-Rakel Liekki wrote one of the original tweets that sparked the conversation, and the Feminist Association Unioni later joined in the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Liekki started things out on Friday with a tweet that coined the hashtag #lääppijä (groper). In the tweet, Liekki asked Twitter followers to write in about their sexual harassment experiences. As the conversation grew and gathered interest, several prominent politicians also weighed in.

Finns Party in the eye of the storm – again

The Twitter discussion gathered even more momentum after populist Finns Party member Jukka Wallin sent a tweet commenting on Liekki’s text in an insulting manner.

Finns Party Secretary Riikka Slunga-Poutsalo later demanded an explanation from Wallin about his highly inappropriate statement.

Green Party Chair Ville Niinistö condemned the way sexual harassment is discussed in Finland in a Facebook post. He took care to emphasize that violence against women is not a new phenomenon in Finland, and is not a threat that immigrants alone present to the public order.

“Completely new phenomenon”

The debate was also inspired by an AFP news agency interview with Helsinki’s deputy police chief Ilkka Koskimäki in The Telegraph, published on Friday, January 8. The article says that Finnish police reported an unusually high level of sexual harassment in Helsinki on New Year's Eve, and that “they had been tipped off about plans by groups of asylum seekers to sexually harass women”.

“There hasn't been this kind of harassment on previous New Year's Eves or other occasions for that matter... This is a completely new phenomenon in Helsinki,” Koskimäki is quoted as saying in the article.

Many people taking part in the resulting social media discussion noticed that the interview gave the impression that sexual harassment and rape have been rare in Finland’s public places until recently, and that immigrants, recently arrived asylum seekers in particular, have brought the danger to the country.

They felt that Koskimäki’s comments nullified the experiences of people who have experienced sexual crimes at the hands of Finns.

The Twitter discussion also focused on how many Finns – the police included – choose to turn a blind eye to sexual violence if alcohol is involved, as it is widely considered to be a ’mitigating circumstance’.

According to many contributors to the discussion, sexual harassment in Finland’s nightclubs and bars is in fact the status quo. As the conversation continued, it became clear that harassment has been a common feature of Finnish society for a long time. Both men and women had stories to share.

A diversionary tactic?

One comment suspected that shifting the focus of the conversation to the years of home-bred harassment was one way to divert attention from several cases of sexual harassment perpetrated by foreigners that have recently captured the headlines.

In the German city of Cologne, one hundred or so women filed criminal complaints of sexual offenses and sexual harassment after what investigators suspect was a group of Arabic or North African men groped them in the gathered crowd.

The Helsinki Police suspected something similar on New Year’s Eve, after a group of close to 1,000 asylum seekers congregated in the tunnel of the central railway station. A few reports of a harassment offense were filed with the police after the gathering, and by breaking up the group and detaining a few individuals, the police believe they were able to prevent a large-scale incident.

Participants in the social media discussion Saturday also mentioned that the recent suspected cases were exceptional because they have involved groups of men attacking women, as opposed to individuals.

They compared the Cologne attacks to the “sexual mob crime” that occurred in Tahrir Square in Egypt in summer 2013, when people celebrated in the streets after Mohomed Morsi was forced to step down as Egypt’s leader. The evening ended with 169 counts of sexual assaults, harassment or rape. Justice Minister Jussi Niinistö of the populist Finns Party had already earlier compared what happened in Germany to the Tahrir violence.

New in other ways

A typical rape in Finland occurs between two Finns that knew each other before the crime in some way or another. It is estimated that the majority of cases are never convicted or even investigated because it is hard to prove the course of events behind closed doors.

According to the Legal Policy Research Institute, alcohol is often connected to rape cases committed by Finns, and to a lesser extent Estonians and Russians – but not other migrant groups. In these cases, the victim and perpetrator also rarely know each other.

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