"Talk about it," or in Swedish prataomdet, has become the expression of the moment. It is everywhere — on Twitter, in blogs, newspaper columns, and radio and television shows — while the debate on the sexual "grey area" or the limits of what should occur between the sheets when two people go to bed together has become a major issue in the Swedish media.

Johanna Koljonen was the first to launch the discussion. The freelance journalist who is regular contributor to cultural pages and TV shows in Sweden was talking about the Julian Assange case on Twitter on 14 December, at a time when the world’s press was focused on the extradition case against the WikiLeaks co-founder and the allegations made by two Swedish women who accused him of rape, sexual assault and coercion.

One of Johanna Koljonen’s correspondents remarked that the view in the UK was that affair was simply a legal error and the real victim was Assange himself. At 18:07 pm, Johanna Koljonen responded with a more personal message on the subject: "The fact is that I found myself in a similar situation, but I was too naive to understand that I could at least impose some limit..." The discussion continued, and half an hour later Johanna returned to the subject with this explicit admission: "In fact, I am bit shocked to find myself saying this, but it’s only now that I realise that I myself have had an experience of "sex by surprise."

The boundary between assault and bad sex

And thereafter, in a series of 140 character tweets, she told the story of a night when she voluntarily went to bed with a man, who the following morning took advantage of the fact that she was only half awake “to change the rules of the game:” that is to say to penetrate her without using a condom. When she became aware of what was happening, she felt reluctant to interrupt the act — it was exactly the situation described by one of the two Swedish women who has accused Julian Assange. But Johanna explained that she did not file a complaint. “Because I was not aware that I had a right to impose absolute limits […] to stipulate limits for a partner with whom I had already had sex."

In response to her account, Johanna Koljonen received a lot of friendly messages congratulating her on her frankness and her courage in speaking out. The topic was launched and many similar stories began to appear on Twitter. In the hour that followed, the discussion group which included a large number of journalists decided on a strategy. Twelve volunteers would hound their editors to publish personal stories of their descent into the “grey area” on the following Monday — thus placing the issue in the spotlight of national news.

The debate has been ongoing ever since: what constitutes assault and what does not? Can we really speak of a "grey area" where the boundary between assault and what might simply be termed “bad sex” is irremediably blurred?

Towards a stricter law on consent

Questions like these are all the more topical in Sweden in the light of a story that shocked the nation in 2009: the people of a village where a teenager had been convicted of rape on the basis of the testimony of one of his classmates mobilised to campaign in his favour — that is until he raped another girl. As in the Assange affair, the victim rather than the perpetrator became the main target for suspicion.

And it is in this context that we should view the debate, which is not really a legal one. "’No’ means ‘no’ regardless of the context, but what is interesting are those situations where we would have liked to say ‘no’ but instead gave in because we were in love, shy, grateful, impressed, drunk, or just too tired to talk," explains Johanna Koljonen.

Prolific blogger Göran Rudling is campaigning for a stricter law on consent, under which both partners would be obliged to clearly state their intentions. As it stands, "Men are not expected to understand a ‘no’ that has never been said. So as I see it, there is no grey area. If someone says 'no', they have to do so with words or gestures. And this has a major impact on recourse to the law in the event of rape, violence, and threats. In a nutshell, the law assumes that women always want to have sex unless the say ‘no’, and that is absurd because in practice, if they take a case they have to prove that they actually said ‘no’."

For Rudling, this explains why, in spite of expectations to the contrary, Swedish courts often have difficulty in judging rape cases. The problem he believes is that people don’t know the difference between wanting and consent. "It is possible to consent to something that you actually do not want,” he explains in justifying his militant proposal. “Regardless of the reason, if a woman does not offer any resistance or say no, then her consent is assumed. So a man simply has to say he didn’t hear a ‘no’ but with a proper law on consent he would have to make sure that he had heard a ‘yes’."

Are Swedes the victims of a certain Swedish myth?

From the outset, Johanna Koljonen highlighted a paradox: how could so much misunderstanding continue to prevail in a country as egalitarian as Sweden, where feminism is an accepted dogma and where there are more safeguards to ensure respect for women’s rights than virtually anywhere else? Her response to this question is that we simply have to talk more about it.

In the Assange affair, two young women have accused the WikiLeaks co-founder of coercing them into having sex without a condom. In both cases, Julian Assange has denied that there was any assault, and insisted that both women had given their implicit consent. This misunderstanding and the fact that the women have been dragged through the mud — in particular on the Internet, where the theme has often been "they got what they deserved" — have contributed to the occasionally heated tone of the debate in Sweden. And Julian Assange himself has thrown petrol on the flames by announcing that Sweden is “the Saudi Arabia of feminism."

Perhaps the Swedes are the victims of a certain Swedish myth? In Summer with Monika (1953), Ingmar Bergman filmed the young Harriet Andersson, and emphasised her character’s liberated attitude to sex in a scene where she bathes naked, which has been credited with promoting the “Swedish sin" of assuming that an unattached woman is an easy lay. But if you do watch Summer with Monika, do not forget to look out for the moment where the camera follows Harriet Andersson as she prepares to go to bed with a man that she had decided to abandon — a shot that Jean-Luc Godard described "as the saddest in the history of cinema."

Translated from the French by Mark Mc Govern