Warning: This post and links within contain depictions of sexual abuse and rape.
Society’s wrestled with the idea of what is and isn’t rape online since the dawn of avatars and chat rooms. Even before graphic user interfaces and the modern internet, “rape” happened in text-based servers—the most infamous, perhaps original, example documented in Julian Dibbell’s 1993 essay, “A Rape in Cyberspace,” which described abuse in a MUD server. In 2007, Belgium police investigated a Second Life user for “virtual rape.” World of Warcraft has a rape den. Harassment and abusive behavior in virtual worlds is rampant.
But on Thursday—in a first for Sweden, and possibly for the world—a court found a man guilty of rape over the internet. He’d coerced children in Canada, the US, and Britain into performing sexual acts in front of a webcam while he watched, by threatening them and their families if they didn’t comply, according to the Associated Press.
Prosecutors say that Bjorn Samstrom, a 41-year-old Swedish man, “threatened to post photos of the 26 girls and one boy on pornography sites or to kill their relatives unless they performed sex acts as he watched.” He targeted his victims, all under age 15, between 2015 and early 2017. He also recorded them, adding a child pornography possession charge to his sentencing of 10 years in prison and $131,590 total in damages to the victims.
Samstrom never met them in person, but Swedish law does not require penetrative intercourse to be considered “rape.”
“Most rape laws actually require the accused to have themselves sexually penetrated the victim, so in almost any other country it would be impossible to prosecute what happened here as rape,” James Chalmers, Regius professor of law at the University of Glasgow, told me in an email. “It will definitely set a precedent in Sweden, although it was already clear there that in principle there could be a rape conviction in a case like this.”
This is the first conviction of its kind in Sweden, and it’s probably the first conviction like this in any country.
Thursday’s ruling isn’t likely to lead to more rape prosecutions for this behavior in other countries or change precedents around the world, Chalmers said. “But it might encourage other countries to think about how they define rape in legislation.”