‘MeToo’ changes even rowdy ‘russ’

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After months of exposing and shaming virtually every sector of Norwegian life, from academia and the arts to finance and not least politics, the international “MeToo” campaign against sexual harassment now even seems set to tame Norway’s traditionally shameless russ. They’re the graduating high school students known for ruthless partying, but this year’s rowdy russ season may be different, reined in by the MeToo revolution.

Norway’s graduating high school students known as russ (roughly pronounced “roose”) dress in blue or red overalls and spend several weeks during the spring partying and following their own rules, which often have encouraged sexual harassment. Now, in the wake of the “MeToo” revolution, that’s due to change. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

The party season starts soon, and runs at full speed from Easter through Norway’s Constitution Day on the 17th of May. It’s best known for its so-called knuteregler, the “rules” that encourage various forms of outrageous behaviour often with blatantly sexual overtones.

Now some of those “rules” are being dropped. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Thursday that russ in Vestfold County, for example, have cut their rules from nearly 100 to around 80. The ones cut had encouraged the sexual harassment that’s long been tolerated but now is bashed as a result of MeToo.

Among the rules dropped in Vestfold: Fondling a first-year student, staring for five minutes at the sexual organ of a fellow russ and grabbing a teacher in the buttox. None of those will result in any form of praise this year, or a cherished knute (knot or marker) in the tassels of student caps.

Setting an example
The board of the Vestfold russ has also banned any rules that encourage sexual contact or that sexually harass minors or teachers. “There have been cases of rape and sexual harassment every year, and more cases of it have come forth through the MeToo campaign,” Caroline Thomessen, vice-president of the russ’ board at Greveskogen High School in Tønsberg, told NRK. “We want to prevent it from happening this year, too.”

Thomessen, who’s also on the russ board for all of Vestfold County, said that by removing incentives for what can only be considered harassment or even assault, “we at least aren’t contributing” to it anymore.

Jonathan Smith Udnæs, leader of the Vestfold board, said he’s aiming for “quality” behind this year’s rules and incentives, and hopes the Vestfold russ can set a good example for other russ. Bård Rune Landa, principal at Greveskogen High School, was glad the rules involving younger students have been removed. “It looks like the russ have acknowledged what’s behind MeToo regarding power, abuse of power and sexuality,” Landa told NRK,  “and are taking more responsibility for their acts.”

Norway’s new ‘Scream’
The MeToo revolution has swept over Norway to a degree that’s surprised Norwegians who thought they lived in a country that values human rights, equality, law and order. Instead the MeToo campaign has brought forth stories of rampant sexual harassment, assault and abuse of power within business, finance, health care, real estate and academia. Dancers, actors, film stars and musicians have shared their accounts of harassment over the years. It’s especially rampant within the restaurant and entertainment industries, but also in media and within law firms. Harassment cases within political parties have soared.

“MeToo has been a scream, a wave of sorrow and anger,” declared a former news anchor for TV2 in Norway, Maren Anne Terjesen, who had her own story to tell of harassment by superiors. Even Kristin Skogen Lund, the head of Norway’s national employers organization NHO and thereby one of the most powerful persons in the country with a long history of executive posts, had stories to tell. Lund remained silent well into the MeToo campaign, but spoke out late last fall.

Kristin Skogen Lund, shown here speaking at the recent Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, is one of the most powerful business leaders in Norway. She finally admitted to having experienced harassment, too, and claims it’s been “widespread” in Norway. PHOTO: Arctic Frontiers 2018/Alberto Grohovaz

“Sexual harassment in the business world is very widespread,” Lund told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). She said the problem was greatest while traveling abroad, “but I’ve also experienced it in Norway.” The worst thing, she said, was when colleagues witnessed sexual harassment but didn’t object, say or do anything to help. “Then you can feel very alone, and humiliated,” Lund said.

MeToo has changed attitudes, and prompted many men to finally speak up and against harassment. It’s simply no longer cool or acceptable. “I think there will be some big changes now,” Lund said. Maybe not as concrete as those imposed by the Vestfold russ, but the playing field is leveling out and political parties, for example, are all toughening up their guidelines and regulations against it. “Now women understand that (harassment) is not okay, while those who have committed such acts will have second thoughts,” Lund said. At the same time, she claimed, harassment is an issue now discussed at the highest levels of management and on boards of directors. The recent rash of disclosures among politicians have led to their public humiliation and them being stripped of important posts.

‘About power and structures’
The soul-searching is likely to continue, with government ministers like Torbjørn Røe Isaksen of the Conservatives shaking his head and wondering out loud to DN “why haven’t we managed to do anything about this earlier?” following a rash of complaints filed against some party colleagues. In the finance world, a trade association for brokerage firms is among those cracking down on a “testosterone-fueled bad boys culture.”

“This hasn’t been just about sex, but about power and structures,” Dr Johanne Sundby, a 66-year-old professor at the University of Oslo, told newspaper Aftenposten. More than 3,200 doctors in Norway signed a petition last fall against the sexual harassment that’s also plagued Norwegian hospitals. “I think this (medical) sector has been very much a hierarchy, to a large degree a men’s club where women didn’t have access,” Sundby said. “As more and more women came into the profession, I think some of the older men didn’t like it, and resorted to sexual harassment as a power play.” Dr Guro Haugen Fossum added that she thinks the male-dominated culture has been passed on from older to younger doctors. That pattern is likely in many other branches, from high finance and banking to industry and sports.

Now some young russ may turn that tide, but  Caroline Thomessen of the russ in Tønsberg stressed that not all sexually oriented “rules” for the party season have been eliminated: Having protected sex outdoors in a forest can still earn the participants a pinecone in their student cap tassels. “We can’t take all the fun out of it,” Thomessen told NRK with a smile.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund