Time for Sex in Sweden: Enhancing the Myth of the "Swedish Sin" during the 1950s

Article excerpt

FOR MORE THAN A THOUSAND YEARS foreign observers from various countries and professions have long evinced an interest in the sexual behavior of Scandinavians, both in their own habitat and when traveling overseas. Indeed, this dimension of human conduct is recorded in numerous contemporary descriptions of the Vikings. The theme re-emerged as a Leitmotiv centuries later. As the eminent historian of modern Sweden, Professor H. Arnold Barton, has observed, foreign travelers in Scandinavia have commented on sexual practices and mores there since the eighteenth century. This aspect of his study of certain British and French sojourners focused on male observations of Scandinavian female conduct during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods (108-12). During the first half of the twentieth century, however, what would eventually become a recurrent theme in descriptions of contemporary Swedish society, namely a stereotypical image of Sweden as a land of virtually unrestrained sexual freedom, was almost entirely absent from most foreigners' published accounts of life there. On the contrary, particularly British and American commentators concentrated almost exclusively on such unerotic matters as the unfolding of the welfare state, the social problems that had prompted its evolution, and the disputed consequences of heightened governmental intervention in the economy and social policy. This kind of description of modern Sweden reached an early high-water mark in the publication in 1936 of the endlessly quoted and affirmative Sweden: The Middle Way by the American journalist Marquis Childs, who focused on economic concerns and found in the policies of the Per Albin Hansson administration at least quasi-solutions for the Depression-ridden United States of America. To be sure, Childs and other North American defenders of the social welfare state did not remain unchallenged. Many conservative commentators either rejected wholesale what they perceived as heavy-handed governmental paternalism or gave it only mixed reviews. Writing in The American Mercury in 1939, for example, Fairfax Downy observed that "for some years now, Sweden has been presented in print as a small-scale Promised Land" and noted that during the past decade, i.e. since the collapse of the stock market, "many Swedish-Americans have returned to remain permanently, and emigration has been contemplated by not a few Americans." He asked the pivotal question: "Might [Sweden] be a refuge from the trials, tribulations, and bedeviling uncertainties of the New Deal?" (344). Downy could not deny some measure of success in Swedish society and openly praised several points on the positive side of the ledger, such as low rates of crime and unemployment, affordable housing, and an apparent immunity to the fascist movements that had gripped many other European countries. Less enviable, he thought, were inter alia the taxes paid by people in higher income brackets and the fact that modern conveniences lagged behind those enjoyed by middle-class Americans (344-6). But regardless of their stance vis-a-vis Social Democratic policy in Sweden, commentators before about 1950 almost invariably gave the matter of sexual liberty a wide berth. For whatever their reasons may have been, prior to that time it was not, apparently, in their eyes a current issue.

Less frequently, analytical treatments of Swedish society, including sexual issues related thereto, were published in professional journals in the United States of America. Perhaps most notably in this regard in the wake of Childs' ground-breaking book, an issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 1938 was devoted to "Social Problems and Policies in Sweden." In one of its detailed articles, Alva Myrdal explored the evolving economic and social status of Swedish women without, however, delving into such matters as the legalization of abortion, the notable increase in the number of unwed mothers, or governmental policies which addressed these phenomena. …