What most defines Sweden—its welfare state, Lutheranism, sex or Pippi Longstocking? Having lived there for 8 years, I've discovered it's much more complicated than we thinkby Jonathan Power / July 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
An examination of the Swedish soul must begin, I’m afraid, with sex. Not Volvo, not IKEA, not Alfa Laval nor H&M. Not Strindberg nor Dagerman nor even Astrid Lindgren and Pippi Longstocking. Not the welfare state, not income equality nor criminal justice. Not the Lutheran Church nor collective bargaining. Not the Vikings nor 200 years without war. It’s that three letter word—and the half-myth about Swedish promiscuity—that is our starting point.
The town I live in, Lund, across the bridge from Copenhagen, hosts not only Scandinavia’s oldest university and cathedral, it is full of high-tech companies including some of the ones mentioned above and many computer technology, biotech and pharmaceutical start-ups. It is where I have lived for the last eight years. It hosts thousand of students and the weekends are notoriously wild. But the students are bright and after I’ve given a lecture I like to take those who want to out for a drink.
Inevitably, the subject turns to sex and marriage. I’ll never forget asking one group what they thought of marriage in a country where most educated young people (and half go to university) don’t get married or bear children until they are well over 30. A young woman gave me a thoughtful answer and so I asked her, “What are you looking for in a husband?” Without batting an eye or pausing for thought, she answered: “Three things. One, he must be good in bed. Two, he must be a good father. Three, when we divorce, he mustn’t be bitter.”
I’ve tried this story out on all sorts of Swedes, and all ages, and they laugh a bit self-consciously and nod and say, “That’s true,” or “I’m afraid so.” But if my student had been a little fairer she would have added that most Swedish men push the pram, do the nappies, get up in the night and help clean the house. Many, too, take at least six months off to look after the baby while the woman goes back to work.
Young students I know well, even though they are in a happy and what they call “permanent relationship” will say that they have no intention of getting married. Children, yes, but not until they are at least 35. Today’s 35s still get married, although usually after the children are born. My generation universally did marry. But all three generations and a good part of the one before believe you should have all the sex you can reasonably find before marriage. Mind you, this generation is different in that it doesn’t mate for love but for pleasure. The students here are big on one-night stands with people they barely know. (Their mothers and fathers are rather appalled.)