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Protagonist or puritan? The truth about Sweden and porn

Christine Demsteader · 13 May 2006, 10:48

Published: 13 May 2006 10:48 GMT+02:00

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The essence of the 60s free-love movement was captured on film by Swedish writer and director Vilgot Sjöman, who died in April. On screen, he daringly explored the themes of homosexuality, incest and pushed the boundaries of censorship to the extreme in his most famous movie I Am Curious – Yellow (Jag är Nyfiken – Gul) in 1967.

The full-frontal nudity and intimate sex scenes sent shudders around Britain where censors cut 11 minutes of illicit action. In the US the film was publicly condemned and banned in all but two cities. But notoriety bred intrigue which guaranteed large audiences. The film, and its saucy 1968 sequel, I am Curious (Blue), successfully stretched the realms of decency and became box-office hits.

Swedish film had already proven sexually contentious in the previous decade. The 1951 film Hon Dansade en Sommar (One Summer of Happiness) was a portrayal of a teenage summer romance, set in the Swedish countryside. There was naked frolicking in the fields a-plenty and the bare-breasted female lead gave it that extra-special shock factor.

Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika followed suit in 1953. More frisky goings-on ensued, this time in the Stockholm archipelago, along with a tale of young love, pre-marital procreation and promiscuity. The Swedish Film Institute gave its approval, once selected scenes were relegated to the cutting-room floor. But by far the biggest outcry came from overseas.

Swedish cinema was inadvertently giving the impression that their women were easy, says Lena Lennerhed, professor in history of ideas at Södertörn University College and chair of The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU).

“These films implied that Swedish women could have sex before marriage; that they could want it and it was okay,” she says. The Swedes cried art while others shouted porn. Mud sticks, as they say, and this was getting dirty.

In 1955, Joe David Brown coined the expression “Swedish sin” in a Time magazine article. “…sexual moral standards in Sweden today are jolting to an outsider,” he wrote.

“Statistics show that there are at least 27,000 unmarried mothers. Admittedly it is a Christian virtue to show kindness and tolerance to unwed mothers, but in Sweden they are practically heroines.”

In the same year, sex education was made compulsory in Swedish schools – which fuelled Brown’s debate – and his critical outburst gave Sweden a bad name.

“His writing was very negative and he managed to win over many followers” Lennerhed says.

“A lot of myths were spread but still, a lot of men went to Sweden to find out for themselves.”

And they probably have a lot to thank Berth Milton Sr for. The astute Swedish businessman’s filthy rich fortune was hardcore. Pornography was to become his rise and downfall and the former playboy died in seclusion on New Year’s Eve.

Milton Sr left the sleazy world of car salesmanship to enter the sordid sex industry and pioneered the top shelf glossy. In 1965, Milton Sr founded Private, the first commercial full-colour porn magazine and the first publication of its kind to show explicit pictures.

Private’s story is as eye-opening as a centre-page spread. The porn king’s jet-set lifestyle of planes, fast cars and young women took its toll on his finances and family liaisons. A loveless relationship with his son from an early age turned aggressively acrimonious in later life. Berth Milton Jr vowed never to follow his father’s footsteps but couldn’t resist the lure of superseding him in business and profit.

In 1990 Milton Jr bought Private and moved its headquarters to Barcelona, sensing a growing reluctance to embrace pornography at home.

Even today, Swedes in business will proudly discuss their multinational trademarks- Volvo, IKEA and Ericsson – which are known and respected around the world. But they rarely mention the company that has become a pioneer in its field.

Milton Jr presided over Private’s transformation and turned the ailing, debt-ridden magazine into a lucrative porn emporium. But the buy-out sparked a bitter feud between father and son over the ownership of the Private trademark. A soap-opera tale of blackmail, tax evasion and criminal gangs ensued; Milton Sr officially lost the fight in 2005, and by then the two had not spoken in over a decade.

The Private Media Group went public in 1999 when it was listed on Nasdaq - the first pornographic company to do so. Today, its portfolio includes four magazines, DVDs, a 24-hour internet channel and annual revenues around the $50 million mark.

Thanks to the likes of Sjöman and Milton, Sweden was indeed swinging sexually in the 60s. The country had shown the world it had something of a smutty side, in contrast to its squeaky-clean façade. The lewd label stuck throughout the 70s when German males were carefully pruning their porn moustaches. Adult movies were affectionately dubbed “Schwedenfilm” in tribute to the promised land of porn that perhaps wasn’t.

What was apparent in Sweden at that time was a liberal attitude towards nudity. Like the 70s hippy generation exposed in Lukas Moodysson’s film Tillsammans (2000), many enjoyed freedom of expression as well as freedom of attire.

Swedes do tend to turn a blind eye to a bare bum, a pair of breasts and a whole lot more. Who can forget Naken Janne - the naturist docusoaper who proudly paraded his wares without being locked up for public indecency?

Letting it all hang out is not a crime in Sweden. Nude enthusiasts can lawfully don their birthday suit in the countryside, going au naturel in nature. Allemansrätt does not discriminate against those who dare to bare - so long as they pick up their rubbish and respect the flowers.

However, the nation’s liberal attitude towards nudity is often misinterpreted by outsiders. The naked truth is that Swedes are a virtuous bunch when it comes to sexual behaviour.

As Lena Lennerhed says: “If visitors, especially male visitors, come to Sweden with the 1960s vision in their heads, they will undoubtedly leave disappointed.”

At the same time, public intolerance to porn is on the rise. Last year, Swedish civil servants, soldiers and politicians were banned from staying at hotels offering pornographic TV after a government agency blacklisted accommodation with x-rated viewing options.

The Swedish Prison Service recently sought to ban convicted sex offenders from receiving pornographic material in prison. It is now appealing against a ruling which deemed freedom of information more important than the threat posed by criminals who are allowed access to porn.

This wave of leniency is rather baffling when a billboard of a scantily-clad Freddie Ljungberg was recently banned by Stockholm city bureaucrats. “Too sexist,” they said. “Too bad,” was the gay community’s retort.

Indeed, while the international media uses same-sex saunas with leggy blondes as a metaphor for Sweden, who takes any notice of the country’s sexual equality movement? Today, pornography has become part of the great gender debate.

“It’s not just about the sex anymore,” Lena Lennerhed says.

“It's also about using women for men to consume. The liberal Swedish opinion of the 60s was first criticized in the 70s when the women’s movement began to discuss pornography from a gender perspective. But feminists today are largely divided on the issue.”

Story continues below…

Not according to Gudrun Schyman, Sweden’s first lady of liberation and leader of the Feminist Initiative, a party dedicated to feminist issues.

“The government must work harder to prevent the exploitation of women within the porn industry and that’s a widespread attitude in our party,” she says.

“We don’t want to abolish all pornography. And how do you define what is porn and what is erotic art anyway? I mean, who’s to say the naked paintings on my wall are pornographic?”

Who indeed - presumably, Gudrun would have allowed Freddie to stay put in Stureplan.

The Feminist Initiative has lent its support to The National Organization for Women's Shelters in Sweden (ROKS) which has fought tirelessly with claims that violence in x-rated movies leads to increased abuse of women. As has the government, faced with rising publicity of violent sexual crimes and high-profile cases such as the Haga Man.

But history has proven there is no place for porn in Swedish politics. In 2000 the Left Party expelled one of its members because of his “morally unacceptable” behaviour. Göran Eurenius, who had served as a local councillor for two years, was a porn actor with more than 10 adult films under his belt. Quite literally.

Meanwhile, the Christian Democrats had to bury their blushes behind their bibles in 2002 when party member Teres Kirpikli called for porn to be broadcast freely on Saturday evenings. Procreation was her argument – people would feel like having more sex and more children would help boost the economy. Contrary to the official party line of banning all pornography in the media, Ms Kirpikli later withdrew her comments and her membership.

The truth behind the Swedish porn story remains a saga of hardcore fact and limp fiction. The classic 1977 home-grown porn film Fäbojäntan, however, turns erroneous belief into erogenous truth.

Even today, almost thirty years later, most Swedes could tell you that when you’re all out of pasta and ketchup the famous Falukorv scene provides handy inspiration.

Discuss this topic!

Christine Demsteader (christine.demsteader@thelocal.se)

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