Fetishism goes pop culture: Sweden’s latest social trend

Even in Sweden, a country with traditionally liberal views about sexuality, fetishism has long been considered a taboo subject. But as The Local’s Rami Abdelrahman discovered recently, it appears that fetishism is finding a mainstream foothold in Swedish society.

Fetishism goes pop culture: Sweden’s latest social trend
Image: Lev Dolgachov; Anna Bäsén

In a rather bohemian café in Stockholm, a heterosexual fetishist couple walked in, dressed casually in jeans and shirts.

No leather, no chains, no whips, no gag balls and no flashing.

The lady found a corner for their 2-year-old baby’s stroller, while her man ordered two lattés. They then sat down facing one another and politely offered to tell about their fetishist lifestyle out of an interest to “spread knowledge about the culture.”

“I am the very woman you see reading a book on the metro or queuing shyly at the supermarket. I dress normally, have a normal job, normal friends and a normal life,” says Alexandra, 31 and a submissive slave.

After finishing her day job and evening grocery shopping, she goes home to clean and cook, dressed up as a “maid” from the 1950s, while waiting for her husband and “master”, Erik, 45, to come home from work.

“I get down on my knees; I take off his shoes and kiss his feet. I know my place and I love it. I love the look on his eyes when he acts as if he owns me and I am his little slave,” she says, looking Erik in the eye with a cheeky smile.

“Erik is my master and loving husband.”

The power play seems to remain within the confines of their rented three-room apartment in the south side of Stockholm, where they started a website to educate people about Fetishism and BDSM – short for Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism.

“We believe that there are so many curious people browsing the internet to learn more about their sexuality and intimate desires, so we thought we’d offer them a guide from our own experience,” says Master Erik.

This couple is one of many who challenge the traditional sexual relationships and try to find that “extra spice” that turns into an exhibitionist lifestyle for some, and remains a private endeavour for most.

BDSM is more widespread now in Sweden than most people realize, thanks in part to many symbolic sado-masochist references in pop culture and internet networking.

The spread of exhibitionist clubs as well as political lobbying among have also played a role, according to Anna Bäsén, a medical journalist at the Expressen newspaper and co-author of the sold out book “Pervers – Sex utöver det vanliga” (‘Perversion – sex that’s out of the ordinary’).

“It is not unusual to see Madonna or Britney Spears sporting SM clothes and dragging tied up men on their video clips on TV,” she said, noting this was not the norm a decade or two ago.

“We noticed that there is little informative literature about this culture in Sweden or Europe.”

Bäsén’s book, co-written by researcher Niklas Långström, looks into most kinks and fetishist preferences within the BDSM culture in Sweden from a medical, social, legal and psychological point of view.

“During the last five years or so, the internet has made it a lot easier for people who have different preferences to meet others who share their preferences, especially sexual interests,” Bäsén explains.

“The club scene has become bigger: there are clubs like Dekadance, Whipclub, Swedish Leather Men – SLM, Lash, Club Sade, Club Sunrise and many more. However, people also arrange private parties.”

She noted that from a legal point of view, private parties enable people to enjoy their sexual preferences without breaking the law – for example, being dressed in German SS Army uniforms, or flashing sexual organs to people who appreciate that kind of “classical exhibitionism.”

Swedish society has also become more accepting of such alternative lifestyles, she says.

This trend was marked officially at the beginning of 2009, when the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) removed Fetishism, Transvestism, and Sadomasochism from its lists of symptoms and sicknesses.

“There are men who feel like going to work dressed in women clothes, and that should not be regarded as sick or illegal,” says Bäsén.

“Nobody rings the Swedish Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan) to get their sick leave benefits because they can’t make it to work when they are feeling a little bit sadomasochistic.”

However, she said Swedes remain somewhat less accepting than Danes, for example, because the media in Denmark has long been writing about this subculture.

On the other hand, Swedish culture is more accepting than the UK, where tabloids publish “juicy” pictures of politicians doing fetishist activities.

“There are of course politicians, doctors, teachers, and people from all walks of life with fetishist or sadomasochistic interests,” explains Bäsén.

One Swedish politician with fetishist preferences is Madame Lisa, 29, a “polygamous dominatrix.”

She sits on the education board in one of Stockholm’s archipelago islands, representing one of the main ruling parties. She says her sexual preferences never interfere with her job.

“I am a small girl in size, and I love to tie up tall and muscular men and give them a good beating or trample on their bodies with my high heels. To make them feel worthless makes me feel very special and strong…I pick my partners on an internet portal, and most of them ask for more…sometimes there is no sexual contact at all, just sadism.”

She says her sadistic sessions are simply something she does on the weekends, and she has a policy not to leave marks on the face or arms of her partners so they do not feel embarrassed when doing their day jobs.

The Madame went on to explain that the only hindrance to her living up her full dreams is that her neighbours send her letters about “too much noise.”

She said she would love to move into one of the Fetishist Collectives around Sweden, if it wasn’t for her permanent job.

“The Lighthouse” is one such collective located just outside Malmö.

According to its founder, there are rooms and facilities for all sorts of interests ranging from golden showers, fake blood baths, student-teacher role-play, confessional room play, doctor-patient role-play, animal role-play, body suspension units, a Kama Sutra themed room, and more.

But most importantly, “everyone who lives in the house understands and respects each others’ needs and is not bothered by their lifestyle.”

Bäsén insists that there are still many stereotypes about the BDSM sub-culture, like assuming that people with such interests have lots of piercings, wear leather clothes, and are more inclined to be criminals than “normal” people.

But in reality, things are often quite the opposite.

According to Bäsén, research shows that fetishists and sadomasochists are actually very ordinary people who, in many instances, come from the more well-to-do ranks of society.

“A lot of people have these interests to some degree,” she says, adding that, “it’s pretty normal to be abnormal.”

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EXPLAINED: What to do if you face a long wait for healthcare in Sweden

Sweden theoretically has a "healthcare guarantee" limiting your wait to see a GP to three days, and to see a consultant to three months. The reality is somewhat different. Here's what you can do if you face a long wait.

EXPLAINED: What to do if you face a long wait for healthcare in Sweden

What is Sweden’s ‘healthcare guarantee’? 

Sweden’s “National Guaranteed Access to Healthcare” or vårdgaranti, is a right to care, protected by law, that has applied in Sweden since 2005. You can see the latest version of the relevant laws here and here. Here is a summary of the guarantee on the website of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKR).

Under the system, all patients are guaranteed:

  • contact with a primary care centre by phone, in-person, or by video-link on the day they seek care 
  • an appointment with a doctor, nurse, physio, or psychotherapist within three days of seeking help 
  • an appointment with a specialist doctor or consultant within 90 days of seeking help 
  • treatment or operation within 90 days, if the specialist considers this necessary 

Does the guarantee mean I have a right to treatment? 

No. If the doctor at the primary care centre, after examining you and questioning you, decides that there is no reason to refer you to a specialist doctor, they do not need to do so. 

Similarly, if the specialist doctor, after examining you, decides that no treatment is necessary, then your case is considered completed.  

Can the waiting times to see a specialist or to get treatment be longer than 90 days? 

Absolutely. In fact, they very often are. 

According to the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKR), in February, 32 percent of patients had been waiting 90 days or more to see a specialist, and 43 percent of those who had seen a specialist had been waiting for treatment for more than 90 days.  

The situation in primary care was a little better, with 80 percent of those seeking care in contact with their primary care centre on the same day, and 83 percent having their case assessed by a doctor or nurse within three days. 

In addition, if you agree with your specialist doctor that you are willing to wait longer for an operation, then that wait doesn’t get counted in the statistics. 

So what can I do if I’ve been waiting longer than the guaranteed time? 

In reality, it’s actually less a guarantee than a target.

In primary care, there is no way for individual patients to complain that they have had to wait too long to see a doctor or nurse, or to cut their waiting times by citing the guarantee. 

“There’s no system for enforcing that guarantee,” says Emma Spak, the primary care doctor who doubles as section chief for SKR’s healthcare division. 

It would make no sense to set up a complaints line for those who have had to wait too long for phone contact with their primary care centre, she points out, when they could instead talk to patients seeking a primary care appointment in the first place. 

“It’s more of an incentive system for the regions,” she explains.

Every primary care unit and every region reports their waiting times to the national waiting time register, and then as part of the access agreement between SKR and the government, the regional health authorities receive a bonus if they meet their waiting times goal, or if they improve their waiting times. “That’s one way of sort of enforcing this guarantee,” she says. 

When it comes to specialist treatment, though, patients do have the right to demand to be examined or treated by an alternative specialist or hospital if they’ve had to wait longer than 90 days.

If your primary care centre issues you a referral to a specialist, and the specialist cannot then offer you an appointment within 90 days, the specialist, at the same time as offering you a later appointment, will often put you in contact with a unit at the regional health authority who will offer to find you an alternative specialist, either within the region or elsewhere in Sweden. 

The regional health authority will then have to reimburse any extra travel or hotel costs incurred by the patient.  

Similarly, if after examining you, a specialist cannot offer you treatment within 90 days, they will normally put you in contact with the same unit. 

Some regions have a phone line for people who have been waiting too long, or else you can contact your specialist or primary care centre and ask for information on seeking an alternative specialist. 

What happens if I don’t want to travel to see a specialist or get treatment? 

If your regional health authority offers you an alternative specialist, either within your region or in another region, so that you can get treated within the 90 day period, and you are unwilling to travel, then you lose your rights under the guarantee. . 

“If you’re in Gothenburg, and they say you have to go to Stockholm to get your treatment, and you say, ‘no, I want to go here, then then you’ve sort of forfeited your right, and you have to take what’s on offer,” Spak says. 

What happens if I agree with my specialist to wait longer? 

If your specialist says that they can treat you in four months, but also offers you treatment elsewhere within the guaranteed 90 days, and you choose to be treated by your specialist, then that counts as a patient choice, which will not then be counted in the statistics. 

“The specialist might say, ‘I don’t think you will get any worse for waiting two months extra, and if you wait five months, then I can make sure that you get your surgery done here, and we can make sure that you get all the aftercare and everything here as well,” Spak says. 

But these patient decisions are also counted in the statistics, and if a region sees a sharp rise in patients choosing to wait, SKR will tend to investigate. 

“If some region all of a sudden has a lot of patients choosing a longer waiting time, then we will call them and ask what’s going on here, because patients don’t tend to want to wait extra,” Spak says.  

Can I get financial compensation if I’ve been waiting too long? 


What other ways are there of speeding up the wait for treatment? 

Don’t underplay your symptoms

When drawing up their timetable for treatment and assessment, specialists will tend to give different patients different wait times depending on the urgency of their case.

For this reason, it’s important not to underplay your symptoms when visiting a primary care doctor, as they will tend to include a few lines on the urgency of your case when they write their referral. 

Stress your flexibility 

If you are unemployed, a student, retired, or have a very flexible job, it is worth telling your primary care doctor about this, because they may write in your referral that you are able to make appointments at very short notice. The specialist may then put you on their list of people to ring if one of their patients cancels. 

“Sometimes I write in my referrals that this patient could easily come at short notice, so please put the patient on the list for people you can call if there’s a time slot available,” Spak says. 

If you haven’t told your primary care doctor this, it’s not too late. You can ring the specialist yourself and tell their receptionist that you are very flexible, and ask to be put on the back-up list. This is particularly useful if you’re waiting for a scan, but you could also potentially work even if you’re waiting for heart surgery or a hip replacement. 

“If they’ve accepted you as a patient, and they’ve made sure that you fulfil the criteria for having that scan or whatever, then you can call them and say, ‘I have a really flexible job, I can come anytime if you have a gap,'” Spak says.

“A lot of people do that, because they can have [back-up] waiting lists. If you tell them ‘I work around the corner and I only need 15 minutes to be there’, then they might call you if someone doesn’t show up.” 

Ring up your specialist 

The queue system tends to be quite ad hoc, with no strict rules over who should be treated first, so it is often possible to reduce your wait by ringing up your specialist a few times a month, just to bring your case to their attention. Sometimes the receptionist will remember a slot that has just come free and bring forward your treatment while you are still on the telephone.