The Other Swedish Model

Gender, sex and culture, by Laura Agustín

The pleasures of dissent: Not?

At a drinks reception not long ago I referred nonchalantly to the fact that Sweden is supposedly the world’s most gender-equal state. A shiver was felt; eyes rolled. Had I said supposedly? Was I actually questioning Sweden’s version of Gender Equality – jämställdhet? That, it seems, is practically taboo in Sweden.womanwalk

A spate of articles on ‘the Swedish model’ appeared during the recent US debate about health care. The term usually refers to a generous welfare state funded by high taxes that is not ‘socialist’ but free-market: tricky. But another aspect of Swedish government and culture captures the imagination of many round the world: contemporary gender policy, ideas about sex and equality. According to several important statistical indicators, Sweden leads the way in promoting equal rights between women and men – important achievements. But in other ways that can’t be captured by statistics the picture is not so clear. There are doubts and disputes, and those happen right here inside Sweden – not to mention between Swedes wherever they live, as Anna Anka bizarrely showed.

The word consensus is often used to describe how issues like gender equality are understood in Sweden. This has bothered me because the word seems to imply that all Swedes have participated in marxian study groups to discuss social questions in depth and come to reasoned general positions. This is not the case: Gender policy is government policy, no more and no less, even if it was the cornerstone of Social Democratic government at its shiningest hour. There are Swedes who feel that this policy has become a rigid ideology that goes too far, but their opinions are rarely seen in the more highly respected mainstream media. This means that most people in Sweden don’t know there are disputes and may frown heavily when hearing them. This is too bad, because the issues are thorny, interesting and worthy of public debate.

By saying that, I clearly reveal my own bias towards interesting disagreement that can push us forward to new ideas. In the many countries and cultures I’ve lived in, differences of opinion are viewed as potentially productive. Even outright dictatorships believe that, which is why they forbid free speech. In Sweden, however, I am told again and again, conflict is considered negative; the goal is to coexist together agreeably. Vara sams: to be on good terms. Osams is bad: being at loggerheads, falling out. ”We just want to exchange the same ideas and tastes,’ said Åke Daun, author of Svensk Mentalitet. Swedes are said to suffer from konflikträdsla, fear of conflict, and therefore feel uncomfortable when dissenting views are aired.

I have no interest in setting up a cultural hierarchy in which Sweden loses status in favour of some other, supposedly better culture. I’ve never lived anywhere that didn’t have very good points and very bad ones simultaneously. No, I’m  interested in ideas about gender and sex and how Sweden got where it is – a sort of anthropological point of view.

For those who wish each nation to be left to itself by outsiders, it’s important to note that the Swedish government itself doesn’t do that on this topic. In contrast to 1969, when Susan Sontag wrote that ‘Swedes were not disposed by temperament to export aggressively what they practice,’ today’s government speaks of the Swedish ‘mission’ to enlighten the world’s policy, for example in the Swedish Institute’s project, Equal Opportunities – Sweden Paves the Way, an exhibition available for use in international conferences and seminars. Projects to export ideology always bear watching.

I’ve lived here for a year and meet Swedes all the time who don’t agree with some aspects of national gender policy. They would like to see much more diversity in mainstream media discussions, including arguments, with the possibility of changes to policy. They  feel marginalised by the mainstream exclusion and disapproval of their views. I live in Malmö ( the subversive south to some) but the disgruntled Swedes I know live all over the country. 

I’ll link when I can to Swedish writers’ work, in books and articles and blogs, and take a historical view when possible. Policies and values that made wonderful sense at one time can seem oddly outdated only a decade later, rather like hairstyles. Zeitgeists are funny things; cultural contexts shift; a word that once seemed self-evident now rings untrue. Originally, jämställdhet referred to equality in general (jämn numbers are even numbers), particularly the goal of abolishing social class. Now when the word is used it is understood to mean, overarchingly, gender equality.

My own first ideas on Swedish gender policy appeared in The Local earlier this year as Is rape rampant in gender-equal Sweden? I’ve been writing on the subject of irregular migration (unauthorised, undocumented) for many years. The other night I gave a talk as part of Malmö’s Latinamerika i Fokus Film och Kulturfestival . The topic was undocumented migration: how it works on the ground, how people travel and work outside formal structures. If the connexion with gender policy seems unclear, wait for further posts.

Laura Agustín

Border Thinking

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13 responses to “The pleasures of dissent: Not?”

  1. wow.

    Laura, you continue to write thoughtful, humane and directed inquiries and observations about these various ‘identity’ conversations of gender, sex, etc. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy your work. I’ve tweeted this already and added your new blog to our google-reader.


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  2. Andrea says:

    I would ask anyone who says that Swedish men and women are equal to name ten high ranking company Chief Executive Officers in Sweden.

    Women are equal for the social services but not in the business sector.

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  3. fruitbat says:

    Sweden’s gender policy is one of really few things that Swedes allow themselves to brag about, and at the same time it is one of few subjects where critique isn’t welcome (perhaps for that very reason). This is a promising start, and I’ll follow your blog with great interest!

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  4. eric says:

    You have been living here for 1 year, yet seem to have such a deep understanding of the Swedish psyche. Pardon me, but I am suspicious. You quote authors that write on these issues, so doesn’t that mean debate and argument exist?

    What happens if you ask an American ( I am one by the way) in America about what they think about much higher taxes and a social welfare system to support almost everyone? My experience is the debate is cut pretty quickly. People are willing to debate certain issues, and other issues are, in a way taboo. This condition exists everywhere.

    Just a few questions: Do you read newspapers in Swedish? Living here for 1 year, have you learned the language and do you watch the debate programs on tv?


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  5. Thaddeus Blanchette says:

    A few years ago, we here in Rio de Janeiro played host to the Swedish anti-trafficking embassador and the chief of police of Gothemberg as they tried to enlighten us about prostitution and its negative effects on women.

    These individuals seemed to have a very strict agenda regarding gender which absolutely precluded any opinions other than their own. Prostitution, according to them, was an unmitigated evil which was synonymous with human trafficking and rape. Pretty much anything was justified in the name of prohibiting prostitution. (It was also interesting to note that to these Swedes, prostitution was something which could only occur between a female prostitute and a male client – the reverse was pretty much unthinkable).

    Now, self-prostituion by adults is considered legal in Brazil and many of us in the audience begged to differ from the opinion that comercial sex in any form inevitably led to the degradation of women. Others in the audience commented that it might be all well and good for 1st world Sweden to take what they considered to be “the high road”, but in Brazil – where salaries earned for the sale of sex routinely outstrip the minimum wage earned by the majority of female workers by a factor of 4 to 6 to one – things were different.

    All of these opinions were hand-waved away as so much uncivilized barbarian malarkey. Rarely have I seen representatives from a foreign nation so openly embrace a social darwinistic rationale for justifying why their country’s laws and customs were different from Brazil’s. For a moment, it was if I haad been time-warped back to the beeginning of the 20th century.

    What really appalled me, however, was the Chief’s report that the most useful technique that the Gothemberg Police had developed to combat trafficking and prostitution was ethnic profiling.

    At that point I began to feel that I’d fallen down the White Rabbit’s hole.

    I mean, here were the designated representatives of “liberal, progressive, human rights supportive” Sweden in the anti-trafficking struggle cheerfully affirming that an incredibly injust and racist repressive tactic needed to be used “in the name of the common good” to fight the evil scourge that was prostitution.

    The Chief topped it all off with the following rather stunning observation: “I’ve never met a foriegn prostitute who WASN’T a trafficking victim”. When asked to explain this comment further, he let it be known that it was standard policy in his department to hold suspected foreign prostitutes in jail UNTIL they were willing to sign a confession that they had been trafficked and were willing to testify to that effect in court.

    In other words, while prostitution is supposedly not illegal in Sweden (technically, as far as I understand it, only being a prostitute’s client is illegal), if the prostitute is foreign and picked up in a vice raid, she will be held under any other charge that can be dreamed up (usually immigration related) until she’s willing to cop a plea as a trafficking victim.

    In this way, Gothemberg actively TRANSFORMS foreign sex workers into trafficking victims.

    The Swedes wrapped up their dog-and-pony show with a rather stunning demonstration of how they were completely unable to follow even their own affirmations to their logical conclusion. They’d been telling us for the whole evening that unless they pressure women to accept the label “trafficking victim” and turn State’s evidence against clients and brothel owners, the women wouldn’t do this “because they are so terrified of the horrible reprisals they would suffer for such an act in their home country”.

    I mean, the poor women, right? Coming from those barbarous, mafia-controlled nations which do not have the benefit of Sweden`s enlightened government, of COURSE they`d be leary to turn State`s evidence because we all know that their mafia handlers will kill them if they do so.

    So given this logic, what does Sweden see fit to do with these women AFTER they testify? Why deport them right back to their countries of origin where, if we are to believe the Swedes` arguments, they are in mortal danger from mafia hitmen. And all this in the name of ~protecting women~…

    After the presentation, I walked up to the Ambassador and asked her if she was aware of the fact that she was advocating a legal structure which rewarded false witness and actively fabricated charges of trafficking.

    “Think about it,” I said. “If I’m a Brazilian woman caught turning tricks in Gothemberg, I have basically two choices. I can stick to my guns and say I’m a self-employed prostitute and see nothing wrong with this. In this case, I will be held in jail until I am deported for violating Swedish work and immigration laws. Or I can break down and claim to be a trafficking victim. In this case, I’m released from jail and can stay in the country for up to six months more while the trial against my supposed oppressors is being prepared. Furthermore, at the end of this period, I will be ‘repatriated’ and not deported, which is an important distinction in Brazil, given that Brazilian deportees lose all future right to a passport.”

    The Ambassatrix flatly admitted that, yes, manufacturing of false witness was a problem with the Swedish system but, on the whole, the good in the process far outweighs the bad.

    I was flabergasted. The Swedes were basically saying that, in their police-political structure that dealt with prostitution, there was no need for checks and balances or even for the oversight of human rights because we should basically just ttake the nation at its humanitarian intentions and presume that, by and large, Swedish police officers wouldn’t abuse their legal powers, even wheen they had every human incentive to do so.

    This was exactly the same sort of repressive, traditionalist and – dare I say it? – paternalist view of vice operations thhat Brazilian prostitute leaders like Gabriela Leite revolted against in the closing days of our country`s military dictatorship.

    Needless to say, I left the event with an extremely negative view of the Swedish laws regarding prostitution and an even more negative view of Swedish views of their country`s cultural and legal competence.

    If Sweden seriously believed its own official BS about prostitution and trafficking, then any foreign prostitute’s testimony against traffickers or clients would IMMEDIATELY be accompanied by political asylum and an offer of permanent residency. I suspect that if this were to be made part of Swedish law, however, the number of trafficking prosecutions would drop drastically.

    Until Sweden changes its laws to reflect what they claim “the real situation” of trafficking is, no one out here in the rest of the world should tkae their anti-trafficking policy to be anything more than a politically correct and particulalry noisome and hypocritical form of immigration control.

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  6. Claudia says:

    I’ve also been in Rio de Janeiro and seen that coming from Sweedish authorities and they almost got hit by the President of the Union of Sex Workers and in Portugal it’s pretty much the same they are considered victims and labeled as so, even if they say they’re not! One police officer told me that it’s because they’re exploited “How?”, because they receive less that they should, how is that if it’s not legalized??
    So, it was pretty weird and in a grey area.
    A couple of years ago we didn’t had any trafficking victims, nowadays we have an observatorium and all!

    Also this Swedish way of live it really get into people because I have brazilian friends living in Sweden repeating it as well, that prostitutes are victims.

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  7. Thaddeus Blanchette says:

    The more I look at this topic (prostitution), the more I come to the conclusion that the REAL point of repression is not to save women, but to maintain prostitutes in a subordinate, powerless position as much as possible.

    This is why I find the Swedish model to be absolutely hypocritical.

    In every other struggle for justice on the planet, it is clearly seen and noted that the main problem is empowering the oppressed. In every other struggle for justice on the planet, this means bringing the oppressed into institutional decision-making structures.

    We have no trouble seeing this dynamic when the oppressed are landless peasants, urban squatters, ethnic minorities, workers, or indigenous groups. But suddenly, when the supposed oppressed are prostitutes, their so-called “allies” revert to a “noblise oblige” model where all power should be STRIPPED from the “victimized” group and placed in the hands of authorities who will supposedly act in their best interests – despite never having done so before.

    It is amazing to me that supposedly left, feminist – even marxist – thinkers cannot see this contradiction.

    If prostitution is indeed a social evil which oppresses women, then the very first step towards eliminating it would be, in my mind, to give as much power as possible to the women working in it AS A CLASS and let them do as they see fit with this power. If they are indeed oppressed, they will quickly dismantle their structures of oppression as much as feasible.

    And yet from Rio to Beijing, almost every single state-supported activity that’s geared towards “helping” prostitutes is geared towards maintianing them in subordinate, powerless positions. “Victimization” discourse is just another riff on this well-established theme.

    What I’m truly beginning to believe is that most men and women are actually SCARED of prostitutes, seeing them as fundamentally “out of control” women. It is the prostitute’s potential rejection of one of the west’s fundamental myths (to wit, that women’s bodies must be controlled by society) that is really the target for most repressive activities and not prostitution itself.

    In the Swedish case, repression is given just a bit more “oomph” by the fact that these potentially rebellious female bodies are also foreign.

    I know this may sound rather anarco-weird, but really, it’s the only theory I have to discuss why anti-prostitution repression almost always starts by repressing those women who are relatively the most free and most in control of their destinies and bodies within the sex trade. Otherwise, the patterns of repression simply make no sense. If the State was truly interested in squelching sex slavery, you’d think they’d start at the very well-known bottom of the barrel with venues that are often mafia controlled. But almost without exception, they start by closing and harassing with those venues where women mostly control the conditions of their labor.

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  8. Elsa says:

    Hola Laura,
    Un abrazo desde Montevideo. Recién pude ver este sitio, disculpá la tardanza. Muy bueno el análisis, seguramente el lunes lo vamos a publcar. Gracias por avisar.

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  9. makomk says:

    Thaddeus: that makes a frightening amount of sense. Heard of Sheila Jeffreys? She’s an Australian feminist academic who’s had a lot of influence on the government’s attitude to prostitution. Now, actual sex workers generally consider the laws she’s pushing for to be actively harmful and to put them at more risk. However, she rejects everything they say because – get this – since they can actually speak, they’re privileged and therefore not representative of *real* sex workers, and so must be ignored in favour of what she says. (Oh, and she’s no minor fringe figure, from what I can tell.)

    Not sure “paternalistic” is really the best word for something with such deep roots in feminist thought, though. Also, I’d dispute the conclusion that it’s “not about saving women”. It is – just not the women who are prostitutes. It’s about saving respectable women like Sheila Jeffreys from association with those evil, anti-women women who work in the sex trade.

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  10. Thanks for the heads up on Jeffreys, Makomk. Though I’ve never heard of her, I’m not surprised.

    Gabriela Leite gets this all the time in Brazil. Because she’s managed – against the odds- to make herself heard, our own home-grown Jeffreys state that she shouldn’t be listened to.

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  11. Sheila Jeffreys is one of the major theorists for what I think of as fundamentalist feminism. She wrote The Idea of Prostitution some years ago and more recently The Industrial Vagina, in which she uses my work as a major punching bag. She is worth reading if you are interested in theory.

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