Rewind to fall 2012 and you would find me sunk into plush armchairs in various Stockholm cafes, sipping overpriced cappuccinos and doing my favorite thing to do in Sweden: talking about sex.
Sweden’s sexual laissez-faire is precisely what lured me into spending half my year in Stockholm. Throughout my semester abroad, I split my time sampling Sweden’s elite coffee scene and studying what Swedes know about sex.
Over coffee dates with my new, stunningly blonde, model-like friends, I tried to figure out why exactly sex has lost its taboo in Scandinavia.
Swedes are perhaps best known for their music (ABBA), their design (IKEA), their fashion (H&M) and their sexual liberalism.
Swedes can buy dildos in their state-run pharmacies, they can say the words “f*ck” and “d*ck” on the radio and — as Vanity Fair summed up in an August 2012 article about Nordic culture — they are “the only humans in history who have been cool enough to divorce nudity from sex.”
Is sex ubiquitous because of the country’s ultra-liberal attitude toward sex, or is the country’s attitude so liberal because sex is all around?
In November, I met with Hans Olsson, the manager of education at the Swedish Agency for Sexual Education, called the RFSU. In the modern downtown office, he told me about Swedish sex education, which has been mandatory in all schools since 1957 (there’s no whiff of “abstinence only” here).
Swedish sex instruction has “always been integrated into other subjects” ranging from biology to civics, and spans over several years — for some students, beginning as early as third grade.
By introducing the topic of sex at such a young age, Swedes surpass much of the hush-hush about intimacy that American children face. And by making discussions of sex as upfront as possible, Swedish kids are both more informed and more accepting of sexuality.
An excellent example is “Sex Pa Kartan” (in English: “Sex on the Map”), an educational video that Olsson helped produce last year. The cartoon film follows a group of teenagers as they very explicitly navigate the experiences of adolescent sexuality — including losing their virginity, homosexuality and the range of possible sex acts.
Its directness is unlike anything I could imagine in an American classroom, but that’s what makes it so effective in dealing with adolescent questions about sex.
I’m not the only one who raved about “Sex Pa Kartan.” In Sweden, the film is considered a top-notch sex education resource. In America, it would be considered animated porn.
In general, sex scenes don’t generate much shock in Sweden. On the state-run television station, full nudity and clear depictions of sex are allowed — although depictions of violence are treated much more cautiously. Families frequently sit together naked in their saunas. And more than once, I saw fully nude photographs on advertisements in the Tunnelbana, the Swedish metro.
Because there is no shock, sex-related issues can be confronted out in the open.
Sweden has among the lowest rates of STIs in the world, due in part to the country’s aggressive tactics to spread STI awareness and provide all STI screening for free. Contraception is also widely available at no cost, so less than 4 percent of Swedish women have a child during their teenage years. As a point of comparison, the same is true for 20 percent of American women.
Moreover, there is no debate about abortion, which has been both legal and free for more than 30 years.
Imagine that in America.
I should be clear that for all of their accomplishments, Swedes aren’t born with an internalized knowledge of the Kama Sutra or a cultural instinct to write for Cosmo. There isn’t something in the water of the Stockholm lakes that inspires sexual savvy.
Quite the contrary, what Swedes know about sex comes from repeated education, images, representations and discussions about sex.
Returning to Philadelphia this semester has left me waxing nostalgic about living in a country where the word “orgasm” isn’t treated as profanity. But although I’ve traded trendy Stockholm for conventional, conservative America, I’m filled with resounding hope each time I see a glimpse of nakedness on TV or a safer sex poster plastered in a cafe.
Maybe one day, we too can treat sex like the natural, normal and totally nice thing that it is.
Arielle Pardes is a College junior from San Diego, Calif. Her email address is email@example.com. You can follow her @pardesoteric. “The Screwtinizer” appears every Wednesday.
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