What is it with Swedes and sex?

Observations - Love triangle

In the memoir of his time as British film censor, John Trevelyan described the terrible trouble caused to him when the Swedish movie I Am Curious (Yellow) arrived on his desk in 1969. It was an unquestionably serious film in which the leading actress, Lena Nyman, did things like conduct interviews in central Stockholm asking passers-by what they thought about the Vietnam war. Unfortunately, a few other scenes showed her having sex with her boyfriend. When Trevelyan met the director of the film, Vilgot Sjoman, to discuss the extensive cuts required for a British release, he found Sjoman not angry or defiant, but simply baffled. What was the fuss about? It was only sex.

I must confess at this point that I am half-Swedish. I can pronounce Sven-Goran Eriksson. I can even pronounce Bjorn Borg. But in the case of I Am Curious (Yellow), my English side won out. I knew what the fuss was about. Obviously I couldn't see the film itself, but when I was ten I saw the famous still of the lovers embracing on an unmade bed. I looked at it the way Cortez looked at the Pacific in the Keats sonnet. With a wild surmise. There was lots of surmising. It was difficult for actual sex to live up to that photograph.

I was in good company. In Francois Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups, the promise of sex and desire is represented for the young hero by a still of Harriet Andersson in Bergman's Summer with Monika, stolen from outside a cinema.

That largely sums up the image of Sweden in most other countries - especially in Britain. The British tabloids observing Swedish society - one of the most formal, traditional countries in Europe, albeit one with generally liberal attitudes to sex and relaxed laws on pornography - are rather like Kenneth Connor looking through a keyhole in a Carry On film. There is a general feeling that they must all be "at it". If two Swedes meet, then it stands to reason: it must be like nitro and glycerine. And when football is involved as well . . . What are the facts in the latest Swedes and Sex story? Sven-Goran Eriksson (unmarried but with a girlfriend) might have had an affair with Ulrika Jonsson. I'd like to say that the Swedish press aren't interested, but that isn't true. But I don't think it's the sex. Like me, they're just so proud.

It's difficult to exaggerate how adult the Swedish attitude to sex is. And I'm not using "adult" in the English sense, meaning dirty. In 1985, the Swedish Institute of Public Opinion Research conducted a major survey of the Swedes' attitudes to themselves. In the chart of terms to describe themselves, number one was envious (49 per cent), followed by stiff, industrious, nature-loving, quiet and honest. I'm going to have to skip a few now, because in distant last place, mentioned by 0.5 per cent of respondents, was sexy.

One of the pleasures of growing up half-Swedish in Britain has been seeing a country with a population smaller than that of London gradually colonising us. Abba topped the charts. Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon so many times it got boring. The Volvo estate became a middle-class cliche. Ikea made a triumphant advertising campaign out of our preference for Swedish pine over our own chintziness.

I am especially proud of Sven-Goran. It's not just that he's Swedish. He comes from Torsby in the province of Varmland, where I spend every summer. It's not just that he's teaching the English how to play football, but can you imagine Graham Taylor or Glenn Hoddle living with an Italian lawyer?

I'm afraid I think that there may be another reason for the excitement in the Swedish press. Another major survey explored Swedish attitudes to foreigners. The main qualities Swedes attribute to foreigners are: unruly, loud, lively and dirty. I suspect that the Swedish press are relieved that Sven-Goran has finally found a nice Swedish girl.

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