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21 June 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

Why are you all so interested in sex?

British teenagers go in for lots of bonking in order to establish their individuality. But in Sweden

By Gunnar Pettersson

Some years ago, I was sitting in a pub near the Edgware Road in London, having a lunchtime pint and a look at the papers. Suddenly a music system exploded into life next to me (I think it was The Eagles’ “Hotel California”), so I looked up – only to find a vagina staring back at me.

A stripper had climbed up on to a rickety stage right in front of my table and was performing what can only be described as an act of defiance against the ageing process: she was applying a fair amount of Johnson’s Baby Oil to herself. I could not help myself and collapsed in a laughing heap – and was promptly thrown out on my ear.

Shocked and dazed, I walked down the street wondering why I was shocked and dazed. There began inside me a kind of argument between, on the one hand, a sexually liberated, easy-going Scandinavian who had seen it all before and, on the other, a fairly ordinary bloke from nowhere in particular who, had he wanted a gynaecology lesson, would have bloody well asked for one along with the pint of Stella.

I think, in retrospect, what threw me was not just the depressing crudeness of the performance, but the weirdly ordinary middle-of-the-dayness of it. Generally speaking, pornography in Britain, from News of the World-style titillation downward, forms part of everyday life – and of the everyday visual landscape in particular – to a far greater extent than it does in countries such as Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, where attitudes to these things are supposed to be more relaxed.

The obvious reason is that those countries have quite successfully managed to ghettoise the sex trade, whatever form it takes. Sometimes, no doubt, this has been for religious or moral reasons. But most of all it has happened because the vast majority of those people are about as interested in seeing the stuff as they are in watching someone pick their nose.

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Clearly, however, this is not the case in Britain. I cannot count the number of times Scandinavian journalists have asked me why there is this intense, prurient, sniggering obsession with sex. “How come 85 per cent of British people thought it wrong of the News of the World to publish the Beckham stories, while it sold an extra 100,000 copies on the back of those same stories?” was only the most recent question.

The usual explanation is the prevalence of single-sex schools; but this strikes me as irrelevant, not least because very few people are educated at such schools. Similarly, the “Victorian hangover” explanation does not hold water. This is not just because recent histories have shown that the Victorian age was not quite as “Victorian” as we had thought. It is also because the moral rigidity of that time was such a distinctly middle-class phenomenon, and there seems to be little real evidence that anything more than an echo of it survived the social and political upheavals of the 20th century. Besides, as far as “hypocrisy” is concerned, I would say it was (and is) an expression of the prevailing moral climate, not a cause of it.

The route to a more plausible answer might in fact run via Scan-dinavia. The striking thing about Swedish attitudes to sex is that they derive from the country’s old rural economy. The Swedish peasant class formed the proverbial “backbone” of the country well into the 20th century and, historically, rural notions of sexual morality were by and large very practical and down-to-earth. In fact, so deep-rooted were these notions that they proved cheerfully resistant even to the strictures of both Lutheran and Nonconformist preachers. Marriage, for example, was by no means the norm; children born out of wedlock were accepted by the community to a greater extent than in other cultures.

Then, when Sweden was rapidly – and often traumatically – urbanised in the early half of the 20th century, these attitudes travelled not only into the cities, but into the Labour movement. From the moment the Social Democratic Party gained power in 1932, sexuality became an integral part of the construction of the welfare state. In the 1930s, there were several government initiatives to promote healthy sex lives among Swedes. Probably most glorious of all was the 1936 government commission looking into prophylactic methods: among other things, it refrained from recommending coitus interruptus, on the grounds that it would make men unhappy.

If Sweden can be said to provide a historical recipe for a healthy and relaxed sexual culture, it is obvious that most of the ingredients are missing in Britain. The last time anything remotely like a “peasant class” played a part in the construction of the nation’s social (never mind moral) identity, would probably be the 14th century. Urbanisation pre-dated by many decades the emergence of socialist political movements, while in Sweden they happened just about simultaneously. Britain’s socialist tradition, in turn, has clearly found it easier than some of its Continental counterparts to combine political radicalism with moral conservatism.

And that may well be the crux of the matter. The idea of “respectability” has always been central to working-class life and, by extension, to Labour ideology in its broadest sense. Traditionally, working-class respectability in Sweden had much more to do with virtues such as cleanliness, economic responsibility and, not least, abstinence from alcohol. But the operative word here is “traditionally”, because few if any of these notions have survived the coming of the post-industrial era, and the diminution and dispersal of the industrial working class itself.

The same certainly cannot be said for Britain, a country where some people still describe some others as “common”. In fact, respectability seems to sit very near the centre of Britain’s preferred image of itself. One of the most important elements of a respectable life is the act of restraint. This is often not a bad idea: staying away from alcohol, for example, tends to be good for your health. When it comes to sex, however, you will find the clearest difference between Sweden and Britain in the way the two cultures perceive the physical and psychological dangers involved.

The emergence of HIV/Aids in the 1980s certainly affected the way many Swedes viewed the health risks of sex, as it did with everyone else, but moral considerations did not enter into it. That is to say, the problem was not the sex; the problem was the disease. Whether or not the risk of infection is present, the British debate on whether you should refrain or indulge is placed in a moral context. This could go some way towards explaining certain psychological factors behind the alarming rate of teenage pregnancy in Britain. At 43 in every thousand girls under the age of 18, the UK rate is the highest in western Europe although, significantly, rates for the UK are still dwarfed by US figures.

Aside from the carelessness, ignorance and sheer stupidity involved, it is pretty self-evident that teenage sex is part of a process of individuation; it is one of many ways of establishing who you are, not least in emotional terms. That process is strongly enhanced, and the results more clearly visible, if the behaviour indulged in is somehow in opposition to established, parental mores. (So what else is new?) In Sweden, for a teenager to try to define who they are by having sex would be worse than pointless; it would go unnoticed. In Britain, the exact opposite seems to be the case: it is immediately pounced on.

Indeed, the problem is not so much with teenagers as with their parents, their teachers, their preachers, tabloid editors, Mary Whitehouse, Benny Hill, Nudge & Wink, and whoever else has contributed, over time, to a moral climate in which sexuality – not the diseases, not the pregnancies, not the abuse – has become such an issue. It is from this, surely, that all the trouble flows.

Take the dismal state of sex education in British schools. As it happens, my son, then 15, spent a couple of terms at a school in Stockholm and sex education was on the timetable. Girls and boys attended the same class and the basic message was: “Here’s this, here’s that, have fun.” My son then returned to his secondary school in London, and again sex was on the agenda. Girls and boys were put in separate classes; the teacher cringed; the girls cringed; the boys cringed.

Not that all is carefree fun and relaxation on the other side of the North Sea. In the early 1970s there was similar alarm at rising teenage pregnancies in Sweden, and the solutions applied were all the ones you would expect: a mixture of educational programmes and legislation, such as a law making abortion free on request. But there were two particular features that made the campaign a success, and eventually resulted in a drop in both birth and abortion rates.

The first was extremely careful co-ordination of efforts across all professional borders and across all generations, involving first of all the teenagers themselves, then parents, teachers, midwives, doctors, youth workers, and so on.

The second important feature was the realisation that sex education must go far beyond the biological and reproductive mechanics to involve human relationships as a whole, both within and across generations. This meant transferring responsibility for their sexual health on to the teenagers themselves. Specialised youth clinics were set up and contraceptives were made freely and abundantly available. The snazzy chrome and glass condom-vending machines found on many street corners at the time used to be a source of joy and wonder for foreign visitors to the country.

Educational efforts in Britain will clearly have to start further back. This country urgently needs to resolve the contradiction between, on the one hand, the screeching, upfront and in-your-face marketing and selling of sex – as though it is something to be aspired to, rather than accepted as yours already – and, on the other hand, the near-total radio silence maintained when it comes to communicating the simplest of simple facts of life.

How to achieve this? It may be worth bearing in mind that the tabloids, at least, are subject to the iron law of consumerism: if you ignore them, they go away. In fact, a step in the right direction would be to try to increase the nation’s capacity for boredom, not with sex – on the contrary, I would have thought – but with ogling it.

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