Sweden contends with fallout from the sexual revolution

By Robert Sarner, Maclean's, February 1981

STOCKHOLM - The words combine perfectly - sex and Sweden. A mythology was born during the sexual revolution of the 1960s in which Sweden became the promised land of eroticism; a sexual paradise inhabited by impeccably healthy blondes governed only by the laws of pleasure. But if the world at large still attaches such images to Sweden, Swedes themselves are confronting a welter of social problems caused partly by the libidinous years: the accounting is not pleasant.

Few countries have tried as hard as Sweden to take the state out of the bedrooms of the nation in the past 20 years. Prostitution is legal, as is pornography (except child pornography). Abortion is free on demand, courses on sexuality begin with seven-year-olds and contraceptives are given away in numerous youth clinics.

"We were fighting against dark, traditional values of the church, the family, old morals and institutions," says Rita Liljestrom, 52, speaking of the revolution in the '60s and early '70s. She is a sociologist well known in Sweden for her work in the field of human relations. "Sexuality was seen as the key to a different political society. But now there seems to be a new debate: the feeling that we gained a lot but that we lost, too." Liljestrom, in fact, denounces the sexual revolution as a pseudo-liberation that has left men and women even more alienated than before. She speaks of the current "erotic warfare" in which "sexual invalids" substitute games of one-upmanship for relationships.

Another dissenter is Hans Nestius, a leader during the '60s in the campaigns against censorship and for legal abortion. Now president of the Swedish Association for Sex Education, Nestius condemns pornography and prostitution, which he connects with rape, since they involve buying and manipulating women. The mechanical and depersonalized version of sex in porn magazines, he says, "show fast encounters that demand no commitment or involvement," and rob young people of the capacity for healthy relationships.

The sexual violence that is increasingly common in magazines and films is held to blame for a 60-per-cent increase in reported rapes from 1960 to 1978. Wife battering, too, is increasing, as is alcoholism, which now afflicts one man in 10.

Social problems are nothing new in Sweden, of course, where 44 years of Social Democratic rule (until 1976) has produced a cradle-to-grave welfare structure blamed endlessly for killing creative and individualistic impulses - as well as for indirectly causing the world's seventh-highest suicide rate. Now even the attendant economic boom, which gave Swedes one of the highest standards of living in the world, is being called into the re-evaluation of the sexual revolution.

"The more commercialized a society becomes, the more you get your identity through buying, owning and using material things," says Dag Notini, a psychologist at the youth consulting bureau in Stockholm and a newspaper advice-to-the-lovelorn columnist on sexual affairs. "This has definite consequences on people's sexual behavior and attitudes. What people - especially young people - are complaining about is loneliness. There's a tremendous longing for closeness, and yet people show great fear of getting near."

Such distress signals abound in most industrialized countries, but the symptoms seem more acute in Sweden - and certainly are better documented. For instance, every other man, and three women out of four, will suffer some sort of mental dysfunction before the age of 60. The Swedes have the highest number of people seeking mental health counseling per capita in the world - 99.7 per 1,000 inhabitants, vastly above the U.S. (30.4) and the U.K. (31.9).

Such somber facts don't surprise Maj-Briht Bergstrom-Walan, a psychologist and director of the Swedish Institute for Sexual Research in Stockholm. The malaise shows up in her datebook - filled each day with appointments booked weeks in advance by both individuals and couples seeking sexual therapy. A friend and former student of American sex therapists Masters and Johnson, she says the most common angst among patients is a lack of sex drive.

"For these people," says Bergstrom-Walan, "sex has lost its importance. It's no longer a priority. This condition is more widespread than most people realize."

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