"Sonia O. Was Here" by Anja Snellman. Photo: Tero Honkaniemi

Sexuality in Scandinavia


I have decided to call this article “Sex in the Nordic City.” The glamour may not be there, but the loneliness beneath the surface is the same.

I will be talking about Finland, my home country. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the remote island of Iceland are our Scandinavian sisters, but there are differences—even major ones—between the histories, cultures, and societies of these five countries.

Finland is located the closest to Russia: geography is our destiny. According to a recent report by the United Nations, the Finns are the happiest people in the world. On the other hand, we rank high in international suicide statistics—Finnish men in particular. We also rank high in alcohol consumption and violence toward women—these two are interrelated.

SHOULD I EVEN TRY to guess what your impressions and perceptions of Scandinavia and Finland might be?

Bright summer nights and the midnight sun: the sun stays above the horizon from mid-May to the end of July in the northernmost part of Finland. Nudity. Sauna. Snow. Alcohol. Ice hockey. Formula One drivers. Santa Claus. Lakes and pure nature.

Equality. Suffrage for Finnish women in 1906. Equal work opportunities, long parental leaves, sex education in schools. Nearly half the members of Finland’s parliament are women. More than half of Finnish university students and doctors are women.

Free right to abortion. Full acceptance of sex before marriage. The freedom to choose parenthood, regardless of your sexual identity. Young women and even young men calling themselves feminists. Men taking paternity leaves, pushing strollers in supermarkets, changing diapers, and sitting by the sandbox at the playground.

And perhaps even impressions like these:

Bold erotic movies as early as the 1950s, Danish porn in the 1960s. Ingmar Bergman, Lars von Trier. Sexual equality: girls are taught they can say no and yes. For the young Scandinavian women of today, sexual joy and an active sex life are not taboo. They are encouraged to explore, enjoy, and cherish their sexuality.

AND TO PAINT the full picture:

In recent years, conservative and nationalistic trends have also reached Scandinavia and have caused something of a backlash against women, equality, and human dignity.

Women’s salaries continue to be lower than those of men. Women continue to be responsible for birth control in practice. Female artists are still not called geniuses. Sexual harassment continues to be more common than we had thought. The roles usually reserved for women in Finnish movies and plays continue to be that of girlfriend, mother, prostitute, naked corpse, old woman, supportive admirer, screaming babe . . .

I AM AN AUTHOR, but I am also a psychotherapist and sexual therapist. What do my clients want to talk about?

The mismatch of desires in a relationship, sexual identity, polyamory, sex in the busy years of life,
sex and porn addiction. Sex and loneliness—something slightly reminiscent of what Carrie Bradshaw felt in Sex and the City. But without the glamour of Manhattan and a group of wonderful friends.

Finnish men are lonely too. Loneliness has even been called our new national disease. There is success, a hectic life, wealth, social media, Tinder—and loneliness. Increasingly, men are making appointments to see a therapist, both on their own and with their partner.

Nearly one in two marriages ends in divorce. Fewer and fewer children are being born. Studies show that people are having sex less frequently. Less time for sex—more screen time on digital devices, Netflix, and HBO. The year 1969 is far behind, and so is the sexual sixty-nine.

YOUNG PEOPLE MATURE earlier than before: many Finns start having relationships at the young age of 13. Long gone are the days when the Lutheran faith controlled courtship and sexual behavior. Common-law marriages increased markedly in Finland in the 1960s, and morals changed dramatically.

I have written about teenage girls’ sexuality and sexual awakening, as well as sexual curiosity, which is empowering but may also have fatal consequences in a world where the sex business preys on newcomers, often concealed behind a seemingly innocent facade.

MY DEBUT NOVEL, Sonia O. Was Here, is a candid coming-of-age story. It portrays how a young woman discovers her sexuality and how her sexual identity matures. The book attracted a great deal of attention and positive feedback in 1981, but it was also met with condemnation and confusion: how could a young woman write something like that?

Something like what? Something young men and men of all ages have been writing about since time immemorial

By Anja Snellman

Photo: Tero Honkaniemi

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