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three pairs of lovers with space



The first clear legal, as opposed to religious, prohibition of male homosexuality in Sweden came with a new version of the Swedish law code published in 1608 and reflected the growing Puritanism that had come with Sweden’s conversion to Lutheranism. An appendix to it listed crimes “abstracted from the Holy Scriptures”. Section 4 of this said “Thou shalt not sleep with a boy as with a woman, for this is an abomination. And they both shall die, their blood be upon them.” This text, echoing the prohibitions in Leviticus against “lying with males”, was assumed to include sodomy between men too. The word “boy” was taken from the nationally established Gustav Vasa Bible’s 1541 non-literal translation of Leviticus and presumably reflected widespread assumptions at the time that the males with whom men would want to lie were boys.

The new express prohibition resulted in very few court cases, however, and was dropped from the new legal code of 1734, even though the death penalty was retained for sodomy in the form of bestiality,[1] which remained of great concern in what was a largely agricultural land where unmarried males were often sex-starved, and for which more than six hundred people were executed in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The law commission stated that it was “not advisable to mention more sodomitical sins; it is instead better to keep silent as if they were not known, and if such a bad thing happens that they occur, let them be punished anyway.”

Sweden dtl from Scandinavia. Bartlw 1949
Sweden in 1949

This peculiarly lawless state of affairs seems to have led to a paradox: the scope of punishable sodomitical sins widened, and a few very unclear (and very secret) court cases with only one person involved may imply that also individual sins like masturbation from that point on were punished, if found out.

Very few death sentences for sodomitical acts between males are known from this “silent” period in Sweden. And in 1778 King Gustav III, the “enlightened" king who opposed capital punishment as such, issued a new order that all death sentences had to be confirmed by His Majesty. In practice this means that from 1778 on no executions for sexual crimes were carried out in Sweden.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Sweden lacked any laws directly applicable to sexual relations between males (or females), and under the impact of the French Revolution and Code Napoleon, an era of limited and conditional legal freedom for “sodomitical sinners” seems to have begun, and lasted until 1864 (the period is poorly researched, however). There are no traces of a “sodomitical” or “pederastic” subculture, despite this formal freedom. And even if the regime of Gustav III at the end of the eighteenth century, with its Hellenic-classicist ideals, directly or indirectly may have introduced the Greek term “pederasty” into Swedish language, the term surely had lost its Hellenist and poetic overtones by the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The “radical” anti-Gustavian military coup in 1809, directed against the son of Gustav III, was followed by anti-pederastic gossip about the old regime. Such propagandistic gossip of course also discredited “pederasty” as such, referring it to the former sodomitical and “unnatural” context.

Sweden soon also followed the example of many of the German states, which about the middle of the nineteenth century reintroduced old or obsolete laws against “unnatural behavior” between males. A Swedish law commission in 1832 stated that even if bestiality was a disgusting crime, it was not as dangerous to society as “other unnatural ways of committing fornication, when committed between persons.” In 1864 (at the same time as the Swedish parliament was reformed and democratized) a new law against “unnatural” behavior between persons was issued. The new law book stated in paragraph 18:10: “If anyone, with another person, engages in fornication against nature, or if anyone engages in fornication with an animal, he shall be punished with hard labor in prison up to two years.”[2]

The new law dramatically alleviated the punishment for homosexual acts, but considerably widened their scope, a ruling in 1918 even including masturbation of one male by another as “fornication against nature.” The justification was not that any individual might be harmed by such behaviour, but that it was “a grave offence to public order and morals”, as the Law Committee of 1832 put it. “Fornication against nature” was taken so seriously that it trumped and displaced the ages or relationships between the parties as an offence, so that a man accused of sex with his minor son could only be charged under paragraph 18:10, just like a man accused of sex with an unrelated man. The thinking behind this was that no analogy must be acknowledged between “unnatural” and “natural” sex.

Acke J.A.G. Badande pojke
Bathing Boy by Swedish artst J. A. G. Acke (1859-1924)

Public campaigning for reform by homosexuals from 1880 onwards was helped by a notorious case of homosexual blackmail widely reported by the press in 1932 and a new medicalised attitude to homosexuals that saw them acting out of innate, albeit sick impulses. Opposition to reform came principally with the argument that the young had to be protected from “corruption” into such sickness. The result was a sharp increase in the number of prosecutions but more lenient sentences for sex between men during the 1930s and, eventually in 1944, the legalisation of sex between men over eighteen. Since the age of consent for girls was fifteen, this marked Greek love out for special intolerance. The maximum penalty for consensual sex with minors was four years’ imprisonment, double what it had been or that for first-degree incest. Though anything near maximum penalties was very rarely inflicted and prosecution was often waived, in the 1950s there was a dramatic increase in the number of prosecutions following a moral panic about the rise of boy prostitution, seen as leading to crime and drugs.[3]

Greek love was thus still in a uniquely invidious position as regards being tolerated. In his book Sensuality in Scandinavia, published in 1970 but describing sexual mores that had long been prevalent, American journalist Neil Elliott described in convincing and thorough detail, how all the Scandinavian countries had long stood in stark contrast to most others in widespread social acceptance, in some cases despite the law,[4] of public nudity, promiscuity, adultery, sex between girls as young as twelve and much older males,[5] pornography featuring people of all ages for sale in kiosks in the most public places, incest and bestiality (no longer illegal at all). Underlying this sexual toleration was an absence of bodily shame and a matter-of-fact attitude to sex, the latter of which Elliott found ill-suited to romance or passion.

Greek love was briefly included in Elliott’s survey of Sweden, but was in the uniquely invidious position of being the only kind of love still drawing largely negative comment, with the panic about boy prostitution still far from over:

According to the Swedish Ministry of Social Affairs, boy prostitution is spreading throughout Sweden alarmingly, and “there is hardly a boy who does not know how such contacts are established.” Indeed, the extent of boy prostitution in Sweden has approximately tripled since 1947. There are also indications that Swedish males who use boys of this type prefer them somewhat younger than do their Danish counterparts.[6]

Once Sweden had been swept up by the new ideas about sexual permissiveness and free love that gained ground throughout Europe with widespread availability of the pill in the early 1960s, the gap between the letter of the law and what it was practical to enforce became even greater. Asked in 1968 why greater censorship of sex in films was not being exercised, Sven Rudholm, the Chancellor of Justice said, “We have better uses for our courts and police.”

Gymnastics lesson ca. 1956
                                                                   Gymnastics lesson, ca. 1956

In 1972, Sweden followed Denmark in formally decriminalising all pornography, including that depicting young children, even while censorship continued of many American films depicting violence or cruelty, showing that Swedish permissiveness was specifically of the sexual. Continued repression of sex between men and willing boys over the heterosexual age of consent looked particularly absurd now that filming the same with significantly younger boys was allowed, and the age of consent was accordingly reduced to fifteen in 1978. The 1970s were to be a golden age of near toleration of Greek love involving boys a little younger still, when no complaint was brought by a legitimate party, though it never reached the lengths of Denmark or the Netherlands.

A "Report from Sweden" published in the fourth, February 1980, issue of Pan magazine, describes the general situation with respect to Greek love at that exceptionally favourable time: the openness of pubescent boys to sexual adventure, the feeling of adults that they had no right to intervene in a situation that looked happy, but also the same obstacles to nurturing love in such a society that Elliott had already explained in a heterosexual context.

A further indication of how divergent Swedish and American attitudes then were is that a few months earlier, Sweden had refused on grounds of humanity to extradite an American who had fled there to escape a 59-year prison sentence for sex with boys, as reported in the following article from the Los Angeles Times of 20 March 1979:

Such a situation could not prevail long, however, in the face of the mass hysteria over children and sex that the anglosphere was intent on exporting. The writing was already on the wall: a 1976 inquiry conducted on behalf of the government to address all laws on sex, and which proposed lowering the age of consent to ten and legalising even first-degree incest had been widely criticised and its proposed amendments ignored, beginning an anti-liberal reaction. In 1980, production and dissemination of child pornography was banned and in 1999 this was extended to mere possession, four years after four hundred thousand Swedes had signed a petition to this effect. This law was fiercely opposed in the name of freedom of speech by the Swedish Union of Journalists and others who signed a petition against it in 1997, but in vain. Nearly twenty years later Swedish journalist Karl Anderson contacted those who had signed the 1997 petition and found that every single one had recanted of his former views; whether out of cowardice or conformism is not of course known, but in any case a sad and characteristic indictment of the integrity of the new millenium.[7]


[1] Section 10.1 of the 1734 legal code said “Anyone who commits bestiality with cattle or other dumb animals; shall be beheaded and burnt at a stake, and the animal likewise killed and burnt.”

[2] Walter R. Dynes (editor), The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (New York: Routledge, 1990) p. 1269.

[3] Jens Rydström, “Chapter 6. Sweden 1864-1978: Beasts and Beauties” in Criminally Queer: Homosexuality and Criminal Law in Scandinavia, 1842-1999 edited by Jens Rydström and Kati Mustola (Amsterdam: Aksant, 2007), pp. 183-214, which gives the most thorough survey of legislation regarding homosexuality in modern Sweden.

[4] “We may also say that the ministries of justice in virtually all of the Scandinavian countries tend toward lenient interpretations of their statutory guidelines; so that in actuality prosecutions are minimal, and a host of excuses may readily be found for waiving prosecution or granting acquittal.” (Neil Elliott, Sensuality in Scandinavia, New York: Weybright and Talley, 1970, p. 187).

[5] One of several telling examples Elliott gives of this is what “one nineteen-year-old American boy recently moved to Denmark told me: Last year I wouldn’t even date a girl if she was under sixteen; but last night I slept with a thirteen-year-old girl—and her mother brought us breakfast in bed!” (Sensuality in Scandinavia, p. 254).

[6] Neil Elliott, Sensuality in Scandinavia (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1970) p. 204.

[7] The Lover edited by Karl Andersson, issue 2, Berlin, summer 2016, p. 7.



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