REPORT FROM SWEDEN, 1980 by Keith Spence
This article was published in Amsterdam in the fourth, February 1980, issue of Pan Magazine, pp. 22-24.
A couple of years ago a twelve-year-old friend presented me with a copy of a booklet which had been handed out to all boys at his London school. Among a number of other improving and uplifting exhortations it contained the following stern advice:
If a strange man speaks to you in the street or in a bus, do not reply. If he goes on talking with you, run away as fast as you can, and ask a policeman or a grown-up lady to help you.
A few weeks after receiving this valuable vade-mecum I took up a job teaching in Sweden; and one evening, I can't think why, I was talking about sex education with some Swedish boys who had come to visit me. I showed them my booklet and the following day one of them, an 11-year-old called Klass, brought me the equivalent pamphlet distributed to the Swedish kids. Loosely translated the relevant passage went something like:
If a man you don't know suggests that you and he have sex together, don't be frightened. He will not hurt you. Say, "No, thank you" politely, and talk about something else.
"Amazing," I said.
"Is dumb," said Klass. "There it should stand, 'Say, "Yes, please" politely'." And the rest of our conversation has no direct bearing on this article.
Nowhere are the considerable differences between England and Sweden more apparent than in the attitude of the two countries toward their children. Instead of the all-pervading DONT'S that are stockaded around British kids, Swedish children are given endless freedom in practically every area in their lives. Some people feel the freedom goes too far; there is no discipline of any sort for kids -- at home, at school or in society. Not even a parent has the right to strike a child and the whole concept of punishment is seen as a desperate last resort to be repaired to when all else hasfailed. Delinquent Swedish kids get away with truancy, vandalism, shoplifting (even assault) because if they are under fifteen they are seldom prosecuted -- and they know it.
There is, indeed, a tradition of not interfering in kids' lives at all except where it is absolutely unavoidable. Teachers only see their pupils in the classroom; youth club leaders switch on the record-player and retire to their offices. And the concept of traditional family life is on its way to joining religion in the limbo of discarded superstitions. Over half the kids I know have parents who are divorced or separated, and most of the children -- unlike their British counterparts -- couldn't care less. How should they? They most likely began spending all day in communal day nurseries at about the age of six months, so that both parents could go out and work. As the children grew older they spent less and less of their remaining time at home. Even kids I know whose families are intact think nothing of phoning their parents at midnight and saying they're with their English friend and won't be home until 2:00. If I had to glibly distinguish between the British and Swedish points of view, I would say that in England kids are hated, and in Sweden they are ignored.
Anyone who reads PAN will not need to be told that children don't like being ignored. Swedish kids are quite simply starved of sympathetic adult companionship, and this, together with their social independence, makes it delightfully easy to form friendships with them. If fact, if there is a problem in this area, it is one of surfeit. Once the kids realise that you really mean it when you say they can come and visit you, they tend to start turning up at 7:00 in the morning, usually in batches of about six, and staying all day.
And what about liberation in other directions? Is Sweden the land of guilt-free eroticism? The answer must be a qualified "yes". Sexually aware boys most certainly are: they know the score from a mind-bogglingly early age. However, being so aware, they are inclined to start having complete sexual relationships with girls at around 13, and any other form of sex has got to compete with that -- has got to compete, too, with a pretty rigorous gang morality. In the absence of imposed adult standards the boys find them in conformity with their friends. It's a familiar adolescent phenomenon the world over, but it's taken to extremes in Sweden -- where all children consider it absolutely obligatory to get drunk every Satuday night, to acquire a moped the moment they are fifteen and to assert their heterosexuality stridently and frequently. Failing any of these tests, being "different" in any way, loses them the respect and support of their friends -- and that respect and support is vitally important in a society where the security of family life is so slight.
However, what you tell your mates and what you do when you aren't with them are two very different things, and the sexual taboo is not too difficult to overcome. Money, inevitably, is a powerful inducement in a culture which is so property orientated. The attraction of trying something new, of "taking a dare" is also strong. Perhaps most significant of all, the majority of Swedish boys have never been taught (nor have ever needed) to curb their sexual drives; they become aroused very quickly and, once aroused, demand instant relief. Moreover, they don't seem to suffer any guilt feelings afterwards. To be sure, they bind you with fearsome oaths never to breathe a whisper to their friends, but there is none of the crippling moral or religious anguish which too often inhibits British boys from enjoying sexual encounters. Swedish boys can be energetic, inventive and passionate sexual partners.
If you go to Sweden the first place you must visit has to be the local swimming baths, with attached bathu, or sauna. For the visitor from more repressive places this is as vital as a decompression chamber for a surfacing diver. The contrast between the terror of nudity indoctrinated into too many kids in the English-speaking world and the unconcern of Swedish children can give you the emotional bends if you don't come at it cautiously. So -- install yourself in a bathu and let yourself get acclimatized. There will be a cold shower outside which, as I remember my old headmaster once informing me, is an efficacious aid to self-control.
Once you have reached the stage of no longer needing to drape a towel across your lap you can start talking to the boys. Swedish kids begin English at school when they are nine, and get fairly good at it quite quickly; they're usually delighted to have a chance to practise. Once you get into conversation, of course, it's up to you. Don't be overcautious. Swedish boys have no fears of adults; they are mostly pretty bored and will therefore usually accept invitations to come out to the cinema or go back to your flat with alacrity. And don't worry about nearby grown-ups overhearing; so long as you don't actually start fondling the kids (which you can sometimes do if you are alone with them) adults simply won't think this is any of their business.
So physical encounters are possible -- and, over 15, legal. Even under 15 they are not viewed with anything like the oprobrium that they attract in England. In the eyes of society and the law the quality of the relationship is a major consideration. If it is loving and consensual authority will often see no reason to intervene. Emotional relationships, though, are more difficult. Never having experienced emotion from adults -- not even from their parents -- Swedish boys are understandably at a loss as to how to display it themselves. That some of my young friends feel affection, gratitude, even tenderness, towards me I now have no doubt at all. But they find enormous difficulty in expressing them, and almost as much in accepting them from me. Even among Swedish adults emotions aren't very evident.Pairings tend to partnerships of mutual convenience rather than love affairs. This is even more the case with children, and if you are someone 'who needs an intense romantic relationship you'd probably do better in the Mediterranean than in Sweden.If, on the other hand, you are someone who enjoys the constant company of boys, and who gets a kick out of joyous and uncomplicated sexual encounters which are viewed as fun rather than serious romantic attachments, then Sweden -- in fact, I believe, Scandinavia as a whole -- is a pretty good place to be. The typically Swedish determination not to interfere in other people's affairs makes for a high degree of personal privacy and a strong "live and let live" sort of tolerance. But, probably as a result of this, there are a lot of lonely boys here who are starved of adult friendships. Klass certainly isn't the only one who will be happy to say, "Yes, please" politely.