Stereotype of Swedish women as promiscuous

More fun with Swedish girls: Functions of a German heterostereotype. SM SCHRÖDER, M DALE Ethnologia Scandinavica 27, 122-137, Royal Gustav Adolf Academy, 1997.

While dealing specifically with the function of the stereotype as held by Germans of a particular era, this paper touches on some issues relevant to this thread. The PDF no longer seems to be available online, so I'm posting the text below (continue reading).

More Fun with Swedish Girls? Functions of a German Heterostereotype
By Stephan Michael Schröder

“More fun with Swedish girls”, tempts a small advertisement in a Berlin weekly newspaper. In Mel Brooks’ film The Producers (USA, 1967) a Broadway producer employs a scantily dressed Swedish secretary who radiates an aura of promiscuity. And the cover text of a collection of erotic stories published in the seventies, Neue schwedische Liebesgeschichten (New Swedish Love Stories) tells us “The Swedes still write the best love stories”.1 In 1969 Susan Sontag ascribed to the Swedes “postpuritan sexual mores” (24); Roland Huntford described the country as being under a constant cloud of depressio post coitus (Huntford 1971). The examples can be continued. “We have strange drinking habits and we copulate assiduously, before we commit suicide on a large scale, after we have paid a terrible amount of taxes,” is how the actor Erland Josephson ironically summarized the foreigner’s image of Sweden in 1987 (30). No doubt, the supposition of Swedish promiscuity gives strong grounds to suspect a heterostereotype, if one initially accepts the following definition of a stereotype:

A stereotype is the verbal expression of a belief relating to social groups, or to individuals as members of such groups. It takes the logical form of a judgement, often value-laden, which awards or denies particular characteristics to a group of people, with unjustified simplification and generalization (Quasthoff 1973:28).

Alleged Swedish promiscuity (or simply sexual permissiveness) has long been part of the (West) German cultural memory of neighbouring Sweden. But how did this image come into being, and how is it to be interpreted? Is it a – possibly stereotyped – reflection of Swedish reality? But which? And if it is a stereotype, what function does it fulfil?


Into the present century promiscuity, or even just sexual permissiveness, was not one of the cultural characteristics attributed to Swedes or Scandinavians. In his influential De origine et situ Germanorum Liber (98 AD), Tacitus wrote of the Teutons:

marriage in Germany is austere, and there is no feature in their morality that deserves higher praise. … Thus it is that the German women live in a chastity that is impregnable, uncorrupted by the temptations of public shows or the excitement of banquets. … Adultery in that populous nation is rare in the extreme (Tacitus 1948: ch. 18–19).

However, Tacitus himself was never in Germania; his statements on the love life of the Teutons are just as likely to have been stereotypes as the comments made by the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu on the morality of the Scandinavians in his De l’Esprit des lois (1748). There Montesquieu, clearly relying on Tacitus, remarks of the peoples in the northern zones that not even the physical side of love exerts a sufficient attraction (Montesquieu 1961:242). In contrast, the Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft, who actually went to Sweden, complained about promiscuity at length. In her famous travel book of 1796, Letters written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (already translated into German in 1800) she wrote of “the total want of chastity in the lower class of women” (Wollstonecraft 1989:258) in Sweden, for whom love is “merely an appetite, to fulfil the main design of nature, never enlivened by either affection or sentiments” (314). In principle Wollstonecraft is a supporter of Montesquieu’s theory of climate. But how can it account for the wild sex life of women who, according to her description, become fat at an early age, are not distinguished by attractive figures, and without exception have rotten teeth? Wollstonecraft therefore has to introduce a second, anti-Rousseauian explanation, whereby in the course of progress of civilization, control of physical desires gradually improves. It is then no surprise that, in a country where there are people “who remain so near the brute creation” (245) and who are only “half alive beings” (314), a high standard of morality cannot be expected either. So Montesquieu’s constant “climate” is supplemented by the variable “civilization”, the natural determinedness of the individual by a cultural development. So when Wollstonecraft expresses her disapproval of the dissolute life of the Swedish rural population, she is not criticizing something specifically Swedish, but rather an underdevelopment of civilization.

Statements on specific Swedish sexuality are not to be found in her work, nor are they to be found at other places where they might have been expected in the nineteenth century, such as the reception of morally offensive Swedish literature from the morality debate of the Modern Breakthrough. For example August Strindberg’s Giftas (1884; German translation 1889 and later; English translation Married: Twenty Stories of Married Life, 1913 and later) and Ola Hansson’s Sensitiva Amorosa (1887; German 1892) aroused a lot of moral indignation in Sweden (Bredsdorff 1973). The German reviews of the translations of the works (see the entries in Fallenstein and Hennig 1977) are in no sense uncritical of the stories, but a (possibly stereotypical) attribution of the supposedly immoral content to Sweden and its inhabitants is nowhere to be found. And even in the twentieth century, to associate Swedes with promiscuity was by no means self-evident even if, for example Ellen Key’s propaganda for “free love” was perceived in German- speaking countries. In the German collective consciousness promiscuity remained an outlandish matter – as could be recognized en passant in the Strindberg review. In 1931, in his short story Castle Gripsholm, Kurt Tucholsky has his firstperson narrator formulate of French women that they have

an inclination to capers, but they are reckoned with in advance, and mostly they each have only one man, the husband, their husband, who can also be a friend, of course – and maybe for respectability a lover too, and if they are unfaithful, then with deliberate foolishness (1960:667).

In contrast, the heterostereotype knowledge of Sweden is summarized as follows: “When Germans think of Sweden, they think: Swedish punch, terribly cold, Ivar Kreuger, matches, terribly cold, blonde women and terribly cold.” (1960:663) Tucholsky added in his diary “The women [are] wooden” (1978:157).

The about-turn in the (West) German perception of Swedish sexuality first becomes apparent in the fifties, as the Swedish film industry achieved great success abroad with, for that period, very permissive films such as Arne Mattsson’s Hon dansade en sommar (1951; English One Summer of Happiness) and Ingmar Bergman’s Sommaren med Monika (1952; English Summer with Monika) and became “the initiator of cinematic aphrodisiacs” (Der Spiegel 1964:96) – to some extent involuntarily. For example a second version of Sommaren med Monika was also shown in the USA; cut from 97 to 65 minutes, dubbed and with new film music as Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl (Stevenson 1995:19–22). “Stockholm produces cultivated films with good photographic technique, with preaching pastors and naked women” is how the cinema researcher Georges Sadoul summarized the “Swedish film” in 1957 (394). Or even shorter: “naked swimming plus social criticism” (Der Spiegel 1964:96). But if one examines the reception of, for example, Hon dansade en sommar in German-speaking countries (see Beindorf 1995 and 1996), it is noticeable that the “immoral” is still not attributed to the country and its inhabitants. The stereotype only arose in the course of the following twenty years. Der Spiegel (1969:132) summarized as follows under the headline “Free from taboos”:

Drugs and pornography, prisons without doors and girls without morals, boredom and short skirts, hot love and cool people – that is the average German’s image of Sweden.

Referential dimensions

So the image of promiscuous Swedes, in particular Swedish women, is fairly new, evident in the Federal Republic of Germany above all since the sixties. But does it actually indicate a difference in sexual behaviour between Germans and Swedes, or at least a significantly different attitude to sexuality?

The answer normally given is yes, and there is no shortage of arguments to confirm that the heterostereotype really is referential. Historians and ethnologists argue that a specific Scandinavian or Swedish development with regard to sexual practice has existed for centuries. Two historical phenomena are held primarily responsible for the tradition of premarital relationships in Scandinavian countries; “night courtship”, ritualized visiting by young men in unmarried women’s bedrooms, and the specific function of engagement in old Nordic law, which counted as permission to commence a sexual relationship (Hertoft 1970:61–69; Löfgren 1972; Frykman 1977). Wollstonecraft wrote as an eyewitness about the sexual activities of young couples subject to the conflicting forces of secular engagement custom and religious marriage law:

Young people, who are attached to each other, with the consent of their friends, exchange rings, and are permitted to enjoy a degree of liberty together, which I have never noticed in any other country. The days of courtship are therefore prolonged, till it be perfectly convenient to marry: the intimacy often becomes very tender: and if the lover obtains the privilege of a husband, it can only be termed half by stealth, because the family is wilfully blind. (326)

In Stockholm around 1850 almost half of all children were born to single mothers; in general the proportion of extramarital children in Sweden in the nineteenth century was about 10% (Frykman 1977; Frykman 1993:189f.; cf. also Hertoft 1970:68). This is not to mention the marriages entered into after conception but before birth. The assertion was that the nexus between sexuality and religious sexual norms had actually always been undermined – a development which continued with the great morality debate in the Modern Breakthrough and in the cultural debate of the 1930s, which was in many respects a struggle for self-determination in sexuality (Bergström-Walan 1970:11–58; Linnér 1967; above all Lennerhed 1994 and 1991). In the thirties a new functionalist physical consciousness, modernism, and the construction of discursive-collective identities such as national identity were combined to great effect (Frykman 1993:161ff.). In 1938 information on contraception was legalized and the first abortion law was passed (although without permitting social grounds). Sex education was made obligatory in all schools in 1955, an event which attracted worldwide attention; “the Swedish sin” became a catch-phrase (Lennerhed 1991; Frykman 1993:189ff.). The sexual liberalism debate conducted with great enthusiasm between 1962 and 1965, and also the Swedish sense of being the international standard-bearers of modernism influenced foreign opinion. Western conservatives were convinced that the Swedes had sacrificed the secret of sexuality to profane functionalism, functionalizing sexuality as a hedonistic principle. On the other hand, liberals praised Sweden as the model for progressive sexual policy and asked “whether it would be worth creating ‘many Swedens’ of sexual policy” (Giese 1970:9).

So against this background, is the image of comparatively sexually permissive, possibly even promiscuous Swedes justified, does it reflect an actual difference in sexual behaviour? It is astonishing that the Swedes themselves rate sex as being of low importance. Asked to characterize themselves, the adjective “sexiga” only reached 29th position in a representative investigation in 1985, mentioned with a frequency of only 0.5% (according to Daun 1989:196). And anyway one must ask how the description of the “modal”2 Swede as someone who prefers not to show his or her feelings, avoids conflicts and is otherwise shy, independent, honest, melancholy, matter-of-fact and serious (Daun 1989), can fit with the image of merrily copulating Swedes. However, these sociological findings can hardly be taken as firm evidence against the case. The fact that the Swedes do not see themselves as particularly sexual proves only that the sexual is not seen as a problem – without being able to say whether this results from a “liberal” attitude to sexuality, an unreflected acceptance of the traditional internal national discourse (cf. Frykman 1993:128ff.), a functioning repression of the sexual or an anaesthetized or underdeveloped physical awareness, for example, as a consequence of the “physical inhibitedness” Sontag attributed to the Swedes in 1969 (31). In any case it can be shown that the self-characterization of the Swedes is of negligible interest, because we are dealing with a heterostereotype, which relates to differences between cultures.

Even if one, like Hertoft, speaks cautiously of “differences of degree rather than principle” with regard, for example, to German-speaking countries (Hertoft 1970:69), the supposedly typical Scandinavian- Swedish tradition of premarital relations cannot be an argument for historical referentiality of the stereotype. This is because the sexual intercourse which can follow night courtship and engagement must be seen as premarital, but on no account as permissive or promiscuous (Mitterauer 1983:59). The flouting of religious norms for the commencement of sexual relations does not mean the absence of other strict social norms. Both night courtship and sexual rights after a public (!) engagement were subject to rigid social control, and observance of the rules was watched over collectively. Wollstonecraft commented on this in her travel book, following the description of the sexual rights of engaged couples:

It happens very rarely that these honorary engagements are dissolved or disregarded, a stigma being attached to a breach of faith, which is thought more disgraceful, if not so criminal, as the violation of the marriage vow (326).

Additionally, a comparative analysis of illegitimate birth rates in Sweden and elsewhere3 shows that premarital sexual intercourse was common in Europe and North America, a consequence of the “European Marriage Pattern” (early sexual maturity, high marriage age) (Mitterauer 1983:23– 30). Scandinavia is one of the regions with traditionally high illegitimacy rates, but the figures for the Eastern Alps region are significantly higher. For example, in Vienna in the second half of the nineteenth century, the proportion of births out of wedlock was over 50% (Mitterauer 1983:25). In Bavaria in the nineteenth century the figure was around 20% (Nipperdey 1991:127). The particular function of engagement existed into modern times, not just in Scandinavia but also in England, North America, France, Portugal, etc. (Mitterauer 1983:14). And night courtship was widespread in Central Europe, the Baltic region, Wales, Western France, etc., under a variety of names (Kiltgang in Switzerland, Fensterln in Austria, Nachtfreien etc.) (Mitterauer 1983:57).

Thus comparative methods expose the supposed Swedish tradition of permissive attitudes to sexuality as a myth. The efforts of Swedish academics, constructing the modern “people’s home”, to provide a historical base for the functionalist attitude to sexuality (cf. Frykman 1993:193), may have contributed just as much as the comparatively rich source material to the fact that this subject was handled early and extensively in Sweden (e.g. Wikman 1937; Frykman 1975; Tomasson 1976; the Swedish contributions in Laslett, Oosterveen and Smith 1980). But were there, in the period of primary interest here (roughly speaking the sixties), substantial differences between West German and Swedish sexual behaviour? The findings of the sexology which flourished in the sixties and seventies can be used to answer this question. Great effort was put into operationalizing of sexual behaviour, even if the methods of data collection of the various empirical studies are not always comparable, and the complexity of sexual behaviour was often sacrificed to a fixation on coitus, so practical for sociological operationalization. Three questions sketch an outline of sexual behaviour:

• the median age for the sexual debut (for the individual figures see Lennerhed 1994:68; Zetterberg 1969:88f.; Schmidt & Sigusch 1971:38, 124),
• the commonness and acceptance of premarital coital experience (Hertoft 1970:77; Zetterberg 1969:80; Schmidt & Sigusch 1971:85),
• the type of partner relationship at first coitus (Hertoft 1970:85; Schmidt & Sigusch 1971:43).

Significant differences in sexual behaviour between West Germany and Sweden in the sixties are not found, apart from the slightly lower median age in Sweden. A comparison with the different sexual behaviour in the USA shows clearly how slight the differences are (Schmidt & Sigusch 1971:135, 29). And one cannot speak of Swedish promiscuity either – in 1969 72.3% of those questioned had had five or fewer coitus partners in their lifetime, and for the supposedly so wild Swedish women under 30 it was 87.5% (Zetterberg 1969:96f.). This fits with the fact that as late as 1965 in the so-called “Sex Issue” of Ord & bild a social scientist felt he had to reassure readers that positions other than the missionary position are by no means perversions (Israel 1965).

The investigation could end here. The image of the permissive-promiscuous Swedes has been exposed as a stereotype, an incorrect oversimplification. The discourse on sexuality in Sweden in the sixties was no doubt more open and rational than in the West Germany, corresponding fully to the functionalist Swedish social model. But the findings do not show any actual differences in sexual behaviour which could satisfactorily explain the success of the heterostereotype. Last but not least, the comparison with Denmark raises the question of why a corresponding German stereotype of Danes does not exist.

Referential-denotative stereotype research, which decodes the stereotype through naive semanticizing, would be highly satisfied. The heterostereotype is exposed as a distortion of a referential fact. But the following objections can be raised against such stereotype research:

1) Methodologically, the objection to referential stereotype research is that being based on unjustified simplification is precisely the nature of a stereotype. Is it not therefore the case that referential stereotype research, which investigates the denotative reference of a stereotype to then demonstrate impressively that these facts are reproduced distortedly in the stereotype, is not only intellectually boring but also strictly speaking unscientific? Referential stereotype research may be politically important, but is hardly scientific. It has been influenced in such a way by its object of investigation, the by definition unscientific stereotypes, that it is excluded from academic discourse.

2) In terms of the philosophy of language or communication studies the objection to referential stereotype research is that it is based on a naive understanding of language, namely, on the conviction that language is able to represent reality directly. In the age of tertiary (mass) media, contact with otherness takes place above all via the media. And they at least influence reality, if not constructing it themselves:

For most people in Western cultures today there is de facto only a very small area of reality which is non-media, or is perceived completely independently of our media experience. Otherwise, our view of reality is based on realities prefiltered by others. Secondary assimilation, experience of a world already arranged and prepared, has taken the place of own experience of the world and its assimilation (Faulstich 1994:29).

In the age of mass media it is more true than ever that it is not so much the empirical experiences which constitute identity. The narrations of identity, the intertextual dimension, provided by media are just as important (Frykman 1993). Putting it bluntly, the above findings are actually irrelevant; after all, what percentage of the population actually has direct contact with Swedish sexual behaviour? And on the other hand, what percentage of the population is confronted with stereotypes of Swedish sexuality in mass media? Have not above all “Swedish films” and Swedish pornography contributed more to the generation and spread of the heterostereotype than for example, the representation of Swedish sexual policy in the “serious” press? The answer to this question is clearly “yes”, but the consequences are less clear. Do stereotypes in mass media lead an independent life, uncoupled from referentiality? And is the term “Swedish film”, as it appears in film histories, not itself a stereotype? The term refers to a type of film which combined sexuality and cleanliness and served as a link between, on the one hand naturist [FKK] films and nudies, which exposed the naked body at the price of its apparent desexualization, and on the other the erotic-pornographic film (Seeßlen 1990:170–174). It is however noticeable that in film histories “Swedish film” is used as a label for headlines, but otherwise the writing is about the Scandinavian sex film. It must not be forgotten that Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize text pornography (1968) and pictorial pornography (1969). This demonstration of permissiveness was perceived worldwide – not least in West Germany, home of most of the customers for Danish pornography. Thus reference to the “Swedish film” to explain the heterostereotype of the promiscuous Swedes only seems to provide an answer, which provokes another question – how could the stereotype of the “Swedish film” become established, for example in competition with the equally possible “Danish film”?

3) Finally, in terms of stereotypology, the objection to referential stereotype research is that it is based on a naive understanding of stereotyping – on the conviction that stereotyping is based “only” on lacking information or reflection and can therefore be eliminated. This is a legacy of the Enlightenment criticism of prejudice, an important concern in the bourgeois struggle for emancipation (see the overview in Elliott and Peltzer 1978:9–31). The enlightenment philosophers regarded prejudice as “pre-judice” (Vor-urteil), as a statement which, by criticism, can be turned into a true judgement. Kant accordingly defined prejudices as “provisional judgements, in so far as they are presumed to be principles” (Kant 1991:505). He sees prejudice as resulting from lack of reflection, which allows imitation, habit and inclination to take influence on the formation of judgements (prejudices). However, Kant is unsure on the question of whether prejudices can always be turned into justified judgements. For where imitation and habit cause a prejudice to arise, it is “arduous” to cure a person of it. Strictly speaking, the human “tendency to passive use of reason” (Kant 1991:506) which Kant implies here transcends the Enlightenment confidence in the transformability and dispensability of prejudices. For if formation of prejudices is anthropologically determined, would it not make more sense to assume their existence and instead to investigate their function in the communication process (Bausinger 1988:39f.)?

Rhetorical dimensions

Twentieth-century research concerning prejudices emphasized above all the functions of sociology of knowledge, economy of thought, and social psychology. This new reflexivity of the prejudice was also taken up terminologically: in 1922 “stereotype” was placed alongside “prejudice”, used first in this meaning by Lippmann (1991:77ff.). While prejudice designates an attitude to a particular collective, the stereotype is the semiotic concretization of this attitude (Elliott and Pelzer 1978:11). A term originating in legal discourse, and implying truth as telos, is partially replaced by a term from industrial-technical discourse, which is an end in itself.

The “continuous repetition of a pattern” (the definition of “stereotype”) can be minimized but is ultimately unavoidable. And if – according to Gadamer – there can be no understanding which is free from prejudices (Gadamer 1960:288, 465), then the discussion of prejudices and stereotypes must be transcendentalized. We must look at the conditions and modalities under which they act.

In traditional societies stereotyping is indeed based in the first place on lack of information. This is supplemented by its psycho-social, “habitual” function as described by Bourdieu, as a dispositioning system for social interaction. By providing delimitation from the “outside” they help to constitute the “inside”, to form identity, to produce a sense of society. Because this identity is created by differentiation, and one would hardly ascribe negative characteristics to oneself, heterostereotyping which is primarily social-psychologically motivated is negative, at best ambivalent.

This reduction in the complexity of the outside world through the construction of complexity within the system, to which the stereotype can contribute, took on a new meaning in the anomic experience of the modern age, because the problem in modern societies is not a lack but an excess of information and sensual impressions. Lippmann, who created the term stereotype at the same time as the Expressionists and Futurists tackling the anomic modern urban culture, noted of its function:

For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and see then. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture (1991:81).

The dangers of stereotyping are by no means concealed here. But it becomes clear that stereotypes are necessary for economy of thought and sociology of knowledge in the “great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world”, to prevent the contingency of the modern world from causing the individual to become paralysed in a flood of information. Stereotypes, according to Lippmann, are a type of mental shorthand which preserves a notion of wholeness, especially when confronted by things unknown or strange. Stereotyping thus allows the cultural construction of collective identities, which take the place of declining traditional identities. And which can offer us the possibility to reduce the complexity of the world for us – in the modern age the social-psychological and economy-ofthought functions of the stereotype are interlinked. Stereotyping is thus a perhaps regrettable, but definitely very suitable way to deal with anomie as the central problem of modernization.

Accordingly, the attention of functionalist stereotype research is only in the second place directed at the supposed denotative reference of a stereotype. It is primarily understood as a communication, whose origin, development and function in the communication process are to be investigated pragmatically. Thus for example, Tacitus’ description of the high moral development of the Teutons was directed primarily at his contemporaries, to whom he wanted to hold up a mirror. So stereotypes have not only a referential dimension, which is necessary but insufficient as an explanation, but also a much more important rhetorical dimension.

What then does the heterostereotype of the sexually permissive Swedes say about the West German–Western European communication community, what intention does it pursue? Sexuality is named as a distinctive difference between the Swedish and (West) German communication communities. A relationship to the per se authentically physical is evoked here, and its aura of authenticity is intended to reflect on the stereotype. But above all, this is a field which like almost no other symbolizes modernization in nutshell. For there was almost no part of the modernization process which had no effect on the development of sexuality (for the consequences of urbanization, secularization, democratization, increased education and knowledge, and development of consumer and leisure society on sexuality (see Israel 1970:174ff.; Dinzelbacher 1993:70–89; Beutin 1993:89– 102). As a central discourse of modernization, sexuality was progressively socialized by it4 and thus inseparably interlinked with the entire social system:

Because important cultural systems (religion/ theology/church; state/law; family/marriage; science; art; economics), lay claim to and realize love, its control, shaping and functionalization, its domestication, classification, or simply representation, alterations in one or more of these systems lead to alterations in the attitude to sexuality. And vice versa; alterations in the attitude to sexuality lead to alterations in one or more cultural systems (Beutin 1993:92).

At the latest since Foucault’s research it has become a platitude that discourses on sexuality always develop where the power in society is located, and are an instrument of power (Foucault 1978). There is an inseparable relationship between supposedly “merely” interpersonal sexual behaviour and the overall organization of society (Giddens 1992:3).

Sexuality is capable of representing the modernization project not only in synecdochic, but also in metaphoric terms. Modernization research, long committed to linear models, has in recent years emphasized that modernization is a paradoxical process which unites apparently contradictory developments (e.g. individualization and pluralization) (van der Loo & van Reijen 1992). At least in Western cultures sexuality has a similar paradoxical character. It is viewed ambivalently, on the one hand with fascination, on the other with fear and caution. My main point is that the promiscuity stereotypically attributed to the Swedes is primarily an expression of the ambivalent stance taken on the best-known project of Swedish modernity, namely, the welfare state.

This theory is able to resolve a number of problems. For example, it can be used to explain why there is no corresponding heterostereotype about Danish sexuality or a “Danish film”, because it is the Swedish welfare state which was and is regarded abroad as the prototype welfare state. The date of origin of the heterostereotype can now also be better understood. As long as the Swedish system was treated as a “model” abroad, was regarded by public opinion as the middle way to be emulated (Childs 1936) and as one’s own future, sexuality appeared occasionally in the public discourse on Sweden – but without exception as “natural” or “innocent” and above all not in the form of a national stereotype, as can be seen in the German reviews of Hon dansade en sommar. As late as 1963, in the context of a long Spiegel interview with the Swedish prime minister Tage Erlander, Sweden was presented as the “perfect” welfare state under the headline “Everyone is entitled to a pension”. The journalist’s critical questions were directed solely at the affordability of the welfare state, and its relationship to the private economy, and no reference was made to sexuality either in the journalist’s questions or in the illustrations for the interview (Der Spiegel 1963:60–67). It was not until the end of the sixties, when critical voices were increasingly heard, that the stereotype received prominence in West Germany. Examples are the Spiegel quote already mentioned or Huntford’s book on the Swedish welfare state, published in 1971 and translated into German in 1973. Huntford “crowned” his polemical criticism of the Swedish new totalitarians with a chapter on the promiscuous behaviour of the Swedes, stating that the freedom of copulation has led to an obsession which permeates all of Swedish life (Huntford 1971). Lennerhed, who has investigated “the Swedish sin” above all in Anglo-American regions, summarizes:

In the context, however, it appears important that the negative post-war image of Sweden is so extremely focused on Swedish sexual policy. The rational, pragmatic and reform-oriented sexual policy was seen as typical of the Swedish state and possibly of the welfare state in general (Lennerhed 1994:97).

The German heterostereotype of Swedish promiscuity implies the same connection between sexuality and welfare state, but it interprets it differently. It is more differentiated, because it does not only express criticism of the Swedish welfare state “model”, but articulates ambivalence towards it. This is because Swedish sexual behaviour came into use as a stereotype in the Federal Republic of Germany at precisely the moment when the image of Sweden became ambiguous,5 as criticism and fascination became paradoxically fused in public consciousness. The following question was asked in a representative West German opinion poll in August 1970: “Which country is the best example to us in terms of social matters, or is no country a model to us in terms of social matters?” For 44% of those questioned there was no country which was superior in social matters, but Sweden was in second place with 36%, with Switzerland at 7% and Denmark at 3% far behind. Even amongst CDU/CSU supporters, whose party leaderships presented Sweden as a socialist horror state, one in three thought that Sweden was a good example (Der Spiegel 1970:79f.). The attraction of the “model” was by no means gone (see also Der Spiegel 1972:122–145).

Finally, it is noticeable that the stereotype normally refers to female sexual behaviour. But this is only surprising if the stereotype is understood as referential in relation to the Swedish sex debate, where other subjects such as sex education, the abortion question, equal rights for homosexuals, and censorship played an important role (Lennerhed 1994) – a series of things which are ignored by the stereotype. Because, unlike tempting-threatening female sexuality, they do not offer the (male) groups which dominate public debate the opportunity to articulate ambivalence towards the welfare state project.6 An additional factor is certainly rhetorical identification of the Swedish welfare state as woman, emphasizing “female” characteristics (care, unagressiveness, warmth) (cf. Ehn 1993:279).

Symbolic dimensions

Alongside the referential and rhetorical, there is a third function which is typical of stereotypes and must not be ignored – the symbolic. Stereotypes do not just comprise referential elements which are organized rhetorically into structures. Like all expressions of language, they also develop an independent autoreferential existence and form syntactical relationships to other signifiers, to other stereotypes. If they meet certain requirements, such as boldness, commercial suitability and attractiveness, stereotypes may become independent of their origins. This development is speeded by the mass media, which increasingly themselves create the reality they claim to represent, and must therefore “draw inspiration from their own work”. Referential and rhetorical functions are superseded in importance by symbolic functions which mark the emergence of the stereotype. In the film The Producers mentioned at the start, the Swedish secretary Ulla, characterized as a “Swedish sexpot” in the secondary literature (Yacowar 1981:76), has long lost all specific “Swedish” qualities. She has become an icon for (heterosexual)7 sexuality itself. This process is very clear in films such as Sexual Practice in Sweden (USA 1972), which were produced neither in Sweden nor for a Swedish audience. Here a stereotype is used reflexively; a reflexive use of stereotypes appears to either expose them as stereotypes or to strengthen their symbolic-emergent function – or both at the same time.

Interference with other stereotypes represents a second means of symbolic emergence, or separation from the original communication context. The European image environment is today strongly influenced by American mass-media iconography. An influence of such images from the “dream factory” on the stereotype of the promiscuous Swedish female must be considered, in two respects. On the one hand, in the USA the stereotype appeared earlier and was more widespread than in, say, the Federal Republic of Germany. And its character was different. The introduction of obligatory sex education in 1955 was met with pure horror in “God’s own country” (Lennerhed 1994:89ff.), and significant differences in sexual behaviour can also be determined between Sweden and the USA, in particular with regard to American “petting” culture. In 1953 Kinsey and his colleagues determined that only 20% of the (albeit primarily white middle-class) US-American women born between 1900 and 1929 had had premarital sexual intercourse, while in Sweden in 1969 a figure of 68% was found for women born between 1905 and 1935 (after Hertoft 1970:77). So if one relates the stereotype to the difference between own and other communication community, the US-American image of Swedish promiscuity, applied to the sexual norms of the white middle class at the time, is more referential and less rhetorical or symbolic than the West German or West European stereotype.

On the other hand, it must be supposed that the attribution of blondeness to promiscuous behaviour also has an influence. Symbolic linking of hair and sexuality can be found in countless myths; but into the present century blonde hair was mostly taken to be an indicator of angelic innocence (Lurker 1991:272; Donner and Menningen 1987:32–41). However at an early stage the dream factory gave golden or ash blonde hair (rare in the USA because genetically recessive) a different meaning from that of the traditional iconography. In the melting pot of the USA blonde hair was an indication of belonging to the WASP elite culture (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which certainly also included Scandinavians). Anita Loos actually wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as an anti-blonde novel (the sequel was called: But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes), but the many film versions (including the one by Howard Hawks in 1953 with Marilyn Monroe in the blonde leading role) present instead an enhanced social status for blondeness. The blonde woman became the sensual dream woman, her hair no longer an indication of shyness and chastity, but an erotic allure. This type is embodied by actresses such as Jean Harlow, Mae West, prototypically of course Marilyn Monroe, in Europe amongst others Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve. Given this image of blondeness, the heterostereotype that all Swedish women are golden or ash blonde can only back up the stereotype that Swedish women are promiscuous. And this despite the fact that the sexually active women in the two Swedish scandal films of the fifties and sixties, Hon dansade en sommar and Bergman’s Tystnaden (1963; The Silence), are not in the slightest ash blonde or golden blonde.


The German stereotype of promiscuous behaviour of Swedes and especially Swedish women cannot be explained satisfactorily in referential-denotative terms, because the relevant differences are of little significance. On the other hand, an analysis of the rhetorical function of the heterostereotype shows that ambivalence to the Swedish welfare state “model” is articulated by proxy through stereotyping of Swedish sexuality. In the course of its use, mostly in the mass media, this rhetorical function becomes less and less important and the symbolic function comes to the fore, underlining the emergence of the stereotype and separating it from its original communication context.

The problems investigated can be represented in tabular form (see the table).

I have thus used a semiotic model to analyse the heterostereotype – in accordance with the “linguistic turn” in the social sciences, but also following the “semiotic” separation of stereotype from prejudice. Whether culture is a semiotic construction of reality (= essential definition), can be left aside here; it can at least be successfully analysed in this way (= functional definition).

Stereotypes too have a history – they originate, flourish and fade away. The heyday of the heterostereotype of the promiscuous Swedes is long past. In 1987, shortly after the Palme murder and the Bofors affair, it was noted in Sweden that the idea of “the Swedish sin” was on the retreat (Nettelbrandt 1987:139). The reasons for the slow death, or better the consigning to history of the stereotype, can easily be found:

Concerning the referential function, sexual behaviour in Western/Central Europe and North America has increased in similarity over the past thirty years. And in the wake of the AIDS discussion, the debates on sexuality in, for example, Sweden, Germany and the USA no longer differ.

Concerning the rhetorical function, the Swedish welfare state is no longer seen as a model (already in Childs 1980).

Symbolically, however, the heterostereotype will continue to survive for a time in public consciousness, as testified by the advertisement quoted at the beginning of this article. Just last year a collection with the title Erotische Erkundungen: Schwedische Frauen erzählen (Erotic discoveries: Stories by Swedish Women) was published by a well-known and serious German publishing house. The text on the cover: “Blonde, lascivious, insatiable: are Swedish women really like that?” (Kosubek 1995). The stereotype is plainly too good a selling point to ignore. But one could say that the interrogative form shows that it can no longer simply be used unreflectedly.

Stephan Michael Schröder
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Unter den Linden 6
D-100 99 Berlin

Translation: Meredith Dale


1 Unless otherwise indicated, translations from German and Swedish have been made directly from the original text. Any published English translations are indicated in the references.

2 Daun’s “modal” Swede is neither the same as a supposed Swedish national character nor the average Swede, Medelsvensson, but results from the difference between the statistical results of Swedish social research and the statistical results of other social research directed at a national collective (Daun 1989:48).

3 “Illegitimate birth rate” here summarizes what Mitterauer differentiates into “illegitimacy rate” (the number of illegitimate births per 1000 women in child-bearing age of 15 to 44) and the “illegitimacy ratio” (illegitimate births as a proportion of total births). For the historical reliability of these two indicators, see Mitterauer 1989:18.

4 Sexuality does not appear as a term until the nineteenth century, in the context of efforts to control female sexual activity. Following Foucault (see below), Anthony Giddens (1992:34) therefore concludes that “Sexuality is a social construct, operating within fields of power” and calls the emergence of sexuality “a phenomenon of modernity” (46).

5 Lennerhed (1994:93) claims that in the Anglo- American world a new image of Sweden was already established in the fifties, where Sweden “no longer appeared as an example, but as a warning”, an accordingly interprets “the Swedish sin” negatively, not ambivalently. So she takes the statement at face value, which probably results from the fact that as a historian she will hardly reflect on the stereotype character of “the Swedish sin”. On the other hand, Henningsen notes of the perception of the Swedish welfare state abroad, that “into the sixties the enthusiastic analyses [remained] more representative […] than the critical ones” (43). Svensson, who investigated the perception of Sweden abroad, sees a dominance of the positive image up until 1975, but accompanied by increasing criticism from the fifties onwards (Svensson 1988:139–161 (including bibliography)). In any case it can be said of West Germany that the idea of Swedish promiscuity is first stereotyped in the sixties. This can be seen in the decoupling of “preaching pastors and naked women”.

6 In this context it is characteristic that when 250 foreign tourists were interviewed in Sweden in 1967, the majority were familiar with the term “the Swedish sin”, but distinctly more men than women, and the men with a distinctly more positive assessment (Lennerhed 1994:267).

7 In the film Ulla, together with the older widows whom the hapless Broadway producer satisfies for pecuniary reward, is responsible for the “grotesque images of heterosexuality”, which balance the hints of a homosexual relationship between the two male central figures (Yacowar 1981:76ff.).


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Robert8 said...

"My main point is that the promiscuity stereotypically attributed to the Swedes is primarily an expression of the ambivalent stance taken on the best-known project of Swedish modernity, namely, the welfare state." come on, who believes that?

I have another theory. The 20th century represents the beginning of the communication (or rather, the 'manipulation' age) with cinema as a vehicule of images from other countries like Sweden, Africa etc. (I was just a kid in the 60ies, but God, I loved those Tarzan movies with Weissmuller, there were the first black people I've ever seen. For some reason, they had a tendency to always fall from the narrow paths in the cliffs. I was so scared that would be the pretty girl or the Explorers who'd fall, pfeeww!). Anyway, then in the 60ies, TV emerged as the main mass media (I've seen the tarzan movies on TV, not in the cinema) and that could have been the occasion for northen people, the women in particular, to realize that they were so fantasysed and eroticised by the southern euopeans and eastern oriental(...). Then, when they had a chance during traveling or when meeting with southern foreigners, these women tended to behave just as they were told to behave in the cinema and TV. This is some sort or feed back autosuggestion that you cannot escape when you are a teen. The 'easy northen woman' stereotype reinforced itself so to speak, but to me, it is clear that an underjacent ideology used this sterotype to serve its own ideological interests.
That is something you can only inderstand when you are much older, but at least we are all aware of it, here.

n/a said...


Interesting theory.

Additional possibilities: women simply tend to be sluttier when they travel and Northern European women could afford to travel more and earlier than Southern European women; modernization in general has been associated with increased promiscuity, and Northern Europe began modernizing earlier.

TGGP said...

Another example of the stereotype.

Nordicist said...

I’ve always seen Southern European women being stereotyped as promiscuous much more often than any other European women. And unlike many stereotypes that one appears to be 100% true.

Anonymous said...

The actual truth is. Northern European women, except Irish, are more promiscuous than Southern European women.

Anonymous said...

It's difficult to know exactly who is more promiscuous or whatever the value may be. However, one can not be promiscuous or slutty without the opportunity to be so. Given that Northern women are perceived as more beautiful and the aesthetic ideal, they certainly have more opportunity to be promiscuous. With this increased opportunity and peer pressure, I would say that all things considered they are probably far less promiscuous than Southern Europeans or non-white women in general if they had the same attention and pressure on them.

Anonymous said...

Infidelity rates show some interesting differences. Females don't differ that much except with Central Europeans and Asians. However the male rates vary, with Iberians even surpassing Africans in cheating. Sickening, but not surprising. Black women and Iberian males are the most unfaithful.

AE speculates that it might be a fluke, however given that prostitution is a cultural norm in Iberia and that the primary clients are married men, it's probably accurate. Also what could be more permissive, lascivious, promiscuous and adulterous than miscegenating an entire continent as they did in South America.