A couple bathing naked somewhere in Sweden.

Are Swedes turning into prudes?

"Nudity is not a big deal."
11 min

Many foreigners see Sweden as a land of bodacious blondes unafraid to shed some clothing at the beach, sauna or pool. But it seems that image is about to change as finding top-less sunbathers for example is getting increasingly hard. Are the nonchalant Swedes turning prudish or was the stereotype never true to begin with?

Brian Palmer, an American anthropologist who has worked in Sweden since the 1980s says that he has observed a change but adds that part of the explanation is that the image of Swedes being extremely sexually liberated and comfortable with public nudity was exaggerated to begin with. 

“It was partly accurate that there was a greater openness and degree of personal freedom in Sweden and in Scandinavia,” he said. “But it was also exaggerated particularly abroad.”

Back in the 1950s and 60s a special image of Sweden was projected to the world but not necessarily by Swedes themselves.

The image was that of a bleak Nordic country filled with beautiful, though at times depressed people, sexually liberated and not afraid of showing themselves in the nude.

That image was reinforced when US President Dwight Eisenhower in early 1960 chose to mention in a speech a country in northern Europe describing it as addicted to sin, socialism and suicide. Though never mentioning Sweden by name, it was clear to which country he was referring.

Sweden has been battling with the image that the country has an abnormally high suicide rate ever since, when in fact the country is listed at number 30 on the list of countries when they are ranked by suicide. In addition the reason why Sweden had a high suicide rate in 1960 could simply be that the country had better and more accurate statistics compared to other countries.

But it wouldn’t be stretching the truth to say that Swedes over time has attached fewer stigmas to nudity and sex compared to other European countries. Sweden was the first country in the world then sex education became mandatory in all schools in 1956.

Movies like “I’m curious yellow” and “I’m curious blue” by Vilgot Sjöman also featured plenty of naked bodies as did a few films by world famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

The curious movies are particularly interesting since they were in some ways considered provocative for their political content here in Sweden while certain states in the US classified them as soft pornography.

“There are several factors that have made public nudity into something more problematic, more anxiety provoking than before,” Palmer says. “Partly the internationalization of culture… partly the sexualisation of people’s bodies, particularly children’s bodies.”

There are many theories why Swedes might have chosen to cover up.

Influences from the outside world both through immigration to Sweden and via television and movies probably contribute.

As for why parents don’t let their children run naked on the beach as much as before, one reason could be the increased awareness and fear of sexual predators. The aggressive marketing and the media’s sexualisation of young girls is another.

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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