The Story of Swedish Sin

A recently opened exhibition in Stockholm has awakened interest in the age-old label. 

  • The trajectory of the Swedish sin. Born when Ulla Jacobsson showed her nipples in ”Hon dansade en sommar” in 1951.
  • The Swedish sin is an internationally known phenomenon that has influenced foreigners' views on Swedish women for years. The source of the epithet is a speech given by US president Dwight D Eisenhower in 1960, in which he claimed that "sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide" in Sweden were due to welfare policy excess. People soon forgot the link to welfare policy and the rest but the sin remained or remains.

  • Cemented by the racy behavior of Monika (played by Harriet Andersson) in Ingmar Bergman's ”Sommaren med Monika” from 1953.
  • It's been covered in uncountable ways through the years. The latest Swedish female to make it big on the global scene may very well be the fictional character Lisbeth Salander (from the Millenium series and films). Hardly your typical Swedish woman, which most of the world still thinks of as blond, beautiful and careless about whom they have sex with. This has been the case ever since 1951, when the film ”Hon dansade en sommar” (”One Summer of Happiness”) shocked the world by showing the naked chest of Ulla Jacobsson. That was the likely birth of the Swedish sin epithet. Two years later, it was cemented by Ingmar Bergman’s film ”Sommaren med Monika” (”The Summer with Monika”), which showcased unprotected, non-marital teenage sex.

  • And given the name ”Inga” with the movie ”Maid in Sweden” starring Christina Lindberg. How many Swedish women haven't been asked "Is your name Inga?" when abroad?
  • A new exhibition titled ”Den svenska synden” (The Swedish Sin) opened recently at Spritmuseum on Djurgården, and it looks at years of Swedish skinny dipping and similar ”sins” on the silver screen. The walls of the museum are covered with movie posters featuring barely clad people. The museum even states that the exhibition is X-rated.
    Do you know why so many non-Swedes think the most common name for women in Sweden is Inga? Well, it’s because of the 1971 film ”Maid in Sweden” starring Sweden’s most well known pin-up girl Christina Lindberg, whose character’s name was Inga. Today Lindberg says: ”I don’t know how responsible I am for that movie. In those days I was just one of many. Today, I’ve become cult.” Lindberg was discovered on a beach, and photographed in a bathing suit, while she was still a school girl. The school’s principal gave her an ultimatum: school or movies — and Lindberg chose movies. However, even before Lindberg portrayed Inga, back in 1955, when sexual education was made mandatory in Swedish schools, Time magazine published an article titled ”Sin and Sweden.” Lena Lennerhed, professor in the history of ideas at Södertörn University says: ”That article stated that Swedes no longer acknowledged the concept of sin, that we had no morals, and that this is how it goes when the church no longer has any influence.” When asked what this has done to the image Swedes have of themselves today, Lennerhed says: ”A lot. When foreign media began writing about the Swedish sin in the 1950s, it also attracted attention in Sweden. The Swedish Institute published a brochure with facts, upset over the many negative misconceptions.”

  • Harriet Andersson) in a scene from Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika (”Sommaren med Monika”) from 1953.
  • But not everything is negative. The positive flip side to all this hullabaloo is that there is a greater freedom for women in Sweden to have sex without feeling shame of guilt. However, this kind of reputation also led to Sweden becoming a mecca for porn movie theaters, and ”Schweden film” became a concept, though what was considered porn back then probably wouldn’t raise many eyebrows today. Sexploitation and porn were not the only reasons nudity was shown in Swedish movie theaters, though. In the 1960s and 70s, there was a desire to educate the population. The documentaries ”Kärlek så gör vi. Brev från Inge och Sten" (Love — how we make it. Letters from Inge and Sten), ”Rapport från Stockholms sexträsk” (Report from Stockholm’s sex swamp) and ”Ur kärlekens språk” (From the language of love), are just three of those educational movies, and the latter caused a commotion. So much so, that 30,000 Londoners took to the streets in protest when the film was shown. One banner supposedly said: ”Sweden — more porn, more suicides, more alcoholism, and more gonorrhea every year.”
    For more information about the museum and the exhibition: (The exhibition Swedish Sin created in collaboration with artist Peter Johansson runs from May 22, 2014 through January 18, 2015.)

  • So, is the label true or not? We say no but... a more uninhibited way to deal with skin and nudity may well create the sense of a more casual view of what sometimes follows... For a closer look at Scandinavian lifestyles today, see our earlier story for Nordic Reach Magazine: Love & Marriage: Scandinavian style