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Denmark’s ‘scandi-lous’ reputation

With its sex-positive policies, public nudity, and provocative press coverage, Denmark seems to have stirred up a somewhat steamy international reputation. But is the reputation warranted?

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Sarah Redohl

It was the first hot day of summer - the kind that makes a girl want to tie on a bikini and bike to the nearest beach. For me, that’s Amager Strandpark, where I had just nestled between two dunes when a man settled a couple metres in front of me and stripped down to nothing but a smile.

In my native United States, it’s rare to see strangers totally nude. Certainly not at the beach, and even in locker rooms, people cower in corners trying to pull up their pants while struggling to cover up with a small towel. On the other hand, locker rooms here abound with naked Danes.

Danes’ openness to nudity ranks high on the list of “16 Ways Denmark Wins at Sex,” according to Buzzfeed. But public nudity here seems more sensible than sexy. After all, it’s practical to be nude in locker rooms or at the beach (goodbye, tan lines!). And yet, Denmark seems to have stirred up a somewhat steamy international reputation.

The sex survey says...

Eight out of 10 Danes think a good sex life is important, according to Project Sexus. A collaboration between Statens Serum Institut and Aalborg University, Project Sexus is the world’s largest population study on sexuality and health. The study was full of interesting statistics; did you know one third of Danes have had more than 10 sexual partners? But I needed comparative data. That’s when I found YouGov’s most recent European Sex Survey.

"41% of danes have public sex."

When asked which sexual activities respondents have tried, Scandinavian countries ranked first (out of 13) in every activity. Denmark ranked among the top three in nine of the 11 activities. Danes reported the highest rates of watching pornography (63 percent), one-night stands (51 percent), public sex (41 percent), and more. Danes were also the second least likely to have participated in ‘none of the above’ (10 percent).

Sex-positive policy

Denmark does seem to have a history of sex-positive policy. Sexual education here begins at the age of 6. During ‘Sex Week’ - the sixth week of every school year - children learn about subjects ranging from masturbation to LGBTQ+ rights. The curriculum is considered among the most progressive in the world. Next door, Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce mandatory sexual education in 1955.

Denmark has its own firsts, too. It was the first country in the world to legalise pornography in the late 1960s. In fact, porn was screened on public TV channels in Denmark in the wee hours of the night. However, these decisions were more pragmatic than they were provocative. In the 1970s, an internationally recognised researcher at the University of Copenhagen found that porn hadn’t led to an increase of sexual violence as many had feared, but that the rate of some sex crimes had dropped.

In addition to pragmatism, when it comes to sex, Danes also seem to separate personal feelings from public policy. Although one third of Danes in the Sexus survey reported that same-sex sex didn’t align with their morals, nine in 10 support same-sex marriage. Denmark was also the first country to legally recognise same-sex unions in 1989.

What I think the Buzzfeed article got right about sex in Denmark is an overall attitude of ‘If it feels good and it’s not hurting anyone, go for it.’ Small but surprising freedoms underscore this ethos. For example, public sex is allowed in Ørstedsparken (if it feels good…), yet signage requests couples avoid loud or visible sex during the day and clean up afterwards (...and it’s not hurting anyone…). Go for it.

Getting a reputation

Recently, a Radio 4 journalist ‘went for it’ on a broadcast about the re-opening of swingers’ clubs post-Covid when she recorded an interview while having sex with a fellow guest. Her reportage garnered broad media coverage in Denmark and a fair bit of international press. Such stories might even lead one to declare the Danes have ‘won’ at sex. Have they?

Half of the Danes surveyed by Project Sexus said they were unsatisfied with their current sex life. In the YouGov survey, Danes’ satisfaction was the second lowest of the 13 countries surveyed. And Denmark’s sex-positive policies? Like Danes’ approach to nudity, the policies seem more sensible than sexy.

Ultimately, it’s tough to determine whether or not Danes are having more (or better) sex. Perhaps it’s just more out in the open here - in schools, in surveys, on the radio, and after hours in Ørstedsparken!

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