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What Ever Happened to the Vikings?

A quizzical look at the Scandinavian experiment to create a
gender-neutral society
by Elizabeth Debold

I’ve never wanted to be a man. Despite the obvious inequality between men and women when I was growing up, it never seemed to me that men’s roles were that much of a bargain. My dad and the other men I knew as a child didn’t seem happier than my mom or the other women in my neighborhood. Sure, they earned real money, and often controlled it, but it was in return for doing a lot of things that were dull, dirty, and sometimes downright dangerous—not in the sense of being exciting but rather flat-out life-threatening. Yet there is one thing I have always envied about men: they can pee standing up. It may seem silly, or even trivial, but I can’t count how many times in how many places it would have been such a relief to stand and deliver.

So when I read recently that in Sweden for a man to point his plumbing at the pissoir is increasingly considered, as one writer explained, “the height of vulgarity and possibly suggestive of violence,” I couldn’t believe it. These guys once were Vikings. How did they become persuaded to take a seat? Sleuthing a bit, I discovered that in 2000, a feminist group at Stockholm University demanded that all urinals be removed because they were discriminatory to women. Talk about penis envy! I had no idea that this was how culture was evolving in Sweden, Holland, and all the Scandinavian countries that are leading the gender-equality revolution. In 2005, the World Economic Forum deemed Sweden as the “most advanced country” for women in regard to economic and political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and well-being. Sweden and the other small homogeneous nations of Northern Europe have generous maternal and paternal leave policies, free access to higher education, affordable child care, and more. They have legislated a smorgasbord of policies designed to level the playing field between women and men that make my feminist heart beat faster. But it never occurred to me that as women took to their feet, men would sit down—on the john, no less!

Thinking about this dislodged an odd tidbit of information from my memory. Ten years or so ago, I read a news story about how the Swedes were bored in the bedroom—their interest in sex had actually declined since the late sixties. The article suggested that women were finding it difficult to maintain sexual interest in their partners. In the effort to create a truly gender-equal society, Swedish men had become so, shall we say, similar in temperament to women that the spark that keeps an intimate relationship alive was getting snuffed out. Could it be that in Sweden, to put it a bit crudely, women were women, and the men were too?

Now, to be fair, and not just blinkered by my own biases, our sense of what is appropriately male or female is profoundly influenced by cultural norms. For example, women in the United States began shaving their body hair in the early twentieth century in order to look more “feminine.” While this custom has morphed and spread, some other cultures do still see it as bizarre. But I had never thought much about how men would change if cultural values shifted to support the traditionally female domestic sphere. My assumption has always been that doing so would be positive for all of us—allowing women and men to express the full range of human qualities that historically had been divided by gender. And that it would free us to be more committed and creative in our relationships. But what if it wasn’t so simple? I became very curious about men in progressive Scandinavia—Sweden, Denmark, and Norway—the land where Vikings once plotted their fearless and fearsome raids. Popular progressive and spiritual thought tells us that making a shift in Western culture toward the feminine is the path to peace and a positive future. Many would say that we need to look no further than to Northern Europe to see a preview of our own future. What, I wanted to know, was happening to men in those most egalitarian countries? Researching this, however, proved to be quite difficult. Progressive sources describe this terrain just south of the Arctic Circle as nothing short of paradise—Scandinavians, particularly the Danes, get high marks for being among the happiest people in the world. Conservatives insist that something is rotten in the State of Denmark (and Sweden and Norway), but their responses are laced with antifeminist misogyny, gender fundamentalism, and xenophobia. I needed to find out for myself. So, at the first hint of spring earlier this year, I set out for Denmark, the oldest ongoing kingdom in the world, on a quest to discover what’s happened to the Vikings …

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This article is from
Constructing the New Man