If Denmark is so liberal, why was it late to #MeToo?

Nors, The Guardian, Wed 13 Jun 2018

older men think the anti-harassment campaign is out to destroy their freedom –
that if you don’t agree with them you’re a puritanical prude
The Kastrup
seaside resort in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photograph: Scanpix Denmark/Reuters

began to show up at dinner parties about six months ago. They’d appear in the
guise of some charming man, about 60 years old. I would be seated beside him.
It would all begin politely, but at some point someone at the table would
mention #MeToo. Then something peculiar would happen. My dinner partner’s body
language would change, and he’d launch into a heated diatribe against the
movement. As if he’d blown an inner fuse.

The first
time, I was unsettled; the second, shocked. The pattern was basically the same
each time. A well-educated man, in some cases powerful, and then me, a female
Danish author who is an amiable and willing conversationalist – and then #MeToo pops up. Upon which his perception of me shifts, and I
become a dustbin for his rage.
In 1969
the concept of open-mindedness led to Denmark becoming the first country to
make pornography freely available
One of
these dinner companions introduced his anger by saying: “Women always play the
victim, but the true victims are men.” It was a clever opening gambit because
he dominated the rest of the conversation, and since “women always play the
victim”, I couldn’t argue that I couldn’t handle it. While I stared at his
impeccably ironed shirt, he proceeded to explain – just as another man did at a
dinner a month later – that “nobody was ever hurt by a slap on the bloody
A third
table companion took the time to explain to me men’s need to discharge semen,
and women’s obligation to understand this need. It was getting on for
Christmas. We managed to eat a duck while he held forth. This urge to discharge
was so potent, he said, that women could rob men of their power “just with
their bodies”. If they flaunted their wares, they were asking for it. They
should cover up.
Who are
these men I keep meeting? Not patriarchs from the Middle Eastern cultures that
are so often castigated, but native sons of the homeland of tolerance: Denmark.
If you wish
to understand the Danes, you need to understand the country’s phenomenon of frisind
(a free mind). Frisind is rooted in the 19th-century “free spirit” movement
that ultimately led to women’s suffrage in 1915 and then same-sex partnerships in 1989. It may sound paradoxical, but
it’s precisely this phenomenon that made #MeToo take longer to get started in
Denmark than in other European countries (most notably our neighbour Sweden,
where the movement was swiftly embraced).
across Europe are waging new battles, with one beautifully won in Ireland recently. #MeToo is likewise
something we relate to beyond our national and cultural differences. In
Denmark, however, it signalled its presence in the media most forcefully
through the angry counter-reactions of these mature, powerful men.
Why is
that? If you look up frisind in the dictionary, it means “an unprejudiced,
tolerant attitude and way of thinking”. We Danes are just as proud of our
tolerance as we are of hygge (“cosiness”, a phenomenon at the core of the Danish soul
and which describes our feel-good attitude towards life), gender equality,
freedom of speech and our democratic philosophy. That’s why frisind was given
prominence in the Denmark Canon, a list of the 10 values that define us,
published in 2016.
The idea
of tolerance has its roots deep in Danish history, notably with Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, a 19th-century pastor and
poet who maintained that you should be open to others’ points of view, even if
you disagree with them, and who helped establish pluralism as a Danish value.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Danish concept of tolerance began to include
sexuality. With proponents such as the author Agnes Henningsen and her son, the
writer and architect Poul Henningsen, frisind became a break with the old
The idea
was that we should be natural in our sexuality. That women, like men, have a
right to enjoy physical pleasure without subjecting themselves to the old
norms. In 1969 this expansion of the concept of open-mindedness led to Denmark becoming the first
country in the world to make pornography freely available. It was a revolt
against the puritanical 1950s.
In 1970,
the year I was born, sex education was introduced by law in all Danish primary
schools. Thus I learned in class to understand sexual frisind like this: that
everyone is free to make their own decisions concerning their bodies; that I
have the right to my own desire, and the right to enter into sexual relations
with consenting partners; and that no one can judge me for the natural urges of
my body. The healthy message of frisind was: as long as you don’t violate
others, you are free.
The men
that I and many other women keep encountering in the wake of #MeToo, the ones
who insist that a slap on the backside never hurt anyone, took part in the
sexual liberation of the 1960s and 70s. They enjoyed it like the smorgasbord, a
Scandinavian buffet you can pick and choose from. Now they think #MeToo is out
to destroy frisind. If you don’t agree, you’re a puritanical prude of the kind
we Danes have a tradition of rebelling against. In some ways, #MeToo in Denmark
has ended up being about how we define one of the best things we have: sexual
meaning of concepts can shift over time without us noticing. Two of us can sit
at a dinner table and not know how the other person reads a phenomenon that is
so deeply rooted in our common culture. In my version, frisind is a gift that
gives me the right to be a sexual being. I can say either yes or no to sexual
relations. I choose not to slap other people on their bums unless they
really want me to.
But in
the version of those older frisind men, this Danish open-mindedness and
tolerance is a privilege. A right. Their right. Frisind gives them, over the
roast duck and clinking silverware, the right to threaten me with a good old
slap on the arse, a slap I’m not allowed to deny them.
I don’t
know if any of them noticed how quiet I became when they spoke like this.
If they did, did they ask themselves why? Probably not. But here’s the answer:
the first time I was unsettled, the second time I was shocked. The third
time, I took notes.