COMES NATURALLY #51
Spectator Magazine - October 18, 1996
(c) David Steinberg
European Perspective: Notes from a Trip to Scandinavia
Just back in the country after spending three weeks in Northern Europe with my partner, Helen. It's the trip I've been postponing for two years -- a chance to visit the good folks at Cupido magazine on their home turf in Oslo, Norway, with some vacationing in Amsterdam, Norway, Denmark, and Germany thrown in. While this was more of a general vacation than a sex tour, I do keep my antennae up for sexual vibes, so here are some random reports and observations from points along the way.
We start out in Amsterdam, famous hub of liberality, marijuana cafe' s, and legalized prostitution. After hauling our bags in from the airport and up three flights of ridiculously steep, typically Dutch, stairs we hit the streets and quickly fall in love with the city in all its picture postcard glory -- a beautiful, relaxed, easy-going town of a city, more like San Francisco than New York or Chicago. Lovely old townhouses, canals with arched bridges and a hodgepodge of houseboats, artfully decorated trolleys, endless cafe' s with all chairs facing outward for people-watching, flea markets full of Indonesian artifacts, museums devoted to Rembrandt and Von Gogh, bicycles galore, and good food. Everywhere we look there are sexy ads for a perfume called Mexx. A naked woman embracing a naked black man. A naked woman being embraced by another woman.
In search of sexual Amsterdam, we wander around the main train station which feels distinctly and disappointingly like New York's 42nd Street. Announcements over public loudspeakers warn of pickpockets, and everything reeks of shlock. Eventually we find our way to the nearby red light district, where prostitutes sit in their famous windows while passers-by wander around, looking them up and down. The oglers are a mixture of tourist families (often including children), and all sorts of men, more often in groups than alone. The guys in groups are more boisterous (and more offensive) than the ones alone, making salacious jokes while openly leering at or ridiculing the women, daring each other to actually talk to one, or even go have sex with her. The women for the most part are obviously bored to tears. Some pose seductively for the guys, many don't even bother to do that. Every now and then there's someone who manages at least the pretense of a little real life or playfulness. I don't know what I expected, but the undeniable heaviness of the scene is disappointing.
Helen gets bored and goes to the hotel, but I come back, determined to see if I can make something interesting of the scene. I check out the few peep shows (where they try to shortchange you every single time you try to convert a bill to coins), but the shows are virtually devoid of sexy energy, essentially hustles for one-on-one private shows. The live sex shows ("real fucking") promise to be unbearably tacky and are expensive to boot.
Wandering up and down the streets along the canals and the tiny alleys that go between them, I decide to go ahead and have this experience, even though the general scene is seriously uninspiring. I find a woman who seems decently friendly and go up to her door. The price is 50 guilders ($30) for sex; 50 guilders more if I want her to be nude. I give her 100 guilders and we touch a little, talk even less since her English is pretty poor. At least she's not rushing me out the door. Eventually she sucks my cock with professionally distant attentiveness accompanied by the kind of appreciative murmuring that, coming from a lover, would indicate someone who was seriously enjoying what she was doing. She is absolutely fastidious about safe sex, putting a condom on me and not letting me so much as touch myself once the condom is on. Eventually I come, we make chit chat while I dress and she fixes her make-up, and I leave. A simple, direct, if generally impersonal exchange of sex for money. Q.E.D.
Leaving Amsterdam we rent a car, drive through northern Holland and Germany, take a two-hour ferry to the picturesque fishing town of Rudkobing in southern Denmark. Starkly constructed rural churches remind us that Scandinavia is, among other things, the home of staunchly proper Calvinist Lutheranism. Egeskov Castle, built in 1554, gives a sense of historical context. A "very rare" Norwegian iron stove from 1693 shows a seated man embracing a woman from behind, his hands all over her breasts. The inscription, according to the guidebook, reads, "Beware of touching things you do not know."
In Odense (pronounced "Oont'-suh"), Denmark's third largest city, I stumble on a local "sex kino" (shop) and go to check it out. Outside the shop are a series of tall, narrow, vending machines, selling a variety of products. It's like the old Automat cafeterias in New York. You put a 20 krone coin (about $3.50) in the slot, and buy whatever you want. There are graphic fuck/suck photo magazines, vibrators, dildoes, sex toys for sale, right on the street. Call it Dan Lungren's worst nightmare: Vending machines flaunting the most lurid of images to gawking, vulnerable children. Magazines and sexual devices available to any young whippersnapper with 20 krone to spare. This sort of thing has been going on for some 25 years, ever since Denmark liberalized its pornography laws. Meanwhile, Danish children seem to grow up into perfectly functional adults. As I stand in front of the store, a mother and her three young children amble cheerfully by without so much as a wayward glance.
I pick one of the more graphic magazines, drop my 20 krone in the slot. The door, alas, refuses to open. Certain things, I think to myself, are indeed cross-cultural. Inside the shop I complain to the manager (after the ritual recitation: "I'm sorry, I don't speak Danish; do you speak English?"). He comes out to see if I'm trying to rip him off or what. When he finds my coin rolling around inside the machine, his attitude softens. We go back into the store to chat.
I explain that I'm from San Francisco, and that I work for Spectator (which he doesn't know), and Cupido, which he knows quite well. His name is Morgen and he's the owner of the shop which, he says, is the only shop in Odense with vending machines on the street. Does he carry Cupido? No, he explains, Cupido is only sold in regular newsstands and bookstores, not porn shops. He's respectful of the magazine, but somewhat dismissive of its smaller-than-commercial-porn appeal. "Maybe 5% of my customers would be interested in Cupido," he shrugs.
He shows me around the store. Shlock sex toys, a variety of magazines and videos -- both American and European. I ask him how the American stuff differs from the European. "It tends to be more boring," he explains. "European magazines and videos are more exotic -- they have piss, shit, bestiality, young girls, more 'extreme' s/m."
Downstairs, Morgen explains, he shows videos "on the house." I go take a look around. There are a half dozen areas with large screens and benches where a motley assortment of 40- to 60-year-old men are watching a variety of American and German films. The actors and actresses in the German films are decidedly less glamorous and older than their American counterparts -- regular-looking people instead of hard-bodied, young superstars. The films get their charge from the sense of people doing something very naughty, in contrast to the general American porn ethos of "Gee, aren't we having good, clean, wild fun."
Back at the Odense Plaza Hotel, one of the town's finest, the pay TV includes two channels with sex movies just like in the U.S. In contrast to the U.S., though, these are fully explicit films. We have our choice of a German collection of gang bang scenes, and an unexceptional teacher-student-theme offering from the U.S.
Surfing the non-sexual channels from Holland, Germany, Italy, Britain, the U.S., and Scandinavia we find a BBC-produced feature about Good Vibrations. Nine time zones from home we watch Carol Queen explain in her familiarly matter-of-fact way how GV staff help the curious and the shy find the sex products that will make their life a little richer than before. Meanwhile, on a German channel, a sexy blonde prances around and bends forward to show off her cleavage. She turns out to be promoting a brand of chicken fryers available in the local supermarkets. An ad on a Danish channel dramatizes a middle-class housewife who has forgotten that her husband's boss is coming for dinner. "Oh, shit," she exclaims unapologetically in English before she remembers that she can run out and buy the advertised elegant take-out food to save the day.
Driving around Odense the next day, nude statues seem to crop up everywhere. A huge bronze reclining female nude dominates the square in front of Odense's City Hall, its dark metal rubbed bright and shiny between the figure's breasts, over her belly and cunt, and between her legs by the children who use the statue as an anatomical slide. A mother calls her three small children off of the statue just before I get my camera out. I think one more time how delightfully different it must be to grow up in a culture where appreciation of nude bodies is so normal that it is taken for granted.
We go to the Odense central train station, where Morgen said I could find Cupido on sale. I want to see the sex magazine I have worked for for eight years on a newsrack, one regular magazine among all the others. I tell the 60-year-old woman at the newsstand counter that I am looking for a magazine called Cupido; do they carry it? "Yes, of course," she answers, taking me to where many copies are displayed, right along with Elle, Glamour, and Seventeen. We will see Cupido in all its unexotic normalcy at virtually every newsstand in Denmark and Norway -- this magazine whose photos and stories are far more sexually explicit than anything you will ever see in Spectator.
We drive to Copenhagen and take an overnight ferry to Oslo where we are generously hosted, dined, and generally shown around town by Cupido editor Terje Gammelsrud and, and by Svein Peters, his partner of 33 years. At last I get to see the unpretentious office on a small street in the working class part of town where this delightful addition to the erotic publishing scene is created, month after month.
Showing us the sights, Terje takes us to Oslo's famous Frognerparken, the largest park in the center of the city, where dozens of monumental nude statues by Norway's famous sculptor, Gustav Vigeland, provide the backdrop as gaggles of local couples and families enjoy a sunny Sunday afternoon outdoors. Larger than life nude men, women, and children in all sorts of combinations cavorting together, fully alive and unashamed. Penises everywhere. A nude man embraces a woman warmly. Three nude teenage girls laugh together. A nude man swings his young son through the air. Two nude lovers caress. An exceptionally old nude man sits with his arms loving around an equally aged woman.
It is a monument to human physicality -- not pointedly sexual, but not desexualized either. This is what Norwegian children see around them, without comment, while they are growing up. This is what they take for granted as the normal way of being fully alive. It is so utterly sensible, yet so far from what is possible in the U.S. The contrast is exhilarating and depressing all at once.
Terje also takes us to a less well known temple to the spiritual vitality and essential eroticism of the human body -- the creation of Gustav Vigeland's brother, Emil. The entrance to the arched temple is watched over by a twinkly old man, 80 years old if he's a day. The wall bears the Latin inscription, "Quic quid Deus creavit purum est." (Everything created by God is pure.)
Terje's partner Svein, we learn, is quite influential in the Norwegian government -- chief press liaison and information officer of the Labor Party which has governed Norway continuously ever since the end of World War II. He shows us around the inner sanctum of the Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament, with quiet pride, introducing us to various people we pass in the halls, including the Stortinget's vice-president. That Svein is openly gay, and partnered with the editor of one of Norway's foremost sex magazines, seems to be of no concern or political liability whatsoever.
Now just imagine that sort of thing here: the gay partner of, say, the editor of the Advocate being the chief public spokesman for the national Democratic Party. Not bloody likely! And Norway -- as Terje, Svein, and past Cupido editors Hanne Grasmo and Olav Andre Manum were quick to complain to us, is the most conservative and sexually inhibited of the Scandinavian countries, lagging behind more liberal Denmark and Sweden, not to mention Holland.
When they last visited San Francisco, Hanne and Olav were amazed at the open sexuality here -- the experimentation, the variety of sexual subcultures, the openly sexual public entertainment and private parties. And yet we could never have the simple open acceptance of sexuality here that is so much a part of the culture in Scandinavia and Holland.
America, as Terje and Svein put it, seems to embody the best and the worst of the human spirit. On the positive side, they see all the openness of the American frontier -- the innovation, experimentation, freedom from the restrictions of convention and tradition. On the negative side, is a basic American rootlessness and antisexual fanaticism, not to mention the omnipresent American imperial arrogance the imposes its perspective on the rest of the world whether the rest of the world likes it or not.
Back in Amsterdam, the sexy Mexx perfume ads have disappeared. Now the billboards are dominated by an ad from United Colors of Benneton showing, without comment, a black horse mounting and fucking a white horse from behind. Helen and I laugh. It's a funny picture, after all, and people in Europe seem to get the joke, but in America this image would be greeted not with a smile but with a snarl.
We pack our bags and make our way home from where people have been doing things a certain way for a thousand years or so, for better and for worse. Whatever sexual struggles are going on in Europe, they don't seem to be ripping society apart the way the sexual wars are in the U.S. I wouldn't want to live forever carrying the weight of all that tradition and convention, but the feeling of grounded sensibility that comes from that long historical context offers a vision of how things could be if we could just get past the sexual hysteria -- let bodies be bodies, sex be sex, love be love, and get on with the business of enjoying being alive.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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