Future Porn

The Golden Age of Scandinavian Porn


by Simone Ejstrup

When wondering about where something is headed, it is always interesting to look at where it is coming from. What better place to start than my own place of birth, Denmark, which became the first country in the world to legalize pictorial pornography?

Walking around Copenhagen this rainy autumn afternoon, streets smothered in golden leaves, it’s kind of hard to imagine that this was once the world’s capital of porn. There are no traces left of the many tourist sex shops that once occupied Copenhagen’s main street Strøget – in fact the only public nudity you’ll see these days is a retouched add for breast implants that sometimes glides by on the side of a bus. Yes, the Danish heydays of erotica are long gone, but the little country in the north still thrives on its reputation of sexual liberation. So what exactly happened during the 60s and 70s that managed to influence the way some people still think about us to this day? Let’s have a look at the golden age of Danish porn…

In 1969, Denmark became the first country in the world to legalize pictorial pornography (at least of the countries where it was ever banned), and literary pornography had already been legalized two years earlier. That’s of course not to say that porn hadn’t existed before then. From the dawn of civilization mankind has found ways to record sexual experience, using every technological step forward to create new pornographic forms. Explicit sex on film became available in the 1910’s in the form of silent black and white stag films of few minutes length, and although these were strictly illegal, they were produced and distributed in secret.

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Stills from anonymous stag films circus 1900 presenting pee sex and spanking! (HUG!, 1985)

The abolition of censorship in Denmark had long been awaited. From the mid of the 60s pornographic films and magazines had already been produced in large quantities, porn was actively debated, and people widely believed porn to be an aesthetic rather than an ethical issue. Who was the State to interfere with the private lives of its citizens? Interestingly, until 1969, the endeavor to change censorship had been an idealistic battle largely fought by the cultural elite of Denmark; Porn was considered to be avant-garde. But legalization led first and foremost to commercial exploitation, which wasn’t exactly the cool association that the cultural elite had hoped for.
The Danish government’s motivation for finally giving in was partly the belief that once material became easily accessible, people would eventually lose interest. This might sound a bit naïve but, in their defense, this is actually what happened to literary pornography. This time the result was the complete opposite. Porn immediately rose to become Denmark’s biggest export (right next to bacon), but the Danes weren’t the only ones benefitting from the new meat market… Foreign directors flocked to Denmark to make films that they weren’t allowed to show in their home countries. Some found a loophole: they marketed their films as documentaries about Denmark’s loose approach to sex, and since this was really just an excuse to show explicit sex in films that otherwise would have been banned, it meant that a whole lot of really bad “documentaries” were produced in Denmark during those years…

While foreign directors jumped on airplanes to make quick money (these were times when there was actually money in porn), authorities in their home countries were watching closely from a distance. In America there was a prevailing fear that once porn was freed men and women would no longer be able to contain themselves but transform into crazy sex-maniacs who wanted to fuck every living thing. Imagine how confusing it must have been when reports didn’t show an increase in sexual assaults at all, in fact, a study made for an American client by a professor at Copenhagen University, Berl Kutchinsky, documented the opposite. Some would argue that the Americans’ obsession with Scandinavian sexuality is what eventually ended censorship in the US. To them, northern Europe had become synonymous with erotica and for years to come they would randomly throw “Danish” into the titles of porn films, even though the production hadn’t been anywhere near Denmark.

But before we continue on the juicy past of the Danes, let’s make a quick trip to Sweden. While we were attracting all the attention, pornographers in our neighboring country were pretty much free to do whatever they wanted. Even though the Swedish legislation did not undergo the same procedure as in Denmark until the following year, their guidelines regarding censorship had always been sort of vague. In 1969 the Swedish director Torgny Wickman released a film called The Language of Love, which would become an international success and one of the first commercial films to show explicit sex on the silver screen outside of Scandinavia, though not without certain censorship cuts. Wickman claimed that the film wasn’t a porno since it had educational value, and it did have a panel of qualified experts on board discussing anything from female masturbation to STDs. But the film also featured clips of people having actual sex, and even though the appearance was a bit clinical (and less than arousing, to be honest) this was considered highly controversial, and in the UK the film was demonstrated against in Trafalgar Square with pop star Cliff Richard as one of the leading protesters. The Language of Love is also the film that Travis takes Betsy to see on a tragic date in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), that terminates with Betsy leaving the movie theatre in disgust – This gives a pretty good idea of how the film was perceived by the Americans.

Denmark was the only other country than Sweden where the uncensored version was permitted to screen, and one schoolteacher went as far as taking a class of children as young as 12 years old to watch it. He saw no reason why something as natural as sex should be kept a secret to them. A local radio station recorded their reactions: they all seemed to agree that the film hadn’t been shocking at all. Eventually the film was shown in several Danish schools for children at the age 13-14 without the authorities stepping in. Simply put, what was deemed revolting pornography in the UK and USA was now a part of sex education in Denmark. And the film does fall into a weird category: Imagine a panel of experts discussing sex frequently interrupted by demonstrational clips of actual sex, but where people are really going at it. It might be a little too intimate for watching beside your schoolteacher… Still, even though the film feels a bit outdated today it would probably have made a pretty good sex-ed back then. (But if you are looking for something a little more entertaining, I recommend the sequel, More Language of Love, that followed in 1970, because that one is actually pretty hot).

Back then it was common to anticipate a future in which explicit sex was a normal part of mainstream cinema. Gazing at the landscape today we can all agree that, even though there are some examples (like Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac), that’s not exactly the reality we’re living in. Denmark between 1965 -1978, however, really did end up having what you could call a tradition of making films that were at the same time hardcore porn and mainstream films, meaning that they would show in mainstream cinemas as well as being reviewed in newspapers – a tradition that lasted for more than ten years.

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Still from “In the Sign of the Virgin”(1973)

From 1973-1978 the Zodiac-films were produced, a series of six feature films like nothing you’ve seen before. Before 1969 Denmark was already well versed in making comedies and the new wave of erotica resulted in an unusual combination of these two genres: Porn comedies (and why shouldn’t you combine getting off with having a laugh?). In the first Zodiac film, In the Sign of the Virgin, it is feared that the impending passage of Venus will cause “disturbing erotic behavior” to the citizens of a small village. A young student sets out to save the poor people from their cruel destiny but somehow the sleep-inducing medicine that he intends to pour in the village’s groundwater gets switched with Viagra… All of the Zodiac-films contained explicit sex but were made by well-known directors and popular actors from mainstream cinema who would star in them, not necessarily participating in the sex acts but somewhat indicating that this was a time where porn had a more positive connotation. And there were actually examples of a people having a career in porn and mainstream cinema simultaneously – using the same name!

During the 60s and 70s Denmark became known worldwide for the liberated minds of its people. And maybe we were (I mean, there was Bodil after all, a chestnut actress who would have a good time with her farm animals and totally get away with it – she was just doing her thing, ya know?). Despite this, the label of “remarkably liberated” seemed far from the self-understanding of the average Dane. In his book Scandinavian Blue from 2010, American expat and expert in the field of Scandinavian erotica, Jack Stevenson, puts it this way:

“There was the sunny liberated paradise of sexy, easy-loving blondes that was being aggressively sold to foreign audiences; and then there was the rainy everyday that Danes actually lived in, which was vastly more complicated and where this supposed new utopia was difficult to define or access. They and their country were being grossly typecast by filmmakers claiming to have discovered a sexual paradise on earth and it was almost embarrassing.”

At the end of the 70s the golden age of Danish porn stopped abruptly and for twenty years there were hardly produced any erotica in Denmark at all. Then director Lars Von Trier’s production company Zentropa would start a side project called Pussy Power, initiated from the idea to create sophisticated porn that also appealed to women. But Pussy Power closed down after a few years and the production of Danish porn went back to its none-existence.

Weirdly, today people in Denmark no longer talk much about their past as a “porn country”. Wasn’t porn, after all, cooler to be associated with than things like today’s strict immigration policy? But times are changing, and there’s an expiration date to everything… Maybe some day someone will look back and be like “hey, remember when you could just walk into one of the commercial movie theatres and enjoy a good porno in a dark auditorium full of total strangers? Let’s go back to those times!”


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