Iceland's casual sex culture is the most liberal in the world, but comes at a cost
For having a smaller population than St. Louis, Iceland is arguably the most sexually liberated country on Earth. Read any travel blog on the topic and you'll find countless (occasionally crude) accounts of how the Viking descendants who live there are more ravenous and enthusiastic about casual sex than anyone, anywhere, with a "backwards" dating culture that begins with drunk sex and ends in ... probably not much more.
Yet, while blogs and old ad campaigns like Icelandair's "One Night Stand in Reykjavík" make it seem like Icelanders have more casual sex than a cabana boy with student loan debt, they also win points in the novelty category with their different way of dating. Instead of the "three dates then sex" narrative dispensed in the U.S., their casual sex culture has created a unique microcosm of sexuality in which the country's more liberal "fuck first, names later" dictum sets it apart from the rest of the developed world.
“Dating before a hook-up is relatively new here,” says Sigga Dogg, an Icelandic sex writer, educator and president of the Icelandic Sexology Association. “So is the art of the more American way of chatting a stranger up, sober, in broad daylight. We are more into social media pokes or swipes or drunken gropes.”
And while not every single Icelander experiences sexuality in that way, Dogg says most Icelanders would agree with the country’s reputation as a sort of sexual oasis.
Iceland’s always been this way. According to Icelandic-American sexologist, author, and television personality Yvonne K. Fulbright, “Sexual permissiveness in Iceland goes back centuries.”
“The cultural acceptance of sex stems back to a contagious disease [smallpox], which ravaged Iceland in 1707, seriously depopulating the island,” Fulbright explains. “In an effort to repopulate the country, the King of Denmark declared it lawful for every young Icelandic woman to give birth to six children, regardless of her marital status. This act was not seen as one of shame, or involving degradation or loss of reputation, rather it showed status as something to be praised in the name of patriotism.”
The contemporary result of that history is that dating as Americans know it isn't really a thing people do, or have ever done there. Three-hundred odd years later after the King’s decree, love (as Americans idealize it) is almost as rare in Iceland as sunlight during the winter.
"I can't even imagine going through a typical American date. ... I'd much rather have sex first and see if there's a connection there before putting myself through that.”
“Icelanders don't really ‘date,’” Fulbright continues. “Icelanders are also less likely to have expectations that something more relationship-wise is going to come out of a casual sex encounter. We are more direct in our intentions, meaning there are no playing games in trying to snag another.”
"I can't even imagine going through a typical American date," Gemma* a 29-year-old native Icelander living in Los Angeles says. "What if it's awkward? I'd much rather have sex first and see if there's a connection there before putting myself through that."
Gemma's innate "sex first" preference explains why a much more normal order of operations in Iceland is to meet a stranger while you're out drinking, take them back to your place, have sex, and then decide whether you want to see them socially again.
“Say you hook up with a guy after a night of partying,” says Dogg. “If the sex was good, you might be willing to go on a date because, oh well, you’ve already had sex.”
However, a more impactful and modern reason why Iceland's casual sex culture is so pervasive is that it's the most feminist country on Earth. Literally, actually. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, Iceland tops the ranking of the world’s nations with the smallest gender gap for the eighth year in a row.
The same report also ranks Iceland first in many categories including political empowerment, educational attainment, economic participation and opportunity, and health and survival. For every man enrolled in university, there are 1.7 women. There are two women for every three men in the country's parliament. In 2010, it became first country in the world to ban stripping, prostitution and lap-dancing to send the message that women, or people in general, are not for sale.
The nationally-held Icelandic belief that women and men are equal players in the same game has directly contributed to the country's liberal atmosphere of casual sex. Particularly, it's done this by ignoring the scientifically inaccurate narrative that men are obsessed with sex, but women could take it or leave it. Instead, a commonly held belief in Iceland is that not only do women love and want sex, says Gemma, but they also know how to ask for what they want from men who are there, in a lot of ways, to please them.
"I don't know why people in other countries think women aren't horny," she says. "They are. I am! I'm not ashamed. Men are intimidated by female sexuality. In Iceland, we learn to silence that fear by telling men exactly how they can please us so they're not scared of us — they like to know how we work. We ask for what we want in bed because we're in touch with ourselves sexually. It's half because we have more sexual experience to know what we want, and half because we're taught that exploring our bodies to find out what feels good is normal and healthy."
According to Dogg, Iceland’s sex education has a lot to do with women’s more sex-positive beliefs. A sex educator herself, she says she’s often called upon to teach teens about self-pleasure and masturbation as a “powerful and an important way to teach your lover what you like, which is an especially important message for girls.”
It's no surprise then, that Gemma says Icelanders are far less likely to pathologize women who have taken an interest in sex as much as men are expected to. In that sort of permissive atmosphere, casual sex becomes easier because women are seen as equals to men. They're allowed to express their sexuality to the degree their biology drives them to without the fear of social shame or stigma.
"I am not afraid to be called a slut. In Iceland, 'slut' means you have your shit together. You're confident and comfortable with your body."
Because of these freedoms, Iceland has nearly eliminated slut-shaming, a sad practice that keeps many women silent about their sexual needs and interests. In fact, the word "slut" has evolved into a compliment in the tiny Nordic country.
"I am not afraid to be called a slut," says Gemma. "In Iceland, 'slut' means you have your shit together. You're confident and comfortable with your body."
So what do they call someone who has slept with 14 people in a week without the slightest intention of getting to know them outside the bedroom?
"Badass," she responds.
Despite the general emphasis on sex, however, people do fall in love and get married in Iceland. It's just not as common — and people approach them differently.
Gemma has had two serious relationships with Icelandic men, one of which left her with a severely broken heart. Many of her friends back home are seeing people, too. So it's not that there's a lack of emotion in Iceland, it’s just that the emotion tends to occur after sex.
"I fell in love with him because the sex was so passionate," she adds, a reversal of the American ideal that you should, for a lack of a less Cosmo-y phrase, "make them wait and make them work for it.”
Marriage is a slightly different story, too.
Because Icelandic women are so sexually and financially liberated — and because, by some scientific accounts, women are biologically less programmed toward monogamy than men — marriage is not the idealized fantasy it is here. In fact, it's customary to date someone, have a child with them and then raise it for years before marriage is ever on the table.
"You have this horrible term in English, 'broken families,'" Icelander Bryndis Asmundottir told CNN. "Which basically means just if you get divorced, then something's broken. But that's not the way it is in Iceland at all. We live in such a small and secure environment, and the women have so much freedom. So you can choose your life."
There are downsides to Iceland's sexual utopia though.
First, there’s the drinking thing. If Iceland’s hookup lifestyle is brought on by its exemplary treatment of women, it’s amplified by the country’s unique drinking culture.
According to a 2015 OCED report entitled Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy, Icelandic alcohol consumption has risen 35 percent since 1992. This has a lot to do with the more recent innovation of bars now closing at 5:30 a.m., a relaxed approach to last call which Reykjavik's Police department sees as a matter of principle, something that allows people more freedom to drink when they want to. And those extra early-morning hours? They aren’t going to waste.
“Being drunk and having a drink are very different things,” Dogg says. “Here, we get druuuunk.”
This is something Dogg would like to see change.
“We could probably be a little less drunk when we’re hooking up,” she says, citing multiple studies that have shown that drunk sex — or at least “druuuunk” sex — is less than satisfactory for the people involved. This brings up a quantity versus quality issue. While many Icelanders are having lots of sex, the sex they’re having when paired with alcohol may be kind of meh. Also, as Fulbright brings up, this has resulted in more "lack of consent" situations in recent years.
“On a physical level, it’s harder to get aroused and you are less likely to orgasm when drunk,” explains Dogg. “For me, sex should be about pleasure, with consent and protection, so I think we need to be able to confront people sober instead of using alcohol as a constant excuse.”
STIs are another issue. The amount of sex many Icelanders have means they deal with an a disproportionately high amount of disease like chlamydia, for which Iceland currently has the highest rate of in Europe, and has for the past 10 years — an accomplishment that's lead to the STD being affectionately renamed the “Reykjavik handshake.” Much of that is related to drinking, as inebriated people are less likely to use condoms than sober folks. But it’s also because the 2008-2011 financial collapse, which caused the price of condoms to skyrocket to unattainable rates and make preventative health services less affordable and accessible for young people.
All this said, it’s important to note that not all Icelanders engage in the country's liberal sexual atmosphere to the extent others — especially the younger ones — do. There are plenty of people who find casual sex to be less of a trend and more of a nuisance.
Johanna*, a 35-year-old Icelandic woman, is one of them.
“Yes we are sexually liberated,” she explains via email, “but that doesn't mean Iceland is a good place to come for a fuck. We don't want people coming here for some sort of sexual vacation. While Icelanders are more sexually liberated than the vast majority of people from other countries, it doesn't mean everyone there is an automatic score simply because they're socially allowed to enjoy sex.”
The diversity with which people approach sexuality in Iceland is also why Fulbright made it very clear that while Icelanders are sexually permissive, to be single and "sleeping around" isn't something to be coveted, or put on a pedestal as something that’s inherently “better” than how other countries do things. Rather, it’s simply a part of the experience an Icelander can choose to have during a developmental phase in his or her life.
There are pluses and minuses to everything. While Iceland's sex-forward society might sound bloody fantastic to a blue-blooded American, extreme sexual liberation is not a perfect model for everyone. However, what everyone can learn from Iceland is that female empowerment, and the recognition of women as equals, seems to benefit all people.[Originally published February 12, 2016]