It is true that Oprah Winfrey has an estimated 30 million viewers and is one of the most influential people in today’s entertainment. It is also true that when it comes to Iceland’s global reputation, sex seems to be a touchy subject to its inhabitants. As Icelanders, we have no qualms about glorifying our unique landscape, our fresh water, our clean air, our well-preserved language, our sagas, or even our performance in Eurovision. We’ve survived volcanic eruptions, pandemics, earthquakes and extreme weather for centuries. No wonder we’re proud. However, when sex becomes the topic of conversation, we change the subject. So when a hot, blond Icelandic anchorwoman confesses that one night stands do happen in Iceland (as do they in the rest of the world), the shit – or perhaps the rotten shark – hits the fan.
The national psyche is perhaps still healing its wounds from the loss of prestige that it suffered when our very own Icelandair started marketing Iceland as a place where beautiful women didn’t think twice about jumping into bed with just about anyone. The offers to Britons to come and enjoy a “dirty weekend” or even a “one night stand” in Iceland caused a public outrage in 2003. The Centre for Gender Equality in Iceland, along with the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, filed complaints with the Equal Status Council of Iceland. The complaints were later dismissed on the grounds that the British campaigns were outside of the committee’s jurisdiction. But the point had been made clear, and Icelandair’s dirty campaigns were history. What few people know is that tourism to Iceland had been decreasing in the years of 2001 and 2002, by a worrisome 4-5% per year (Hagstofan, the Icelandic Registry Office). However, in 2003, tourism increased by a good 17%. It is impossible to pinpoint what caused this sudden boost in tourism, but knowing about the “Dirty Weekend” ads, you get to thinking. Especially given the fact that tourists from Britain went from 44,800 in 2002 to 53,900 in 2003, which is a 20% rise between years (Icelandic Tourist Board).
Maybe we have to go even further back in history to find the wound that makes the nation hypersensitive to sex-talk. In World War II, Icelandic women developed a reputation of flocking around the British and American soldiers who came here. It got to the point where the derogatory term “ástandið” (“the state” or “the situation”) was coined about the time when respectable, Icelandic women turned into army-groupies. Getting caught up in “the situation” was spoken of in the same hush-hush manner as STDs or adultery. At the time, Iceland was a developing country, and the soldiers were wealthy and exotic compared to the average Icelander. They had rare and expensive things to offer their sweethearts, such as chewing gum and nylon stockings, unavailable to the Icelandic public. As a result, some of the girls may have developed the dream of being swept away to another country with more comfort and luxury available to the average consumer.
Whatever the cause may be, most Icelanders are less than thrilled about our reputation as the “Bangkok of the North” and the “Country of Sin” in other parts of the world. The hot, blond anchorwoman on Oprah, Svanhildur Hólm, has been publicly attacked and criticized for furthering this kind of attitude towards Icelanders. But is it possible that there’s a grain of truth to the claims made in the Oprah episode? Many of the angry letters and responses the show provoked focused on the statement made by an unidentified Icelandic woman who claimed that Icelanders start having sex at the age of fifteen, adding that neither girls nor boys are looked at as promiscuous for doing so. Moreover, she claimed that sex on the first date is “a pretty common thing” in Iceland. The definition of promiscuity varies from person to person and is hard if not impossible to measure, but the age of first sexual experience and number of sexual partners however, are easier to calculate. Durex, the biggest condom manufacturer in the world, conducts an annual global sex survey. In 2004, more than 350,000 people from 41 countries took part in the world’s largest ever survey of sexual attitudes and behaviour. Those of you who made a fuss over Oprah may want to stop reading this article right now. According to the survey, we’re not only young when we start having sex, we’re the youngest in the world by far. Icelanders start doing the horizontal mambo at the tender age of 15.7 years (also confirmed in an Icelandic survey by Jóna Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir in 1998).
As a nation, we are two whole years under the global average age of 17.7 years. We’re also half a year younger than the next nation on the list, being Germany at 16.2 years. So yes, the statements made in Oprah do have a hint of truth to them. Furthermore, the Durex survey proves that not only are we eager to get started, we’re also a nation of sexual adventurers. We’re the leading country when it comes to vibrator ownership, beating the global average of 27% with an impressive 52%. Since we’re so fond of our vibrating buddies, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Icelanders are also the nation most likely to use sex toys in the world, as 56% of Icelanders who partook in the survey confirmed. When it comes to number of sexual partners, or as some may put it – promiscuity – Iceland tops the world average easily. On a global scale, the average human being sleeps with 10.5 different people, while Icelanders do the hanky panky with 12.4, placing us 5th on the list after China, Brazil, Japan and Denmark. The unspeakable one night stand? Yes, we’re top of the list there as well, with a towering 71% of Icelanders confessing to the deed in the 2003 survey, compared to the global average of 45%, (with only Vietnam topping us at 75%).
When it comes to sexual attitude and outlook, Icelanders surveyed admitted another fact that may cause some of the offended Oprah viewers to go haywire, namely that we’re indeed very much a nation that considers sex on the first night of meeting someone. In fact, we’re one of the top three nations that are willing to get down and dirty on the first date, along with the Russians and the Italians. So why do we flip out when someone points out to us the facts of the matter? How come we publicly behead Svanhildur Hólm and our Oprah-reps for confessing that sex with strangers “happens” in Iceland, when a whopping 2/3rds of the nation confesses to it?
Active but Safe
Let’s just face it: Icelanders have sex. According to numerous studies, we start at a young age, have multiple partners, use sexual aids and we even have one-nighters. In fact, we’re one of the most sexually adventurous nations on the planet, which may have something to do with our frisky reputation. Of course, this is not true for each and every one of us, but the surveys speak for themselves and arguing with the results is not of any use. What makes more sense is to face our sexual behaviour and use the statistics to see where we’re at risk. Today’s sexually-related problems such as HIV call for responsible sex lives and use of protection, both of which Icelanders are aware of. We’re the nation who is most willing to see our tax money being spent on contraceptives (56% in 2004 according to Durex). Furthermore, we take far fewer risks when it comes to contracting STDs than our Nordic neighbours. Shockingly enough, Sweden and Denmark share the dubious 1st place when it comes to unprotected sex, with 64% of those asked confessing to the deed. Norway, sadly, comes in only 3rd place, so we can be proud of ourselves for lurking way back at no. 18.
Surely, Iceland could’ve been portrayed in a better way on Oprah. Svanhildur Hólm claims she tried to open the Oprah-team’s eyes to the things she feels are important about Iceland, such as our maternity benefits, that the female workforce participation here is among the highest in the world, that over 60% of our university students are female, that virtually all Icelandic women are wage earners by their own choice, etc. According to her, the talk show diva was not interested in any of these things, strangely enough. Svanhildur also claims that her answers were edited to fit the image Oprah wanted, in this case seemingly the Icelandic, blonde, binge-drinking slut who feeds on putrid foods. This article will not take sides or discredit either Oprah or Svanhildur, so it is safe to say that we’ll never know what Svanhildur’s intentions were in the interview, and we’ll never know whether Oprah has a disgraceful editing style, either. All we can be sure of is the fact that Iceland has a lot more to offer than casual sex, decayed testicles and drinking sessions that last all night. Without knocking the value of any of the above-mentioned things.
However, by watching the show, it was clear that Oprah wants her viewers to feel comfortable in their own skin. America was praised at any given chance, and Oprah pressed all of her guests to tell her what they think of American women, and especially, if they think that they’re fat. When a Belgian woman on the show confessed that she thought the American dream was a bit overrated, things took a different turn and the atmosphere became decidedly uncomfortable.
Ms. Berkers: “… and we think that a lot of women have two jobs, work hard, like the single woman, and, you know, don’t have the glamorous lifestyle.
Ms. Berkers: So we think the American Dream is a bit overrated.
Winfrey: Oh, really?
Ms. Berkers: That’s what we–yeah.
Winfrey: Oh, see, we think we’re the luckiest women in the world. I do think…
Ms. Berkers: OK.
Winfrey: …that we’re the luckiest women in the world…
Ms. Berkers: Yeah.
Winfrey: …being in the United States. I think we’re very lucky and very blessed. Do you?
Ms. Berkers: Yes, absolutely…
Ms. Berkers: …because we’re free and…
Ms. Berkers: Yeah.
Ms. Berkers: Yeah.
Winfrey: I think we’re lucky and we’re blessed here. I don’t think we’re balanced.
Ms. Berkers: Yeah, you put it–yeah.
Winfrey: I think we–thank you.
Ms. Berkers: Yeah.
Winfrey: Belgium produces 172,000 tons of chocolate a year?
Ms. Berkers: Yeah.
Maybe that’s where the secret lies. Maybe Oprah doesn’t want to hear about how lucky women are in other parts of the world, such as Iceland. Maybe Oprah wants her viewers to sit happily ignorant in front of their TV sets, praising their self-proclaimed “land of the free”, while receiving bizarrely skewed news from other countries. Okay, so we’re sexually adventurous in Iceland, and yes, some Icelanders do eat rotten shark once a year in the annual Þorrablót. When it comes to women’s empowerment, 30.2% of the seats in the Icelandic national legislature in 2004 belonged to women, while the in United States, only 14% of representatives were women (Inter-Parliamentary Union). As a matter of fact, Icelandic women’s good status on a global scale has made the European Council look to Iceland as a role model for equal opportunity. A 2002 report from the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men states that a section of the Icelandic constitution concerning the equal rights of the sexes “bears witness to an inalienable wish to elevate the right of the individual to the highest possible position in society.” While amendments to the constitution have very little to do with luck, this one certainly leaves me feeling lucky.
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