They 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.
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 arse”.
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).
Women 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 morality.
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 tolerance.
The 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.