You Can't Just Walk Around Masturbating in Public, Swedish People

By Caisa Ederyd


Photo by Surefire. Clearly this man is neither 65 years old, nor masturbating publicly.

Last week, the Swedish newspaper Mitt i Stockholm reported on a sexual assault case brought against a 65-year-old man who had been seen touching himself on a local beach. Weirdly, he'd been acquitted of the charges laid against him because "the masturbation wasn't directed or aimed at any specific person". No one seems to know what the man was looking at while he pumped away at his groin – the horizon? An empty boat? A gull? – but nevertheless, over the weekend, the story started to ooze its way out to the rest of the world's media.

When Swedish news website the Local picked up the story, however, something was lost in translation. The Local is based in Sweden, but is an English-language site and they'd messed up one of the original quotes given to Mitt i Stockholm by the case's wonderfully named public prosecutor, Olof Vrethammar.

The English translation of Olof's quote, according to the Local: "The district court has made a judgement on this case. With that we can conclude that it is okay to masturbate on the beach. The act may be considered to be disorderly conduct."

The English translation of Olof's quote, according to me – a Swedish person: "The district court has made a judgement on this particular case. Consequently, you CANNOT imply or draw a conclusion that it's okay to masturbate on a beach. This deed could possibly be considered as offensive behaviour."

Unfortunately for anyone with an interest in the truth, it was the Local's version of the story – not Mitt i Stockholm's – that was picked up by most foreign media companies, leading to a lot of erroneous reporting. For example, in the pages of the world's biggest news source Mail Online, who worried that: "The decision [to free the man] raises questions about whether public masturbation will now be acceptable across Sweden, so long as it is not directed at another person." The Mail Online then went on to more or less answer those "questions" themselves, citing the Local's mistranslation of Olof's quote as evidence to prove that, from now on, it will be totally fine to wander the streets of Sweden masturbating – as long as you're not aiming your gaze/genitals at anyone while you're doing so.

I'm pretty sure I knew the real story already, but I thought I'd get in touch with Chief Judge Lena Egelin at Stockholm's High Court to clear things up for sure.

VICE: Hi Lena, thanks for giving me your time. So tell me, is it really legal to publicly masturbate in Sweden?
Lena Egelin:
As you can see, that's not really an easy question to answer. But in Sweden, you're not allowed to do something that is considered to be offensive behaviour. And you shouldn't do something to please your sexual needs in front of people because that's molestation. It's always a matter of evaluation in each particular case. And that's why you might get rulings that appear to be weird sometimes.

Right. So does this case with the 65-year-old masturbating on the beach change anything in Swedish law?
No, definitely not! It's always a matter of evaluation in each case. What have been discussed a lot in Sweden lately are situations where people have masturbated at home and someone has walked by their window and seen them. But in each case it's a matter of evaluation in court.

So according to Swedish law, what's the difference between inadvertently flashing someone and performing public masturbation?
I guess it's pretty difficult to claim that you're not masturbating when you are masturbating.

Yeah, right. How seriously does Swedish law look at public masturbation and flashing?
There are regular penalties if you've only done it once. But if you do it several times, it's more serious, and if you do it in front of children it's more serious. But a single time in front of another adult gives you penalties.

The Daily Mail wrote in its article about the 65-year-old that, "Sweden, like its Scandinavian neighbours, tends to have a more tolerant and sometimes progressive approach to social issues." Do you think that's fair to say?
I can’t really say. But when it comes to these types of cases, other countries might have some difficulties understanding how we deal with things. In some countries it would be considered offensive behaviour or sexual assault to swim naked or sunbathe naked, but in Sweden that's legal. And that’s because we have a different point of view on being naked.

On the other hand, other countries might think that our laws around sexual offences are tougher than they are elsewhere. It wasn't that long ago that Sweden, as well as other countries, didn't think that rape could happen within marriage. But these days, rape is always considered rape. Also, rape against children doesn't necessarily have to be a violent act to be seen as child rape in Sweden. As long as you have sex with someone under the age of 15, that's considered to be child rape. Other countries might think that's a bit tough. So I guess Sweden might appear to be a contradictory country in some ways.

So is Swedish law nicer on sexual offenders than anywhere else in Europe?
No, not at all.

Okay. What a relief. Thanks, Lena!

Follow Caisa on Twitter: @caisasoze

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