A recent article published in Marie Claire Magazine listed Sweden as the country friendliest to women. Among several reasons mentioned for this designation were long maternity leave times, anti-sexism training in kindergarten “where male toddlers are encouraged to play with dolls, and females with toy tractors”, free education for everyone, and wide employment opportunities for women (including priesthood in the Swedish Lutheran Church). We are also told that over 60 percent of college students in Sweden are female and that in many educational realms women outperform men. Political representation is also very close, with women composing almost half of the Swedish Parliament. This country, long one of Europe’s most progressive, is hailed by many as a Utopia where gender is neither an advantage nor disadvantage to anyone.

Although the article noted some economic problems such as high taxation, high prices, and a troubling male-female wage gap, the part of the article that most fascinated me was the reportedly sad state of Swedish men. One Swedish woman interviewed discussed the discomfort she feels when a man pays for her dinner on a date. The article notes, however, that:

“Fortunately she almost never finds herself in that predicament, since Swedish men rarely offer to pay, nor do they perform any other conventional courtesies, such as holding a door open or helping a woman visibly struggling under the load of a heavy bag.”

While I am sure there are many Swedish men who would indeed pay for a date’s meal or open the door for a woman, I for one consider it sad that many men in this country would not show such basic kindness. While it is said that some women find such things demeaning, I have yet to ever meet one. Furthermore, I would suggest that when done for the right reasons, these acts are appropriate indications of human concern, not residual signs of female repression.

Gender equality in Sweden has also apparently resulted in a somewhat awkward dating culture.

“By American standards, Swedish men are painfully slow to make the first romantic move. ‘Men treat women like friends,’ Anna-Maria says. ‘They rarely chat you up, unless they’re drunk.’ Instead, Anna-Maria often does the asking herself. ‘Sure, I’d like to be chased, but men have grown lazy in Sweden. So I take the initiative. Though I have to say, it detracts from the sexual intrigue.’

I wonder if some American women, already frustrated by the unrelenting passivity of men in their lives, would be excited to live in a country where men show even less kindness or romantic initiative. What a sad commentary it is to say that these men will only take the simple step of talking to a woman when under the influence of alcohol!

Many women in this country, as well as in Sweden, have out of frustration and loneliness, resigned themselves to being romantic initiators. True, many people today do not see this as particularly problematic. It can be reasonably argued, however, that such behavior only exacerbates the problem of male passivity. The result of female initiation may be actual relationships, but the core cultural problem of male passivity goes unaddressed. No man has ever been cured of fear and laziness simply by being asked out by a woman. If she is doing all the heavy lifting on the front end, she can’t expect him to take on any more of the relational load later on. Interestingly, even the enlightened Swedish woman interviewed in the article wishes that men would pursue her.

While women have certainly been marginalized under some patriarchal systems, we must ask if intentionally subverting gender distinctions is really the best antidote to this unfair treatment. I fear that, in an attempt to recognize the true value of women in modern society we have unintentionally destroyed a healthy conception of masculinity. While some in Sweden may argue that a gender neutral society is preferable to discrimination and abuse, I don’t see a legitimate conflict between a healthy concept of masculinity and the respectful treatment of women.

I contend that what is needed, both in Sweden and American, is a revitalization of healthy masculinity. Many of the societal ills of our day can be traced to the lack of real men. The truth is that real masculinity, which protects, provides, and initiates, has been on the decline in the USA for years, and we are paying the price for its absence. It would be better for both men and women in our country if we rediscovered it.