STOCKHOLM—Hundreds of dancers have invaded the floor. The more self-conscious among them cradle drinks and stand pushed up against the walls of the crammed, clammy club. Most, though, have submitted to the beats blasting out of the speakers as the DJ spins a techno remix of Gloria Estefan’s “Conga.” Though it’s near freezing outside, inside it feels more like a sauna. Sweat is dripping, fists are pumping.

On the surface, it looks just like any other dance party. Except here you won’t get any drunken propositions. Because—as the event’s name, Sober, hints—there’s a strict no-alcohol policy. The drinks served at the bar are “mocktails.” The signature offering is a blend of lime, fresh mint, and ginger beer that will set you back $13. Before entering the club, you have to take a breath test; if the machine shows alcohol content above 0.0 percent, you will be asked to leave.

By Swedish standards, the club feels like an anomaly—in fact, in the 1990s, Magnus Uggla, one of Sweden’s most famous artists, released a hit single titled “I Never Dance Sober.” The song mocked Swedes’ pickup methods and lack of natural charm. Its title paraphrased Roman philosopher Cicero’s adage “Nemo enim fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit”—no one dances sober, unless he is insane.

But the idea of on-the-wagon partying has been gaining popularity in Sweden. Sober is the second clean-living party phenomenon to come out of the Scandinavian nation in recent years. It follows the wildly popular Lunch Beat, a midday office rave that started as an informal gathering of a handful of colleagues and ended up spurring a global lunch-disco movement. Lunch Beat, which also operates a no-alcohol, no-drugs policy, even gained sponsorship from the Swedish Institute, a government agency tasked with promoting Swedish culture around the world.

Sober founder Mårten Andersson says one of his biggest inspirations is “straight edge,” the 1980s hard-core punk subculture whose adherents refrained from using alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, sticking instead to “natural highs.”

Nine months ago, Andersson, a 40-year-old stand-up comedian and television host, decided to take a break from drinking after 20 years of hard partying, a period during which he found himself waking up next to people he didn’t remember bringing home the night before.

“That’s how bad it got,” Andersson says. “I thought I was alone in bed and turned around and realized I wasn’t and that I didn’t have a clue who the person lying next to me was. That’s not how I want to live my life anymore.”

Sober has been endorsed by the Swedish Temperance Association. Andersson says he appreciates the support but that he is not trying to push a message that drinking is immoral or wrong. Instead, he wants to offer an alternative. “If you want to go out dancing, flirting, and talking to people you don’t know, then there should be at least one place where you can do all that without alcohol,” he says.

Sober premiered in September and has already inspired copycat events around the country. The original monthly club night attracts a mixed crowd. The high proportion of young hipsters is perhaps not surprising, seeing as the venue, Södra Teatern, is in Södermalm, a Stockholm district recently flagged by Vogue as one of 15 coolest neighborhoods in the world.

While Sober is in its infancy—just two club nights have been arranged so far—Andersson says it has already attracted people of all ages. Some are simply curious about the concept. Others are ex-addicts looking for alcohol-free parties. The third category is what Andersson calls “yogis”—people into yoga, meditation, and other spiritual pursuits.

Zoaria, 30, belongs in that last group. She became a raw-foodist four years ago and hasn’t touched alcohol since. “I used to drink a lot,” she says. “I was a real party girl, but I don’t miss it. Now, I’m just really into dancing, and there’s a wonderful vibe and great energy at this club. People are here to have a good time. At other clubs you always have to deal with drunk people who bump into you and smell bad and smoke a lot. I don’t think they’re as happy as this crowd.”

Standing by a high table with a view of the dance floor, first-time Sober attendee Ralph is sipping one of those pricey mocktails. He refers to himself as an addict but has been clean for over 17 years. He doesn’t really go out much these days, he says. “It’s usually just a hassle because people are so wasted,” Ralph explains, adding that, at Sober, “people are clean and honest.” He is grateful that the club offers him a chance to go out on the town again without having to face the temptations of alcohol and drugs.

Khaled and Moa, two friends who are both in their early 30s, are not teetotalers but say they like the idea of going to a club that’s not based around drinking. “The use of alcohol is such a strong norm in our society today that if you don’t drink, people find it provocative somehow. Here, I can have fun and party without being forced to drink and without getting weird looks for turning down alcohol,” Khaled says.

“Partying here doesn’t feel that different,” Moa says. “People are happy, they’re dancing, and they’re drinking—it’s just that there’s no alcohol involved.”

To outsiders, Swedes’ drinking habits can seem curious. In a sense, there is a laxer attitude compared with that of the States; 18-year-olds are allowed into bars here. Scenes of mayhem are also common at popular nightlife spots in cities like Stockholm, where otherwise introverted Swedes tend to turn loud and chatty after a few drinks.

While Swedes seem to have few inhibitions when it comes to drunken behavior, regular alcohol consumption is relatively uncommon. European habits of drinking a glass of wine at dinner on a weekday or enjoying a beer with your lunch are generally frowned upon here. Swedes like to save it for the weekend and go all out.

There are restrictive alcohol laws in Sweden. You can’t order alcoholic beverages before 11 a.m., so forget Champagne breakfasts. Establishments that want to serve alcohol must also offer food. A restaurant or bar where guests spontaneously decide to dance may end up losing its alcohol license unless it also has a so-called dance permit.

To buy alcohol for personal consumption, you need to go to a state-run chain of stores called Systembolaget, which has a strict monopoly on liquor sales in Sweden. The stores have no late-night opening hours and are shut on Saturday afternoons, Sundays, and public holidays. You have to plan your drink shopping carefully: no spontaneous beer runs, no picking up an extra bottle of wine if your dinner party suddenly runs out.

Andersson has his own theory about Swedes’ paradoxical relation to alcohol. “Most tourists who come to Sweden describe it as really stiff,” he says. “They say we Swedes don’t talk to strangers, that we’re reserved. Instead of really doing the work required to change that, we drink ourselves to that state where we dare to break out of our comfort zones. But that’s cheating because when the high fades out, we’re back to scratch again.

“If Swedes would start doing things sober that they usually do under the influence of alcohol, I think we could change the way we drink in this country. I truly do,” says Andersson, adding that getting wasted “just feels un-modern.”

Could Sober be the next Scandinavian export?  Andersson says it’s too early to tell, but he’d love to prove Cicero wrong: “It would be amazing to become the Ikea of clubs and spread around the world.”


Each Friday, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.



Debattfestivalen Battle of Ideas firade 10-årsjubileum i oktober och för tionde året i rad utlovade arrangörerna, the Institute of Ideas, en helg av ohämmad debatt under mottot Free Speech Allowed.  I år handlade det om allt från feminism till moralism, från robotar till gatumusikanter. Nathalie Rothschild rapporterar från årets upplaga av Battle of Ideas i London.

Orden Free Speech Allowed hängde på en stor banderoll i foajén till Barbican Centre, ett kulturhus i brutalistisk stil som en gång utsågs till Londons fulaste byggnad och som sedan tre år tillbaka är värd för Battle of Ideas. Där navigerar upp emot 2000 deltagare mellan scener där 400 talare debatterar i sammanlagt 80 seminarier.

Vad är då poängen med parollen? Måste man verkligen under en debattfestival år 2014 påminna deltagare om att ordet är fritt? Lever vi inte trots allt i en tid då det offentliga rummet fylls av ohämmat tjattrande, twittrande och tyckande?

På Battle of Ideas uttryckte många en frustration över uttrycks- och handlingsfrihetens tillstånd, något som visade sig redan i seminarierubrikerna. Ett urval:

  • Why are we afraid to judge?
  • From Yid Army to Green Brigade: free speech for football fans?
  • Busking – the clash between liberty and noise pollution
  • Toxic on Twitter: should we clamp down on trolls?
  • Policing the night-time economy: killing the lads’ night out?

På festivalen lanserades även en “Free Speech Helpline” dit lättkränkta besökare uppmanades att ringa in för att få hjälp att borsta av sig kritik, stå upp för sina åsikter och fritt uttrycka sina tankar (telefonnumret, för den som känner sig träffad, är +44 208 525 7912).

En genomgående tanke med Battle of Ideas – som jag själv deltagit i som talare och moderator – är att människor tål att behandlas som robusta individer som kan utsättas för åsikter som de inte nödvändigtvis håller med om. Det gäller även ungdomar. Många av de 450 skolelever som erbjudits gratis inträde till festivalen nöjde sig inte med att sitta tysta i publiken utan utmanade talare när de fick chansen att ställa frågor och komma med synpunkter (det stora publikdeltagandet är utmärkande för Battle of Ideas).

Ofta är det just föreställningen om att uttalanden sårar och kränker som motiverar försök till att begränsa det fria ordet. Formella inskränkningar på yttrandefriheten är relativt milda i länder som England och Sverige men samhällsdebatten kringskärs av att gränserna för vad som är acceptabelt att säga blir allt snävare. Konsekvenserna för de som avviker är inte sällan social utfrysning.

Den informella censuren, liksom tendensen att lägga band på sig själv, är ett minst lika stort hot mot det fria och öppna samtalet som formella begränsningar, menar Battle of Ideas arrangörer.

Paradoxalt nog lever vi i en tid då alla har tillgång till medel för att yttra sina åsikter men då man också blivit mindre mottaglig för öppen debatt och i stället alltmer intolerant till allt som faller utanför ramen av det socialt acceptabla. Till och med så kallad normkritik handlar, i slutändan, om att införa nya normer för tal och tanke. På sociala medier råder häxjaktsstämning – det som i Battle of Ideas broschyr beskrivs som ”twitchhunts”. Debatter pendlar mellan konsensussträvande och förolämpningsslungande.

Namnet till trots blev det sällan några riktiga verbala boxningsmatcher på årets Battle of Ideas. Inte fysiska heller för den delen. Personangrepp och Twitter-tjafs uteblev till stor del också. De flesta stora samhällsfrågor – folkhälsa, konstnärlig frihet och utbildning fanns bland dem som tacklades under festivalen – är inte svartvita och kan varken reduceras till enkla frågeställningar som handlar om att vara för emot eller till en målsättning som handlar om att uppnå konsensus. Bättre då att inte låtsas som att de två alternativen är de enda möjliga utan att istället mana till ärliga debatter. Sådana kan bli både behagliga, snåriga och underhållande.

Nathalie Rothschild
frilansjournalist och reporter och producent på Radio Sweden

Battle of Ideas har en Youtubekanal där man hittar sessioner från tidigare festivaler och där filmer från årets upplaga kommer att läggas ut inom kort

Några debattsessioner med särskilt medietema i år, som kan vara värda att hålla utkik efter på Youtube, var:
Me, my selfie & I: narcissism or empowerment?
Big Data: Big danger?
Trust me, I’m a music critic
Drip by drip: Have we given up on privacy?
Hashtag feminism: radical or banal?

Stockholmare har möjlighet att uppleva en Battle of Ideas-kväll på Kulturhuset onsdag 5 november. Mer information här.

Doctors, human-rights advocates and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities have joined politicians for a circumcision debate in the Danish parliament.

It took place a day after the publication of a poll showing that 74 per cent of Danes support a ban on non-medical male circumcision.

Dan Rosenberg Asmussen, chairman of the country’s Jewish Community, said the local media was “filled with misinformation about circumcision and its effects”. He added: “I’m not at all surprised about the outcome of the survey”.

During the hearing, the Danish Health and Medicines Authority’s director general, Else Smith, said a ban is not justified because the risks are not serious enough.

But two Danish parties and the country’s children’s ombudsman support a ban because they believe circumcision violates children’s rights.

The Jewish community has set up a task force to inform Danish politicians and others on the matter.

“The tactic among those who oppose non-medical male circumcision is to convince more and more MPs that it is wrong, in the hope that a proposition for an outright ban will be put forward in parliament. So far there has been no such proposition and our job is to see to it that it doesn’t happen,” Mr Rosenberg Asmussen said.

He also stressed that a ban would likely constitute a violation of freedom of religion, which is guaranteed under Danish legislation.

In recent years, there have been heated debates about circumcision in Scandinavia. In 2013, ombudsmen and medical professionals from across the region met in Oslo, Norway and issued a common statement claiming that non-medical circumcision on boys under 18 breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Norway’s foreign minister later vowed that the country would not ban circumcision, though restrictions have been enforced so that the practice can now only be carried out at hospitals.

In 2013, following the publication of a study on the health risks and benefits of circumcision, the Danish Health and Medicines Authority determined that there was not enough evidence to merit either banning or encouraging male circumcision.