Swedish icons 21: Lasse-Maja, a legendary criminal

In my local park, there is a little urban zoo where you can see goats, sheep, rabbits, hens and two portly pigs. The hog is called Lasse and the sow is called Maja. They are named after a man called Lasse-Maja – a legendary name in Swedish culture.

It struck me, however, that I’ve only really heard his name – I didn’t really know who he was. So I researched him. And I was met by a story that was fascinating and tragic in equal measure.

Lars Larsson, later Molin, was born in 1785, and went on to become one of Sweden’s most notorious criminals. He wrote a sensational autobiography about his escapades in 1833 and this book was extremely popular because it contained adventure and, not least, explicit sex scenes. It still continues to fascinate Swedes, with the latest publication coming out in 2016.

So, why the nickname Lasse-Maja? Lasse is a man’s name, and Maja is a female name. Well, he was given this gender-combined name because he periodically lived as a woman. He often dressed as a man when he committed his crimes, as it was more comfortable. However, he lived long periods as a woman and supported himself as a maid, housekeeper and prostitute. By today’s terms, he probably would have identified as transgender. His book is one of the few 19th Century works to describe the transgender experience, which added to its mystique and popularity. In this article, I will use the pronoun ‘he’ for ease.

Lasse-Maja’s life was one of poverty and misery. He was a serial liar and petty thief who was arrested over 30 times and frequently escaped. He became notorious amongst citizens and was written about in newspapers. However, in 1812 he stole silver from a church in Järfälla, just outside of Stockholm. He was captured, sentenced to life and shipped off to the fortress prison on the west coast island of Marstrand. He even managed to escape from this military building on one occasion, but was later caught and returned.

Lasse-Maja was an inventive and guileful person and quickly gained a position of privilege in the prison. He made sure that his reputation spread to the outside world, and convinced the authorities to arrange for tourists to visit him and hear his elaborate stories. His celebrity became so large that he was even given an audience by Crown Prince Oscar.

In 1839 he was pardoned, probably because of the popularity of his book. He traveled the country telling his stories and died in Arboga in 1845, where he is buried today. Several books and films depict his life, and in the fortress prison there is a plaque to commemorate him. He also has a walking trail, a skerry, a tv show, a pre-school and a hotel named after him.

Lasse-Maja would probably never have been remembered in Swedish culture if it wasn’t for the autobiography, the female clothing and his skill for self promotion. Popular culture depicts him as a happy-go-lucky, cheeky, lovable rogue. However, Lasse-Maja was no Robin Hood – the truth is that his life was extremely tough and without much joy. He lived a life of crime, deceit and despair.

Today, it is hard to really know Lasse-Maja’s truth. He was a first class liar, manipulator and fabulator. However, one thing is certain; Lasse-Maja holds the position of the most famous transperson in Swedish history.

Stockholm Syndrome – what is it?

The names Birgitta Lundblad, Elisabeth Oldgren, Sven Säfström and Kristin Ehnmark are not known to many people. However, they played an important role in the concept called Stockholm Syndrome.

On 23 August 1973, the four were taken hostage in Kreditbanken in Stockholm, by Jan-Erik Olsson – who was later joined by a former prison mate. Six days later when the siege ended, it became evident that the hostages had developed a positive relationship with their captors. They defended them, saying they were, for example, kind, generous and thoughtful. One of them even appealed on their behalf to Prime Minister Olof Palme. They refused to testify, and started a campaign to raise money for their kidnappers’ defense.

The syndrome was identified by criminologist Nils Bejerot. Psychiatrist Dr Frank Ochberg went on to define the syndrome as a situation where victims form positive attachment to their oppressors. He developed the process that people suffering from Stockholm Syndrome go through.

Firstly, there is an initial experience that is surprising and terrifying. The victims are certain they are going to die. Then they experience a type of infantilisation – where, like a child, they are unable to eat, speak or go to the toilet without permission. Small acts of kindness – such as being given food – prompts a primitive gratitude for the gift of life. The hostages experience a powerful, primitive positive feeling towards their captor. They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation. In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.

One of the Swedish hostages, Elisabeth Oldgren was allowed to leave the vault that had become their prison but only with a rope fixed around her neck. She said that at the time she thought it was “very kind” of Olsson to allow her to move around the floor of the bank.

One famous case of Stockholm Syndrome is Patty Hearst who was kidnapped by revolutionary militants in 1974. She appeared to develop sympathy with her captors and even became their partner in crime.

Natascha Kampusch was another case. Kidnapped and molested as a 10-year-old by Wolfgang Priklopil, she was incarcerated in a basement for eight years, but yet she mourned his death and lit a candle for him. Years after her escape in 2006 she still carried a photo of him in her wallet.

Today, psychologists see Stockholm Syndrome arising in other situations than kidnapping: abusive marriages, trafficking and sports coaching, for example. In popular culture, the excellent Netflix series ‘Le Casa De Papa’ depicts a robbery in the National Treasury and the ‘Síndrome de Estocolmo’ that several hostages experience.

In 2019, a film called Stockholm was released. Starring Ethan Hawke and Noomi Rapace it loosely tells the story of those fateful 6 days in 1973.

The Swedish Law of Sexual Consent

I’ve been watching the interesting Martin Scorsese documentary series on Netflix called ‘Pretend it’s a City.’ The programme is based on a series of interviews with sardonic writer Fran Lebowitz. In one episode, she talks about MeToo, and how when a woman accuses a man of rape the focus has shifted from ‘prove to me that she’s telling the truth’ to ‘prove to me that she’s lying.’

This is merely a change of perspective in most places and not enshrined in law. Except in a few countries, including Sweden. In 2018, a new law was introduced in Sweden – called the samtyckeslag – the Law of Sexual Consent. The basic principle of the law is that sex should be voluntary and that sex without explicit consent is considered rape. This applies whatever the gender.

The Swedish verb for ‘to rape’ is ‘våldta’ which literally translates as ‘to take by violence’. This reflects the previous definition of rape which involved some form of violence, force or threat or that the victim had been in a vulnerable position. An important part of the previous legislation was that the victim decisively said ‘no’. Since 2018, this is not the case.

A crime called ‘negligent rape’ was introduced which is a sexual act that occurs when there has not been an explicit statement of consent, but in which the perpetrator had not intended to commit rape or assault. In other words, before sex there has to be a clear ‘yes’ or active demonstration of consent. If there isn’t, it is rape.

Today, if a woman accuses a man of rape, she does not have to provide evidence that he was violent or coercive, that she had to fight him off or prove that she said ‘no’. The victim does not have to prove she is telling the truth, the accused has to prove she is lying.

The new law has been significant in many convictions in recent years. In one case, the Supreme Court wrote: ‘A person who is subjected to sexual acts against their will does not have any responsibility to say no or express their reluctance in any other way.’

So a ‘yes’ is a ‘yes’. And a lack of a ‘yes’ is a ‘no’

Buying sex in Sweden

In a recent police raid, over 40 men were arrested at temporary brothels in Stockholm. They were charged with buying, or attempting to buy sex. The brothels, which are also illegal in Sweden, were shut down.

So what is Sweden’s policy on prostitution? Well, it is criminalized and in fact Sweden has a trail-blazing approach to prostitution. In 1999, the Sex Purchase Act came into existence. This Act makes it illegal to purchase “sexual services” but not to sell them. So the purchaser is the criminal and not the prostitute. The rationale for criminalizing the buyer, but not the seller, was stated in the 1997 government proposition, namely that “…it is unreasonable to also criminalize the one who, at least in most cases, is the weaker party who is exploited by others who want to satisfy their own sexual desires”.

This law has since been copied and put in place in various other countries, such as Canada, Norway and Iceland. According to the statistics, the law has seen a huge decline in prostitution and trafficking, although it is by far not eradicated.

According to journalist Meghan Murphy, who has written extensively about prostitution- ‘The Swedish model is about more than just changing the law. It is also an idea — it is about changing the culture, and the culture is what needs to change as well as our legislative approach. What the model and its proponents are saying is that men are not entitled to access the bodies of women and girls, even if they pay.”

However, the law is controversial and is not without its critics.

Those who criticize it claim that the law isn’t as effective as people think and that sex work in Sweden is just driven more dangerously deeper underground. They also claim the law strips women of their control and their rights to do with their body as they wish to. An article on mic.com says ‘Sweden’s belief that prostitution is the most brutal expression of patriarchy has engendered a kind of paternalism about commodified sex that holds men responsible for their actions while assuming women can’t be. It wipes out the possibility of gray areas for men and women to be equal partners in exchanging money for sex.’ In other words, according to them, the feminist-driven Sex Purchase Act is entirely unfeminist.

So, the age old debate carries on. The discussion about if prostitution is inherently exploitative. Should it be criminalized, or can it be developed to maximize equality for everyone involved? In Sweden, the buyer is criminalized. In most other countries, the seller is criminalized. In Germany, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Hungary and Latvia prostitution is legal and regulated. Different approaches to the same situation.

What do you think?

Great Swedish Women Part 2 – The Prosecutor

March 8th was International Women’s Day.

I am writing series on Great Swedish Women, past and present: women with strength and passion, women with a voice, women who create change.

For seven days, I am writing about these Great Swedish Women, one per day. I hope you want to join me in celebrating them.

massifritz

Part 2 – Swedish lawyer and prosecutor Elisabeth Massi Fritz.

On 24 June 1999, a 19 year old woman by the name of Pela Atroshi was murdered in a honour-related crime. The murder occured when she was visiting her family in Irak. Killed by her two uncles and her father, the crime was witnessed by Pela’s mother Fatima and sister Breen. The case was concluded with life time sentences for the two uncles. Pela’s father lives in Irak, where Pela is buried in an unmarked grave for bringing dishonour to her family.

In the court, in Sweden, Breen testified against her uncles which led to the conviction. She was represented by lawyer Elisabeth Massi Fritz.  After this case, Elisabeth Massi Fritz became known as one of Sweden’s leading lawyers and prosecutors, and Sweden’s only lawyer specialising in honour crimes. She stands up for the victims of crime, many of them women, and is an active contributor in the debate against honour crimes in Sweden.

Born in Motala, Sweden, to Christian Syrian parents, Elisabeth Massi Fritz personally gained insight into honour culture as she was not allowed to have a boyfriend or to move away to study. At the age of 19, she defied her family and moved to Stockholm to study law. Today, she runs a legal firm where she employs only female staff and where they specialise in defending the victims of crime and prosecuting the perpetrator. She has worked on many high profile cases, such as the rape cases against plastic surgeon Carl-Åke Troilius and the Chief of Police Göran Lindberg, both of which resulted in prison sentences for the accused.

Elisabeth Massi Fritz continues to fight injustice and is the champion of the victim of crime.