Last week, when the Danish amateur engineer Peter Madsen was found guilty of the premeditated killing, sexual assault, and dismemberment of the Swedish journalist Kim Wall, his life sentence marked the close of the most macabre crime investigation in recent Scandinavian history.
The state prosecutor, Jakob Buch-Jepsen, in his closing remarks, argued that some of the “most damning” evidence against Madsen came from the death porn found by police on his hard drives. But, although Madsen’s deep involvement in hardcore sex films and snuff movies—as a consumer and, allegedly, as an actor and a would-be producer and director—played a key role in his conviction, the Madsen verdict has yet to open a wider conversation: the most disturbing reaches of a global industry in which Denmark once played the role of pioneer.
From the perspective of the Internet age, with PornHub downloads and the dark Net catering to all extremes of taste, the early days of legalized porn seem more like a hundred years ago than fifty. Porn wasn’t invented in Denmark, but, in the late sixties, the tiny Nordic nation was the first to legitimize it. When, in October, 1969, the world’s first porn fair, Sex 69, opened its doors in Copenhagen, the atmosphere was one of excitement and celebration. Special buses made the trip from Germany, charter flights arrived from Tunisia and Egypt, and American tourists eschewed the art galleries of southern Europe in favor of the new, sensational pleasures of the north. Held in K. B. Hallen, a vast, modernist sports hall designed by Hans Hansen in the Bauhaus tradition, the four-day event featured stripteases, live sex shows, and stalls selling porn magazines and sex toys. The Danish artist and provocateur Jens Jørgen Thorsen, in his opening speech, claimed Sex 69 as a victory for freedom of expression. Despite the fact that ninety per cent of the event’s fifty thousand visitors were male, there were no significant protests from Danish feminists: at the time, many perceived the legalization of porn as the triumphant, liberating end to generations of sexual repression and taboo.
Meanwhile, those concerned that freely available porn would lead to more sex crimes were soon assuaged: the Danish criminologist Berl Kutchinsky, in his 1970 report for the U.S. President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, “Pornography and Sex Crimes in Denmark,” demonstrated how the legalization of porn had actually led to a decrease in child molestation, voyeurism, and minor sexual offenses, though rape figures stayed the same. In 1971, Sweden followed Denmark’s lead in legalizing porn, and soon the porn industry in these countries was booming, leading to a conception—still held among baby boomers—of Denmark and Sweden as “sexy countries,” though neither has been a large-scale porn producer in decades.
It’s always disappointing when mainstream journalists don’t do their research properly, Kutchinski has rejected his conclusion that porn was harmless, as reported in Transforming a Rape Culture:
But the industry had its dark side, even in the early days. Child porn was not criminalized in Denmark until as late as 1980, and the industry’s second wave included films depicting violence against women, such as Jørgen Hallum’s “Englene” (“Angels”), from 1973: in one scene, bikers storm a confirmation service, crucify the priest, and rape young girls in front of the altar. The burgeoning women’s movement became uneasy; what feminists had initially perceived as empowering was beginning to look very much like the opposite. In a 1978 anthology, “Back in the Sixties,” the leading Danish feminist Bente Hansen reflected on the “pioneer” era of porn: “We had second thoughts about this so-called liberation. What exactly had been liberated and who reaped all the benefits?”
For many of the health professionals who were observing Madsen’s trial, the submarines carried clear Freudian symbolism. “For Madsen, the submarine is like a womb, a place of regression, where he can withdraw and protect himself against the world of failures and betrayals,” Bo Møhl, a professor of clinical psychology at Aalborg University, said. “He’s in another element, in which he is omnipotent. He can breathe underwater. All his needs are satisfied.”
Madsen liked to take women out in his submarines—and his fame gave him plenty to choose from. His pattern, the court learned, was to have a regular girlfriend (and later, at the time of Wall’s murder, a wife) and seek out “crazy ladies” on the side. Former lovers and friends told of how he would sometimes appear at fetish parties in a naval uniform and cap, scouting for women with whom to experiment sexually. He began to stage his fantasies, seeking out porn stars and, according to one witness, acting in two porn films, one shot in Denmark and the other in Germany. He loaned two submarines to the producers of “Thunderpussy,” a porn film from 2007 about a woman running amok with a libido-unleashing drug. Most significant, he had also—as far back as 2010, but possibly long before—been downloading videos of women being tortured and killed.
The prosecution argued that Madsen may have been actively planning to shoot his own snuff video when he invited Wall to visit his submarine on August 10th: on July 26th, he’d carried out Internet searches for “executions” and “dismemberment,” and, on August 4th, he exchanged texts with a friend and former lover who had asked him to “scare” her, writing that he would take out his utility knife and check out her jugular, and that he wanted to tie her up and “impale her on a roasting spit.” The night before he murdered Wall, he ran Internet searches for “beheading,” “girl,” and “agony.”
Some of the videos and animations of the torture and beheadings of women that the police found on Madsen’s hard drives were shown during the trial, including footage of what were purportedly Mexican-cartel members slitting a woman’s throat. It is not illegal to download death porn in Denmark, or to have it on your computer, so Madsen was not breaking any law. Wall’s parents, the public, and the press were not subjected to the screen images of what the police believe is a real snuff movie, but the judges watched them with the audio on. The sounds of a tortured woman’s cries turned the austere, neoclassical courtroom into a death chamber for several minutes, reducing some to tears. When the presiding judge called for a recess, and then asked the prosecutor to spare the court any further evidence from Madsen’s hard drives, the relief in the courtroom was palpable.
In Denmark, a life sentence averages sixteen to seventeen years, but Madsen can theoretically be released on parole after twelve years. His defense lawyer, Betina Hald Engmark, says Madsen is appealing his sentence to the Eastern High Court, but, because a mental assessment by the Danish Medico-Legal Council has deemed Madsen a narcissistic psychopath who poses a “severe threat to others,” he will remain in prison until the judgment. Madsen, who spent much of his adult life building womblike capsules, will now inhabit another closed environment: a cell.
If, as the prosecution suggested during the trial, Madsen’s intention was to make a snuff movie starring Kim Wall, then she is, for now, the most high-profile victim of a sick genre. As long as there are humans such as Madsen with deadly fantasies, innocent people will be tortured, mutilated, and murdered, and there will be a tiny, repulsive corner of the porn world dedicated to serving their needs.