Karolina Widerström: at the Frontiers of Sexual Education
On the 4th of March 1949, Swedish gynaecologist, sex educator and activist Karolina Olivia Widerström, died in Stockholm at the age of 93. She was the first official female physician with a university education in her country. Her best-known work was Kvinnohygien (Women’s hygiene), published in 1899, and reprinted until 1932. She was chairman of the Swedish Society for Woman Suffrage and a member of the Stockholm city council. She belonged to the first generation of women to vote in her country and one of the first women to be admitted to a Swedish university.
Nowadays, we perceive Scandinavian countries as some of the most democratic and liberated places on earth. This was not always the case. In Sweden, for instance, the issue of sex education was first introduced at the turn of the century when the country was suffering poor health, restricted living conditions and social troubles, when labour and feminist movements were newly emergent social forces. Widerström is remembered for being one of the first physicians during the first half of the twentieth century to teach women and girls starting from their upper teens about their own bodies, ‘sexual hygiene’, anatomy, physiology, reproduction, but also advice on how dress more healthily, and to aspire to receive the same rights and possibilities as men. All the while, she insisted that such education should be introduced to both sexes, both girls and boys. “Widerstrom’s thinking was rooted in the belief that children were innocent, but that they possessed a thirst for knowledge. The child sought enlightenment and asked questions about everything that it observed in its immediate environment. Furthermore, she maintained that, although the child had an open and natural relation to facts about itself and its surroundings, when it asked its parents about sexuality, it was frequently met with rebuffs, evasions or fairy-tales, such as the story of babies being delivered by the stork. As a result, Widerstrom argued, the child remained ignorant, and with little confidence in its parents.
Still worse, the child might instead accept the street corner’s ‘distorted’ picture of sexuality as being mean and filthy, have its instincts awakened too early and be led into unchaste acts. ‘The system of silence’ would then have caused precisely the type of behaviour it was designed to avert. According to Widerstrom, ‘the principle of silence’ also continued to rule in school.” (Lena Lennerhed, ‘Taking the Middle Way Sex Education Debates in Sweden in the Early Twentieth Century’, in Shaping Sexual Knowledge: A Cultural History of Sex Education in Twentieth Century Europe (Routledge Studies in the Social History of Medicine), eds. Sauerteig & Davidson, 2012).
Widerstrom criticised the Swedish educational system for excluding all information related to procreation, animal or human; she claimed that children were taught religious commandments, such as ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’, without them ever being to comprehend the meaning of the sinful act itself. The urgency of sex education was based on the idea of prevention, mainly from the spread of venereal diseases, so the motivations were mainly biological. Yet, Lena Lennerhed pointed out that Widerstrom thought ethics and biology should not be seen as opposites; she “emphasized that instruction should not to be uniformly negative and cautionary. Rather, sexuality was to be seen in its entirety. Young people were to be introduced to sexuality’s ‘beautiful’ and ‘harmonious’ aspects before gaining knowledge of ‘the dark sides of sexuality’.” (Lennerhed) Widerstrom was known to have said in 1907: “But show compassion; first let them receive other information, let them see beauty, harmony, and do this for a long time, before they acquire knowledge of ugliness and disharmony”.Widerstrom rightly believed that knowledge empowered and protected youths and the way it was taught, reflected the way in which they would emotionally and sexually relate to one another. The way they were educated on the subject would shape their future lives and the way they faced responsibility: girls would become loving mothers and boys, responsible fathers.
From the beginning of the 20th century when the first sexual education lessons started in Swedish schools, girls managed to receive a limited amount of knowledge, mainly thanks to feminist activists like Widerstrom, while boys ended up drawing the short straw: “since girls’ sex drive was held to be virtually non-existent, sex education for girls was considered ‘safe’. Sex education for boys, on the other hand, was viewed as a more problematic undertaking that might ‘awaken the sleeping bear’. Consequently, boys received little or no sex education and were correspondingly largely absolved of responsibility for their sexual behaviour.” (Lennerhed). Sociology and youth psychology have come a long way since then. In Sweden, sex education has been a mandatory part of school education since 1956. The subject is usually started between ages 7 and 10, and continues up through the grades, incorporated into different subjects such as biology and history; the Swedish model has even been adopted as an example in educational institutions of other European countries.