The New Contraceptive Society
BY J. ROBERT MOSKIN
LOOK FOREIGN EDITOR
Now, they have completed an official survey of their sexual behavior, knowledge and attitudes — the first ever to examine the sex life of a whole nation. It confirms some of the things people have been saying and springs some surprises.
The Royal Commission on Sex Education, which ordered the study, is acutely aware that inside Sweden, its findings will anger both extremes: the bluenosed traditionalists and bishops of the Lutheran Church as well as the enthusiasts for sex without limits and rules. No one in Sweden is much concerned about the outside world’s reactions, except perhaps as they may affect Sweden’s blonde-and-bust tourism.
Actually, to outsiders — especially Americans and others in modern, affluent Western societies — this study reveals the shape of their sexual future. The prime causes of the changes in Swedish sexual morality are very much with us too: modern contraceptives are cutting drastically the likelihood of unwanted pregnancies; the welfare state is softening the consequences of such accidents; and a growing faith in romantic love is providing the rationale for sex outside marriage.
The new study is titled ambiguously On Sexual Life in Sweden. Prof. Hans L. Zetterberg, who directed the survey, wanted to call it The Contraceptive Society. He concludes that, above all, contraception makes possible present Swedish sex activity and attitudes. Until just before World War II, it was illegal to discuss or sell contraceptives in the country. Today, they are easily obtainable in stores and even sidewalk machines, and a young girl can keep herself in pills for a dollar a month. Zetterberg says this makes all the difference.
Surprisingly, Zetterberg is to be found not in Stockholm, where he was born, but in Columbus, Ohio, where he is, at 41, the chairman of the Department f Sociology of Ohio State University. He got his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota and taught at Columbia for a decade before going to Ohio State. The Royal Commission chose him to run the study because he is a respected theoretical sociologist who never’ got enmeshed in the battles over sex that have been fought in Sweden ever since national compulsory sex education was introduced in 1956. In addition, Zetterberg is the co-owner with his brother of the Gallup-like Swedish Institute of Opinion Research, which made the survey for the Royal Commission.
The Commission was created to settle the continuing controversies over sex education. It is wrestling with three main questions: Are teachers adequately prepared to teach about sex? Should schoolchildren be taught about contraception? What should the schools say about sexual morality, particularly intercourse before marriage?
The report now being made public is the first of several that will seek to replace guesses, accusations and myths with more scientific truth. Other studies will analyze the knowledge and attitudes of both teachers and students. The Commission hopes finally to announce its recommendations by the end of next year.
This survey has taken more than a year to complete. Interviewers questioned a representative sample of 1,952 Swedes, who also filled out a secret, anonymous questionnaire ‘dealing with the more intimate aspects of their sexual experience.
The study differs radically from the pioneering investigations of Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, who, Zetterberg says, “counted orgasms, basically.” This study is built on a representative population sample, rather than on volunteers such as Kinsey used, and is much broader in its sociological interests and range of questions. Although the survey covered subjects like abortions, masturbation and intercourse positions, most of these findings are not included in the report. Zetterberg credits Dr. Paul H. Gebhard, director of the Institute for Sex Research, which Kinsey founded at Indiana University, with having helped him on the methodology of his study. In Stockholm, Carl Gustaf Boëthius, the secretary of the Royal Commission, calls the result “the finest investigation ever made of sexual behavior and attitudes of a whole people, made by modern sociological methods.”
The study lays bare the new sexual morality of the affluent West. For example, the researchers determined that during the one month in 1967 when the interviews were conducted, there were 9.7 million intercourses in Sweden, resulting in 8,800 births. Therefore, they conclude, in The Contraceptive Society there is one birth for roughly every 1,100 intercourses. The effect of modern birth-control methods is clearly overwhelming.
The study finds that the young are having sex relations with more persons and starting a sex life earlier than their parents. Says Zetterberg, “The younger generation knows sexually as many or more people than their parents, which is one reason why they speak with authority.” For men above 30 years, the mean is seven sex partners; for younger men (21 to 30), with fewer years for sex relations, the mean is already eight.
The age of the onset of sex relations declined about a year between 1920 and 1950, and the decline is continuing. Those who are now 21 to 25 began sex relations at the median age of 16.9 years.
In the whole population, ages 18 to 60, 57 percent of the men and 44 percent of the women began sex relations before they were 18; 85 per. cent of the men and 82 percent of the women, before they were 20. The survey also proves that once sex activity starts, it tends to continue. The great majority had their second intercourse within five weeks after their first experience.
The study shows that the better educated delay the start Of sex relations, but eventually catch up and have more sex partners than the less educated. It also confirms that young people start sex later when their parents set up simple controls, establishing hours by which they have to be home and asking whom they were out with.
Some experts had related the prevalence of premarital relations to the age at which marriage begins—five years later, on the average, than in the United States. But the survey surprised them; the age of marriage has actually been declining faster than the age of the beginning of sex relations.
Ninety-three percent of all Swedes accept sex relations between persons who are engaged or “going steady.” Ninety-eight percent of the married population had intercourse before marriage.. Only 20 percent of the married women now over 30 waited until their wedding, and only nine percent of those under 30. There is, suggests Zetterberg, considerable hypocrisy in the older generation. Only among those who had religious parents and are themselves active in church was there a significantly higher percentage of virgins at marriage.
Today, the survey shows, almost half the brides in Sweden are pregnant at their weddings. The chief reason: Couples who are living together — in a society where premarital sex relations are accepted and fidelity is expected — need to formalize their relationship only when a child is expected. in Sweden, where every tenth child is born outside marriage, 99 percent of the population feel children of unwed parents should have all the rights of those born in wedlock; and 98 percent want unmarried mothers to have all the rights of married mothers. The majority of women want free abortions provided by the official health-care system.
“In our modern time, this new type of living in the sexual field has come to stay,” says Boëthius. “The new type of living is that premarital sex relations are so common, and young people in most Western countries regard this as all right.”
In certain respects, the study found that the double standard does persist. The majority of men have had as many as five sex partners, while the majority of women, only one or two. Only 18 percent of the married men have not had intercourse with anyone but their first partner, while 45 percent of the married women have not. More persons would permit men to have premarital experience than women. And more women accept the idea of a double standard than do men.
Probably the most significant shift revealed by the study deals with how society seeks to control sexual activity and attitudes.
In the past, society regulated sex by taboos, fear, inhibitions, emotional restraints and silence. “Our society has traditionally controlled sex by limiting knowledge. Those with the traditional morality know less, want others to know less and want to know less themselves,” says Zetterberg. “This is why sex education has become so controversial. Knowledge was a form of social control. Now, with contraception, we’ have another form of social control of the consequences, rather than the programmatic limitation of sex knowledge.”
This suggests that to control the undesirable consequences of sex, a society had better have one or the other—taboos or knowledge about contraception. And the evidence is that taboos no longer work in a society with a welfare economy and a contraception technology.
Today, 77 percent of the young men and 63 percent of those over 30 use modern forms of contraception. Says Zetterberg: “It is a new morality that one should use contraception unless you want to beget children—this is taken very seriously.”
Those who feel they are in love can have intercourse without marriage; 85 percent of all Swedes believe this. Since only those involved can determine whether they are in love or not, this means that the individual, not society, decides when intercourse is permissible.
But the survey also reveals a strong sense of commitment to the sex partner — in marriage and out. The overwhelming majority believe that promiscuity is wrong. Says Zetterberg: “The idea that this [new morality] generates a free-for-aIl doesn’t work. It becomes a code of honor. This is the code of honor emerging in The Contraceptive Society: you don’t hurt a good established relationship.” Of all Swedes, 77 percent feel this way.
“Marriage is no total solution,” says Boëthius. “In marriage, thousands of people are hurting each other terribly. We always have such problems, both inside marriage and outside marriage.” And he adds, “What was immoral 100 years ago may not be immoral today.”
The survey finds that marital infidelity has not increased among the younger generation. The incidence of extramarital sex relations is very low; 95 percent of all married Swedes say they have not had extramarital relations within a year. This does not mean, of course, that they have never had them. And 93 percent say they disapprove of extramarital sex. Occasional infidelity is forgiven, the study indicates, by the majority of those with a consistent sex relationship in or outside marriage. Zetterberg emphasizes that premarital relations clearly do not mean that the participants will necessarily have extramarital relations later on.
In essence, the survey pictures a society in which premarital sex is approved, but the constancy of a good relationship is respected. Zetterberg says, “It looks like the nature of the beast. One wants to preserve the good thing one has.”
He adds: “I was surprised at some results— mostly at the solidity and faithfulness of thetypical Swede. It does not fit the image of Sweden propagated abroad. You wonder if a study of this kind will have a harmful effect on the tourist trade.”
Dr. Maj.Briht Bergström-Walan, an internationally known school psychologist and member of the Royal Commission, shares Zetterberg’s reaction. She says, “The trend I was a little surprised at was the conservative attitude that it is almost necessary for persons to be true when they have a stable sex relationship with another person.”
Swedes are leading a highly satisfactory sex life, the study shows. The great majority are content. Sixty percent call their experience “satisfactory,” and 24 percent regard it as “wonderful.”
The survey also learned something about preferences. Those who had their last intercourse with a steady partner were more satisfied than those with a temporary partner. (There was not a single case of a “most-recent intercourse” with a prostitute.) Those in love were more satisfied than those who were not in love. When both partners took the initiative, they were more satisfied than when only one did. Those who used contraceptives reported more satisfaction than those who did not. Those who talked together during lovemaking and those who left on some light were more satisfied than those who were silent and in the dark. “Sexual intercourse may be seen as a kind of human communication,” says Zetterberg.
Overall, most people in the study want more intercourse than they presently have. Even the older population is sexually active; among the 55-60 age group, 58 percent had intercourse at least once during the previous month.
THE VAST MAJORITY OF Swedes, according to the survey, want their schools to give sex instruction; five percent are hesitant or don’t know, and Only nine percent op. pose sex education. But one third of the schoolchildren failed to receive such instruction. Many teachers and schools still avoid it.
Those who had received sex instruction in school knew a little more about the subject than those who did not—but not much more. The report concludes that the schools cannot be first on the scene with knowledge about sex, but they can integrate information received from friends, parents, the press, books — and correct misinformation.
The school sex-education program was found to have little effect on morality and attitudes;’ these depend on personal characteristics, not on a few hours of classroom’ instruction. Sex morality is anchored in the society. Zetterberg compares sex education to cheering for a football team in front of a television set: “It doesn’t have much effect.”
Dr. Preben Hertoft, who recently published a study of the sexual behavior of young Danish males, is even more emphatic: “It doesn’t do any good for school to say this is good and that is not good. The school has no influence on the sexual behavior of the children. That depends on other things — what they have seen in their homes, psychological things. The home is a very, very big factor. If children see their parents live a calm sexual life, that is more important than what a teacher says.” He adds, “You have to tell children some people have sex without love. You have to tell them how it is. I don’t think it’s good if a boy thinks his father is an angel. It is better if he knows his father is human.”
There is a substantial split in the kind of sex education desired by those under 24 years and those who are older. In general, young people reject the official guidelines for the Swedish school program, which preaches abstinence before marriage; they want to choose their moral standards for themselves. Says Bergström-Walan, “We should never teach morality, but we should present different attitudes. We should talk about the Pope. We should talk about free love—if there is free love. We should help young people think.”
Only four percent of those under 24 and 20 percent of those above want abstinence taught by the schools. Thirty-three percent of those under 24 and 47 percent of those above want the schools to teach all ethical views but, to recommend abstinence. But 60 percent of those under 24 and 31 percent of those above want the schools to teach all views and let the students decide. Only three percent of those under 24 and two percent of those above want the schools to recommend a free sexual morality for the teen-age years.
The Swedish Student Organization (SECO) has formed its own Sex Education Committee, which wants sex education to start earlier, be improved and be separated from religious teaching. Says Stefan Westergren, 22, the Committee’s head, “It shouldn’t be the teachers’ morality or someone else’s. It should teach all the moralities that exist in the society and let the students decide.”
Mrs. Birgitta Linnér, marriage counselor and author of Sex and Society in Sweden, says, “The parents’ generation is more conservative than the young people. So it’s dangerous to take up the values of the parents and not the young people. They have to solve their own sex problems without the older generation — and they do it. I feel it’s a risk that the United States will take up the same wrong views we had. Teachers knew lots of young people were having sex life without marriage. It wasn’t a realistic program. I’m scared now the United States will make the same mistake.”
“Sex education,” Zetterberg is convinced, “is a means by which society can shift its control of the consequences of sex from taboo and fear to reliance on contraception. We’have found a better way for limiting the consequences of sex. The vehicle for this is sex education.”
The survey specifically punctures two myths: The official sex-education syllabus urges teachers to warn youngsters against mixing drinking and dancing because the combination will lead to sex relations. But the survey shows that only one per cent had mixed dancing and alcohol before their first intercourse. The study also refuted the idea that contraception is not used until after the first intercourse: 56 percent of those under 30 used contraceptives the first time. Such findings are likely to influence the Royal Commission’s recommendations about sex education.
“The welfare state has taken over many economic responsibilities of the parents. We are all becoming that kind of society,” concludes Zetterberg. “It seems Sweden is some years ahead of us here. You can spot trends that may have a chance to become dominant in other countries. In sex education, there are some local programs that are very good, but most of the United States has nothing.”
He ends his report with this statement: “The Contraceptive Society is now here and can be pushed back as little as the industrialized society and the automobile. We must therefore educate and legislate to make it as functional as possible and as free from injustices as possible.”
Zetterberg admits he did not feel this way when he started the study. He felt then that sex relations are a private matter; now, he is convinced the government must share the responsibility in a modern society. He says, “We have introduced a major social change, relying on contraception rather than prohibitions. This sneaked ‘up on us. It contains some frictions and some conceivable injustices. We will have to face up to them.”
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[In abridged form this interview was reprinted in Reader's Digest and was also translated for several of their foreign editions.]