IES: Sweden




“In Sweden, society’s attitudes towards teenage sexual relationships are liberal, and sexual and reproductive health issues are given high priority. Family and sex education has been taught in schools since the 1950s. The age of sexual consent is 15 years. Since 1975, abortion has been free on demand”[1].


In 19th century forensic psychiatry sexual assault against children was seen as the result of either a pathological condition or social disability. The perpetrator might also have been tempted by a seductive girl, although boys were never seen as seductive and hence were held blameless. Further, the general opinion among professionals was that sexual assault, if not too violent, rarely led to severe or permanent damage to the child.

Cases concerning  sexual crimes against children in Sweden were rarely brought to court, since children, especially young girls, were not considered reliable witnesses (Bergenheim, 1998)[2].

A historical report on the Swedish discourse on child sexuality is written by Bergenheim (1994)[3].

“No Swedish studies, either attitudinal nor behavioral, have been done on sexual exploration and sex-rehearsal play among children. These natural behaviors are probably more permitted today that half a century ago. But no one talked about this at that time, and very few talk about it now” (Trost and Bergstrom-Walan, 1997)[4]. The statement on studies is not correct. Two day-care centre oriented studies are carried out on preschoolers: one (N=251) reported by Larsson (1994)[5] and Lindblad et al. (1995)[6]; the second (N=231, incl. parental observations) reported by Larsson and Svedin (1999)[7], Larsson et al. (2000)[8], and Larsson and Svedin (2001)[9]. Comparison with American data is also reported in the latter studies. Goldman and Goldman (1981)[10] did study children’s sexual arguing in Sweden [contrasting that of Australian, U.S., and English performances], but neglected children’s sexual behaviour. Helmius and Lewis provided sociological insights in adolescent sex life in the 1980s[11].


Some earlier studies on adolescents prove to be informative on childhood (Israel et al., 1970; Busch, 1974; Lewin, 1982)[12]. In a study of Swedish high school students (Klanger et al., 1993)[13], the median age at sexual debut was about 17 years. Among girls who had had intercourse, the median age at debut was lower than 10 years ago. Interestingly, 2% thought that they had too much sex education at school. Still, 41% felt they could not talk about sex with their parents.

Back in 1980, McConaghy[14] tentatively suggested that Swedish children may be advanced in awareness of genital differences and the genital basis of gender as compared to American children (p30-1), related to the greater extent of information provided for children (p20). In congruence with this observation, Barthalow-Koch (1980)[15] found significant differences in sexual knowledge as judged from drawings comparing 16 Swedish to 22 American children aged 7-8. The drawings were to illustrate “where babies come from and how babies are born”. 11 out of 15 [?] Swedish children depicted sexual intercourse, while none of the American class did.

Ullerstam[16] states that sexual games between parents and infants in Sweden were becoming increasingly common in younger families. “Infant and child sexuality is becoming a topic of discussion in the Swedish press of late, as well” (Personal observation by Martinson, Stockholm, Sweden, January 1973).


Larsson and Svedin (2002a)[17] received anonymous questionnaires as answered by 269 final year, senior high-school students, mean age 18.6 years; 82.9% of the students reported solitary sexual experiences and 82.5% had mutual experiences together with another child.


Most of the children had their experiences together with a same-age friend. Girls had more same-sex experiences than boys did. Thirteen percent reported coercive experiences where they had been tricked, bribed, threatened, or physically forced into participation. Some children, 8.2%, had coerced another child into participation in sexual activities. The majority thought of their childhood experiences as normal. There were also 6.3% of the respondents who had had “inappropriate” sexual experiences (with someone at least 5 years older), the majority being girls. Gender differences were evident in several respects: girls were more often “coerced”, they felt more guilt, and they had far less experience of masturbation, whereas boys were somewhat more active in explorative activities on their own as well as with peers. The authors assert that “[s]ome kind of coercive sexual experiences appears to be part of growing up for quite a few children”.


Larsson and Svedin (2002b)[18] received questionnaires of parents and day-care teachers of 185 preschool children (3-6), from different socio-economic housing areas, answering questions about each child’s sexual and general behaviour. They were also asked about their own opinions on child sexual behaviour. Parental and staff attitudes toward child sexuality were quite open, although 67% of the parents and 41% of the teachers never spoke to the children on sexual matters. One fifth of the adults used no term for genitals at all, and even fewer had a name for girls’ genitals.

In an earlier publication[19], Larsson sketches the Swedish “abuse transition”:


“In the 1970s and 1980s, in the spirit of sexual liberalisation, some pedagogical literature on children and sexuality was published in Sweden (see e.g. Olsson

& Risán, 1976; Aigner & Centerwall, 1983)[[20]]. The books were based on the idea of “good sexuality” and included advice on how adults could teach small children to masturbate using a good technique and how daycare staff could encourage children to play explorative games of “doctors and nurses”. After the “discovery” of sexual abuse, the literature and adult education for professional groups working with children has primarily focused on children who are maltreated (see e.g. Akselsdotter, 1993) [[21]]” (p14).


Gisela Helmius[22] notes in a 1992 lecture in Canada that her


“research among young people in contemporary Sweden has shown that they shape their own patterns for how to become mature enough for sex and that they enjoy their early sexual experience - in spite of the problem-oriented sex education they receive from adults. […] Swedish adolescents manage to find a pattern that enables them to become mature enough for sex and in accordance with prevailing norms incorporate sexuality into everyday life. This pattern includes an accumulation of sexual experiences ranging from going steady through light petting to sexual intercourse and heavy petting. The more types of sexual activities they experience, the more they enjoy their sexual lives. […] In Sweden we don’t have as strong taboos on nudity as is the case in many other Western cultures, including Canada I have been told”.


In an 1991 paper[23], the author notes:


“In Sweden we have an officially sanctioned verbal openness about sexuality, manifested in compulsory sex education [“mandatory since 1956”]. This might be interpreted as a sign of the social acceptance of adolescent sexuality. But it also means that society is provided with a useful instrument to restrict adolescent sexuality. Through such socially sanctioned channels, society can supply young people with prevailing sexual norms, motivate them to make their sexual behaviour conform to these norms and condemn “wrong” sexual behaviour. As most Western cultures, Sweden is a sexually restricting society. In an educational environment coloured by the sexually restricting society’s reluctance to accept adolescent sexuality, sex education for young people is problem-oriented, focusing on the risks inevitably connected with sexual activity, that is, unwanted pregnancy, side-effects of contraception, and sexually transmitted deseases. Sex education is thus first and foremost about what young people should fear rather than what they should care about”.


In a study by Långströmet al. (2002)[24], scores of CBCL items concerning (apparently) specific sexual behaviour “problems” (Plays with own sex parts in public and Plays with own sex parts “too much”) were summed and the influence of genetic and environmental factors on variability assessed.


Svedin[25] reports on 420 questionnaires answered by parents.


“The result shows that parents construct their children’s sexuality as something that reaches importance to them when the children get close to puberty. Described behaviour are largely connected to their child’s own body and language rather than interactions with other children, which can be interpreted as an effect of seven to twelve year old children being much out of reach from parental supervision during the day. Almost one third of the parents had no names for the genitals that the y used with the children, while the two thirds of parents who named their children’s genitals to a greater extent had a name for boys genitals. It was twice as common for mothers to have talks about sexual thing with their children, compared to fathers, and it was often as a response to questions from the child. The majority of the mothers considered the influence of sexuality from media to be far too big, while the fathers where more moderate in the views with reference to this issue. It was obvious in the results that children already from the age of seven are very conscious about their body and looks, where overweight was the most prominent cause of worry. For the older children also the size of the penis and the development of breasts created anxiety. Only fourteen percent of the parents had had information from the school about their sex education plans. A total of seventy three percent considered sex education to be of importance at school. The interviews with the teachers also show that sex education mostly took place within a special theme-week during the spring term every year, for children ten to twelve years old. It was evident that teachers saw early sexual development in girls as something that could cause problems, both for the teachers and the boys and the other girls.”



Additional refs:


n        Edgardh, K. (2001) Adolescent Sexuality and Sexual Abuse - A Swedish Perspective. Thesis, Karolinska institutet []

n        Edgardh, K (2002) Sexual behaviour and early coitarche in a national sample of 17-yearold Swedish boys, Acta Paediatrica 91,9:985-91

n        Larsson, I. (1999) Barns sexuella beteende, är det normalt eller…? Social Forskning 3:11-3

n        Mellan Barnkammaren och Sängkammaren: Om Barnen och Sexualiteten. 1. uppl.. Stockholm: Riksförb. för sexuell upplysning (RFSU): Prisma, 1981

n        Lennerhed, L. (2005) Taking the Middle Way: Sex Education in Swedish Schools. Paper to be delivered to International Conference "Sex Education of the Young in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural History", 16th to 17th April, 2005 at Collingwood College, University of Durham, UK

n        Thanem, T. (2004) Free At Last? The Production of Female and Male Sexuality in Swedish Sex Education. Paper presented at Working Paper Series School of Business, Stockholm University, 4 November 2004 [Also Paper presented at the 20th EGOS Colloquium, 1-3 July, Ljubljana, Slovenia] [, cited with permission]

n        Tolf, M. K. (2001) Carlsberg Sverige AB- en företagskulturell studie i en fusionskontext. Linköpings Universitet, Institutionen för tematisk utbildning och forskning []


n        Johansson, Thomas Youth, gender and sexuality - hybridity and identity. Final report expected: 8/31/2005 []





Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. Volume I. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Aug 2005



[1]Edgardh, K. (2002) Adolescent sexual health in Sweden, Sex Transm Inf 78:352-6 []

[2] Bergenheim, Å. (1998) Brottet, offret och förövaren: om synen på incest och sexuella övergrepp mot barn 1850-1910 [The crime, the victim, and the perpetrator: attitudes toward incest and sexual assault against children, 1850-1910], Lychnos [Sweden], 121-59

[3] Bergenheim, Å. (1994) Barnet, Libido och Samhälle: Om den Svenska Diskursen kring Barns Sexualitet 1930­1960. Dissertation, Umeå University. Grängesberg: Höglunds Förlag. [English summary, p357-61]

[4] Trost, J. E. & Bergstrom-Walan, M. (1997) Sweden, in Francoeur, R. T. (Ed.) The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality. New York: Continuum, Vol. II. Quoted from the online edition

[5] Larsson, I. (Ed.) (1994). Är det normalt eller...? Om förskolebarns sexuella beteende, vuxnas attityder och nya forskningsresultat. Allmänna Barnhuset. Stockholm

[6] Lindblad, F., Gustafsson, P., Larsson, I. & Lundin, B. (1995) Preschooler’s sexual behaviour at daycare centers: an epidemiological study, Child Abuse & Negl 19,5:569-77

[7] Larsson, I. & Svedin, C. G. (1999) Sexual behaviour in Swedish Preschool Children as Observed by their Parents. Unpublished Manuscript

[8] Larsson, I., Svedin C. G. & Friedrich, W. (2000) Differences and similarities in sexual behaviour among preschoolers in Sweden and USA, Nordic J Psychia 54,4:251-8

[9] Larsson, I. & Svedin, C. G. (2001) Sexual behaviour in Swedish preschool children, as observed by their parents, Acta Paediatr 90,4:436-44

[10] Goldman, R. & Goldman, J. (1981) Children’s Sexual Thinking: A Comparative Study of Children Aged 5-15 Years in Australia, the United States of America, England, and Sweden. London: Routledge: & Kegan Paul; Goldman, R. & Goldman, J. (1981) Sources of sex information for Australian, English, North American and Swedish children, J Psychol 109:97-108; Goldman, R. & Goldman, J. (1982) How children perceive the origin of babies and the roles of mothers and fathers in procreation: a cross-national study, Child Developm 53:491-504; Goldman, R. & Goldman, J. (1983) Children’s perceptions of sex differences in babies and adolescents: a cross-national study, Arch Sex Behav 12,4:277-94; Goldman, R. & Goldman, J. (1984) An overview of children’s sexual thinking: a comparative study of Australian, English, North-American and Swedish 5-15-year olds, in Segraves & Haeberle, E. (Eds.) Emerging Dimensions of Sexology. Selected Papers from the 6th World Congress of Sexology, Washington, D.C., May 21-27, 1983. Berlin: Praeger Special Studies & Praeger Scientific, p57-67; Goldman, J. (1990) Children’s sexual thinking: a research basis for sex education in schools, in Perry, M. E. (Ed.) Handbook of Sexology. Vol. 7. Amsterdam: Elsevier, p211-31

[11] Helmius, G. & Lewin, B. (1983) [Youth and sexuality: a sociological study of the sexual attitudes and experience of young people]. Uppsala University; Helmius, G. & Lewin, B. (1986) Ungdom, Kärlek och Sex : Om Ungdomars Sexuella Liv på 80-talet [Youth, Love and Sex: About the Sexual Life of Adolescents in the 80s]. Stockholm: Norstedts. Cf. Helmius, G. (1990) Mogen för sex?! : det sexuellt restriktiviserande samhället och ungdomars heterosexuella glädje. Uppsala: Univ. Press

[12] Israel, J. et al. (1970) Sexuelle Verhaltensformen der Swedischen Groþstadtjugend, in Bergström-Walan, M. et al. (Eds.) Modellfall Skandinavien? Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, p137-218; Busch (1974 [1972]) Sexual behavior in Sweden, in Holmstedt, M. (Ed.) Second Seminar onSex Education and Social Development in Sweden, Latin America & the Caribbean. Stockholm: University of Stockholm, Institute of Education

 p46-58; Lewin, B. (1982) The Adolescent Boy and Girl: First and Other Early Experiences with Intercourse from a Representative Sample of Swedish School Adolescents, Arch Sex Behav 11,5:417-28. See further a number of studies cited by Israel et al.: Hofsten (1944), Hohman & Schaffber (1947); Jonssen (1951); Hesseldahl & Hauptmann (1963); Linderoth & Rundberg (1964); Jacobsen (1965); Zetterberg (1969)

[13] Klanger, B., Tyden, T. & Ruusuvaara, L. (1993) Sexual behavior among adolescents in Uppsala, Sweden, J Adolesc Health 14,6:468-74

[14] McConaghy, M. J. (1980) The gender understanding of Swedish children, Child Psychia & Hum Developm 11,1:19-32

[15] Barthalow-Koch (1980) A comparison of the sex education of primary-aged children in the US and Sweden as expressed through their art, in Samson, J. M. (Ed.) Childhood & Sexuality / Enfance & Sexualité. Proceedings of the

International Symposium. Montréal: Éditions Études Vivantes, p345-55

[16] Ullerstam, L. ([1966]) De Erotiska Minoriteterna. English transl., The Erotic Minorities, p46-7. Dutch transl., De Seksuele Minderheden. 2nd ed. The Hague: Oisterwijk. Cited by Martinson, F. M. (1973) Infant and Child Sexuality: A Sociological Perspective. St. Peter, MN: The Book Mark, p18-9

[17] Larsson, I. & Svedin, C. G. (2002a) Sexual experiences in childhood: young adults’ recollections, Arch Sex Behav 31,3:263-73

[18] Larsson, I. & Svedin, C. G. (2002b) Teachers’ and parents’ reports on 3- to 6-year-old children’s sexual behavior- a comparison, Child Abuse & Neglect 26,3:247-66

[19] Larsson, I. (2000) Sexual Abuse of Children: Child Sexuality and Sexual Behaviour. Department of Health and Environment, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Linköping University. Cf. Larsson, I. (2001) Childhood sexuality – what do we know about sexual behaviour and normality? Xth European Conference on Developmental Psychology (ECDP), Uppsala University, Sweden, 22-26 August, 2001

[20] Olsson, M-L. & Risán, P. (1978). Sexuell Utveckling. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell; Aigner, G. & Centerwall, E. (1983) Barnens Kärleksliv. Prisma/RFSU

[21] Akselsdotter K. (1993) Små Barns Signaler om Sexuella Övergrepp. Handbok för Förskolan. Stockholm: Rädda Barnen

[22] Helmius, G. (Oct., 1992) Sex, Love and Socialization. Lecture given as part of course “Philosophy of Sex and Love”, Queen’s University at Kingston, Canada

[23] Helmius, G. (1991) Adolescent Sexual Joy, Physical Dependency and the Adult World’s Troubled Concern. Paper presented at the IFHSB (International Federation for Hydrocephalus and Spina Bifida) 6th Congress, August 14-18, Stockholm, Sweden

[24] Långström, N., Grann, M. & Lichtenstein, P. (2002) Genetic and Environmental Influences on Problematic Masturbatory Behavior in Children: A Study of Same-Sex Twins, Arch Sex Beh 31,4:343–50

[25] Carl Göran Svedin, Sexual behaviour in children aged 7-12, and mothers, fathers and teachers views on sexuality in girls and boys. Research: