- Ottar & kärleken (Ottar & Love) by Gunilla Thorgren
In the U.S. today Sweden and Scandinavia are often still associated first with sexual freedom, and whether or not such liberty is thought to be a good thing, chances are we know too little about the history of changing Nordic sexual mores in the past century. Even serious students of Scandinavian history are likely to learn more in school about the longevity of monarchies than about ways in which citizens' sexuality actually evolved. Fortunately, a new Swedish biography of Elise Ottesen-Jensen (1886-1973), the Norwegian-Swedish pioneer of sex education, may help address the problem.
The author of this ample edition is Gunilla Thorgren, for many years editor of a Swedish paperback magazine on social politics called R and later state secretary in the Swedish government's Culture Department. She is also known as the author of Grupp 8 & jag (Group 8 and I), a book on [End Page 527] the Swedish radical women's movement of the 1970s, and incidentally as the wife of playwright/novelist Per Olov Enquist.
Elise Ottesen-Jensen (whose signature was Ottar) was a founder of Sweden's RFSU, i.e., Riksförbundet för sexuell upplysning, its national association for sex education, and a fearless champion of reproductive rights and sexual liberties. She was born outside Stavanger, the seventeenth in a family of eighteen children, and her father was a very authoritarian priest. When her sister Magnhild, number eighteen, got pregnant at age sixteen, her father sent her to Denmark and did not allow any further contact with the family. She was immediately forced to give the baby up for adoption.
Elise became a journalist and political activist and fell in love with a Swedish syndicalist agitator named Albert Jensen. They lived together illegally in Denmark for some years until being deported to Sweden. Eventually there she too became a charismatic speaker. Her success facing crowds was based on her intimate knowledge of their sexual concerns. As editor of the women's column in the syndicalist paper Arbetaren (The Worker) and an RFSU founder, she often got mail from individuals tormented by sexual concerns—poor women who were pregnant and could not afford to be, people convinced that masturbation would destroy them, homosexuals who wondered how to meet others, etc. On her lecture tours she discussed these fears and the widespread terror of even talking about sex. Of course, it was still strictly forbidden to inform the public about birth control, but she stayed on message. She dreamed, she said, "of the day when all children that are born are welcome, all men and women are equal, and sexuality is an expression of passion, tenderness, and pleasure." Rambling about Sweden's highways and byways in her "traveling" clinic, she talked to anyone who would listen about contraception, dangerous abortions, and human rights.
During her extraordinary life, she developed an extensive network of authors, sex researchers, and political activists. Today we recognize many of the names from Sweden—Moa Martinson, Hinke Bergegren, Per Albin Hansson, Frida Stéenhoff—as well as from other countries—Emma Goldman, Upton Sinclair (whose writing she translated and agented), Margaret Sanger (some of whose views differed from her own), and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeldt in Berlin. Such contacts led to her development of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1953, with Margaret Sanger as the first president, followed by Ottar in 1959.
Among this biography's most fascinating chapters are those reporting on the costs of conservatism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scandinavia ("The Modern Breakthrough and Sexuality" and "Morality's Guardians") pointing out the personal sacrifices intellectuals had to make [End Page 528] to endorse radical views. Also of particular interest are Thorgren's honest efforts to take up now controversial ideas (e.g., Ottar's opinions on Alva and Gunnar Myrdal and the population question as well as her views on the euthanasia and eugenics debate and on "racial hygiene"). These touched on ideas current in their day, but Ottar seems to have been willing to modify...