The Sexual Life of Children: Sweden
and the United States
As one expert on sexually victimized children wrote, "we know more about
sexual deviance than we do about sexual normality ... [W]e hardly know how
they come to have sexual experience at all." We have "a vast
ignorant of the forces governing the development and experience of sexual
behavior in general" (Finkelhor 1979:20).
How do children get a sexual life? This is a question that has not be asked
seriously. They appear to get it naturally and unobtrusively by being alert to
the many influences around them. But that method is not sufficient in a
society where pains are taken to keep as much sexuality hidden from children
as is possible. In such a society, if we want children to know about
sexuality, we need to supplement natural assimilation with instruction.
Goldman and Goldman provided a "natural experiment" on the need for
sexual education in their book Children's Sexual Thinking (1982). The were two
Australian educators looking for the best in sexual education materials and
methods. They hit on an ingenious method of determining the value of sexual
education programs by interviewing a sample of five- to fifteen-year-olds in
four countries-Australia, England, Sweden, and the United States.
Children's sexual thinking is not confined to thinking about sexual
intercourse. It embraces a much broader universe of experiences than that and
Goldman and Goldman used the broadest meaning of sexuality planning in
completing their research.
The child is a sexual thinker from birth. Children constantly seek for
information by whatever ingenious method they can. Their interest in exploring
sexual topics increases as their age increases, until they feel that they have
a fairly complete set of answers. If they do not get answers, they invent
Goldman and Goldman found that children in the United States were receiving
the least and the latest sexual education, while in Sweden sexual education
was provided to children from the first grade, age seven and on. Here we have
our "natural experiment' '-one country with the least and the latest
sexual education, another country with the earliest sexual education. What
differences did Goldman and Goldman find between children in the two
Goldman and Goldman found Swedish children to be capable of understanding
complex biological concepts much earlier than had been believed. They were two
or more years ahead in sexual knowledge and understanding. In the United
States children were retarded in their sexual knowledge three or more
years-die most retarded of all four countries. The authors were convinced that
the American children were inadequately prepared for sexual adulthood. For
example, American children gave nonsexual responses to parent roles in
procreation. Such answers were strongly in evidence up to and including eleven
years of age. Many older children knew the facts of sexual joining, but few
could put the facts together to make a satisfactory explanation, even by age
fifteen. (Only an estimated 10 percent of American high school students
receive comprehensive sex education before they graduate from high school
At the same time, the home was the most cited major source of sex information
for children, in the person of the mother. Could it be that silence in the
school is matched by silence in the home as well? I suspect that it is. The
Sears, Maccoby, and Levine study done in New England (1957) bears this out.
One can only be amazed by the ingenious means mothers utilized to thwart the
attempts of their young children to engage in sex play and to ask sex
questions. Not one parent was completely free and open in the discussion of
sex. One reason why parents were not open was the fear that any attention
called to the subject of sex might awaken the child to erotic activity.
Parents in the Berges study (1991) never brought up the subject of orgasm with
their children. They did not believe that their children had any understanding
of what orgasm was. Nor is orgasm a topic commonly discussed in books on sex
education prepared for parents of children in U.S. society
Beginning in the 1800s, U.S. society built a wall around children to protect
their innocence and to protect them from their own sexual inclinations.
Keeping children sexually innocent became firmly established and has continued
to be a feature of American culture. This means that teenagers have to look
elsewhere for their final sexual instruction. Their peers are major source.
They learn from their peers what passion is. They learn joy, the fear, the
excitement in sexuality. They learn about orgasm. They learn the status that
sexuality can bring.
Engaging in premarital sexual intercourse has become statistically normative
for American youth. Fifty-four percent of ninth through twelfth graders and 72
percent of high school seniors have had sexual intercourse (Haffner
estimated 30 percent of sexually active adolescents become pregnant. Even
among those girls in the lowest age categories (fifteen to seventeen), 4
percent have had more than ten different partners. Sexually transmitted
diseases - gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, and cervic cancer - are occurring at high
levels in the United States, and adolescents are both the recipients and the
transmitters of these infections (Fisher 1990).
Sweden took another course. It introduced sex education in 1942 a made it
compulsory in 1956. After studying its program in the late 197( Sweden reduced
the age at which each topic was offered. Between the age of seven and ten,
Swedish pupils learned the difference between the sexes, where babies come
from, the father's role in conception, development before birth, the process
of birth, and many other topics.
The Swedes we still not satisfied with their
program and introduced a more difficult subject of sex education-namely,
teaching children the art of loving. They reason that sexuality is not a bad
habit to be discarded. Sex education is important for a happy life. Sex is not
a secret in Sweden. Sex education is a total open program based on faith in
young people. And the young people responded. They understand about sexuality
at an early age. The rate sexual intercourse is not down (Schwartz 1993), but
the rates of venereal disease and abortion are. Sweden's abortion rates are
lower than the late figures for Australia, the United States, and England and
Wales (Gold and Goldman 1982).
I do not know what the outcome of the American program will be Premarital
sexual intercourse is a moral issue for some adults, and this part of the
problem. Sexual education has focused, grudgingly I would s on helping young
people avoid the negative consequences of bad decision that could lead to
contracting sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned a unwanted pregnancies,
school dropouts, early marriage, and a life of poverty.
However, there is a
new view, almost in the spirit of the Swedes, that sees sexuality as a matter of
health, not illness, and tries to help people acc and enjoy their overall
mental and social health and well-being. It is argue that a major source of
public schooling should be to teach children how reason, to question, and to
accept responsibility-to teach them how to think, more than what to think.
Public education has an obligation to present a variety of ideas that reflect
the perspectives of the entire community and to address the needs of all
pupils, starting in kindergarten (Sedway
1992). They have introduced a K-12
curriculum. On the other side, there are groups (often referred to as the far
right or religious right) who promote a narrower curriculum that eliminates
the discussion of controversial topics (such as birth control, AIDS, and
abortion) and focuses almost exclusively on sexual abstinence as the only
behavior that can be supported for moral or practical reasons. These groups
also are introducing curricula, and they are small but fervent and zealous. We
can say as Udry (1993:109) did about sex research that it "is not a
battle between the forces of good and evil ... nor is it a battle based on
some misunderstanding that can be made to go away by more communication. On
the contrary. It is a genuine and legitimate political battle between two
groups and the population who hold diametrically opposed policy views."
It is too soon to say which side will win.
For nearly twenty-five years now, the attention of scholars in America
(and, incidentally, most of the research money) has been concentrated on a
much smaller but not inconsequential problem: child sexual abuse. I cannot
help but feel that the problem is exacerbated by our concern over the naiveté
of our youth, caught up as they are in a much larger political and religious
issue-an issue not of their making. They are being blamed for sexual issues
that are not of their making, either. For example, we use the perspective of
victimology in judging sexual cases. Victimization predicates victims and
perpetrators. The perpetrator is a human being who must be segregated from
society or otherwise disciplined. We have begun to use this paradigm in
dealing with child sexuality and have written it into the law. Behavior that I
found was still treated as child sex play in Scandinavia, at least up until
1984 (Aigner and Centerwall 1984), was treated as perpetrator-victim behavior
in the United States.
The following are examples of the effect of the use of the victim and
perpetrator paradigm in dealing with children.
The state of Minnesota reported
1, 110 cases of sexual harassment and ninety-five cases of sexual violence in
its schools in 1991-92, and they were only the cases that were reported (Hotakainen
1993). It is alleged that many more were not reported.
More than 1,000
children in the city of Minneapolis alone were suspended or expelled on
charges of sexual harassment (Shalit
1993). Cases such as the following were
classified as sexual harassment: telling dirty jokes, spreading rumors about
sexual behavior of individual girls, exposing oneself, snapping bras, wearing
offensive T-shirts, and yelling sexual innuendoes during sporting events.
Cases classified as sexual violence, the more serious cases, included rape,
forced fondling and touching, forced oral sex, "depantsing"
(removing another's pants as a joke or as punishment), "sharking"
(biting body parts, such as breasts).
Punishment for such offenses, besides expulsion, included transfer another
school, writing essays, apologizing, undergoing counseling, a serving time in
detention. The attorney general of the state of Minnesota warned Minnesota
children that such behavior can result in costly litigation Minnesota is viewed
as a national leader in fighting sexual harassment.
Sue Sattel, a specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education reported
what she regarded as an open-and-shut case of sexual harass involving a
five-year-old boy as predator and a five-year-old girl as victim. She reported,
"The boy led the girl into the art resource room. He pulled
pants down. He pulled his own pants down. He jumped on top of her. And he began
simulated sexual intercourse." Sattel said, "Something very, very
serious is going to happen to that little boy" (Shalit 1993:13). And she
[is?] right, for this is a sexual offense in most states. Minnesota's anti-sexual
harassment law covers all children down to and including the kindergarten. A
publication provided by the Minnesota Department of Education Examples of
hostile Environmental Sexual Harassment, provides a glimpse into what
supervisors are looking for on the playground. Here is a par