The Scandinavian Sex Educator

The Scandinavian Sex Educator

Norwegian-born sex-educator, journalist and anarchist agitator Elise Ottesen-Jensen (2 January 1886 – 4 September 1973), also known as Ottar, was fighting for women’s rights to understand and control their own body and sexuality. Her followers consider her a pioneer in the field of women’s rights and feminism. Learn more about the Scandinavian sex educator.

Elise Ottesen-Jensen became the leading advocate of sex education and sex law reform in Sweden (1920s – 1950s) and a leader in the international family planning movement. She was the 17th of 18 children. Later in life, her father sent away her little sister Magnhild to give birth in Denmark, so that she could be forced to give up her child. Maghild was told nothing about pregnancy or birth, and for nine months she feared that her stomach would just split.

The Scandinavian Sex Educator
Elise-Ottesen Jensen became the leading advocate of sex education and sex law reform in Sweden (1920s – 1950s). Photo: Ifwea

Related: Museum of Women’s History in Northern Sweden

Struggle for women’s rights
Back home, having borne a child out of wedlock, Magnhild was barred from enrolling in a nurse’s training program; thus, she could never advance beyond working as a nurse’s aide. A few years later, after her child died, Magnhild’s mental state deteriorated, and she was institutionalized in an asylum for the mentally disturbed. There, fixated by the loss of her child, she spent her time sewing baby clothes, and committed suicide in 1934, only 44 years old.

The Scandinavian Sex Educator
Ottesen Jensen was a leader in the international family planning movement

For this, Ottar could never forgive her father, and the fate of her sister became a strong driving force for her commitment to the struggle for women’s rights.

Although both her parents were relatively liberal for their day, even allowing their children to dance, Norwegians then tended to be pietistic and guilt-ridden, regarding even innocent pleasures as potentially sinful.

Related: Leaders in Gender Enlightment

The Scandinavian Sex Educator
Ottar (her journalist pseudonym) made several attempts to organize working class women. The name Ottar has also been used to name the Norwegian feminist group Kvinnegruppa Ottar. Photo: Johanna Engen

Journalist pseudonym Ottar
The name Ottar was her journalist pseudonym and was an abbreviation of her last name, but also a reference to the Norwegian Viking chief Ohthere of Hålogaland (Norwegian: Ottar fra Hålogaland).

Her dream was in fact to become a physician, but family finances made this impossible, so she settled on becoming a dentist. While studying, however, she lost three fingers in a laboratory explosion, forever ruling out dentistry as a career. After working for a short time as a stenographer at the national Parliament, she decided to take up journalism.

The Scandinavian Sex Educator
Ottesen-Jensen was a charismatic public speaker

In the 1920s, Ottar was a regular writer for Arbetaren, with her own column focusing on feminist issues. After a disagreement with the other editors of Arbetaren in 1925, she started her own paper, Vi kvinnor. The paper did however not last for long. A few years later, she also wrote for the anarchist magazine Brand.

Related: Love and Relationships in Scandinavia

Sex educator
She had always questioned the preaching of her father, and early arrived at the conclusion that she was not a Christian. She now found that her sympathies were with the socialists, and it was with them she would struggle for the rest of her life. She became a member of the Swedish anarcho-syndicalist union Central Organization of the Workers of Sweden

Ottar made several attempts to organize working class women. But soon they started asking her for advice in sexual matters, asking her questions like “Do I always have to when my husband wants to?” and “What can I do to avoid getting pregnant?”.

By the end of the First World War, in 1913, Ottar met and developed a close friendship with the Swedish anarcho-syndicalist peace agitator Albert Jensen. They married in 1931, and Elise Ottesen changed her surname to Ottesen-Jensen. When Albert Jensen was expelled from Norway because of their opposition to World War I, she came with him to Denmark. There, she gave birth to their child, who died soon after birth.

Association for Sexuality Education
Ottar and Albert moved to Sweden, and she came to know a doctor who amongst other things taught her how to use a diaphragm. She then set out for her first nationwide tour, in Sweden. She travelled from Skåne to Norrland, teaching female workers how to avoid pregnancy. She agitated for the right for women to experience sexual pleasure, for free abortion, for the repealing of the laws against contraceptives, for gay rights, and more. What she did was illegal and she risked harsh penalties.

In 1933, Ottar, together with a number of radical medical doctors and trade union representatives, founded the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (In Swedish: Riksförbundet för sexuell upplysning, RFSU). She became its first President, and held this post until 1956. Ottesen-Jensen was also one of the founders of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in 1953. The paper “RFSU bulletin” changed its name to “Ottar” to honor Elise Ottesen-Jensen. The name Ottar has also been used to name the Norwegian feminist group Kvinnegruppa Ottar, who were officially founded in 2006.

The Scandinavian Sex Educator
Screen print

A charismatic public speaker
Ottesen-Jensen was a charismatic public speaker who made a powerful impact on her audiences. In 1945, sex education became obligatory in Sweden’s school system. The following year, Ottesen-Jensen convened an international conference in Stockholm that resulted in the founding of the International Committee on Planned Parenthood. America’s Margaret Sanger was chosen as first president of this organization, which was to become the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) at a conference held in India in 1952.

After being ill with uterine cancer for several years, Ottesen-Jensen died in Stockholm on September 4, 1973. In a newspaper tribute, her friend Greta Bolin recalled what Elise had said as long back as 1933:  “I dream of the day when every child that is born is welcome, when men and women are equal, and sexuality is an expression of intimacy, pleasure and tenderness.”

The Scandinavian Sex Educator, written by Tor Kjolberg

Sources: Wikipedia, Linder, Doris H. Crusader for Sex Education: Elise Ottesen-Jensen (1886–1973) in Scandinavia and on the International Scene. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996,.

Feature image (on top): Photo by Sandy Millar / Unsplash