Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan was a psychologist and one of the most noted sex educators in Sweden during the second half of the twentieth century.
Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan was born in 1924. She was brought up by her aunt Hanna and the latter’s husband, Arvid Bergström, because her own mother was unable to care for her after her birth. Arvid Bergström died when Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan was eleven years old. Hanna Bergström then sought solace in religion. Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan was influenced by this to the extent that she trained to become a missionary with Svenska Missionsförbundet (Mission Covenant Church of Sweden). Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan left the society in 1961 in connection with her mother’s death.
Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan spent her whole life living and working in the Stockholm area. She trained to become a midwife and married Bror Walan. They intended to become missionaries in China, but this became impossible due to the Chinese Revolution. Instead Bror Walan became a church historian while Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan gained her school-leaving certificate and then trained to become a teacher. Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan and Bror Walan had a son together named Gustav Walan. The couple divorced in 1972.
During the period of 1957-1965 Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan was employed as a teacher at various schools in the Stockholm area. While working as a teacher Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan continued her studies in psychology and pedagogy. In 1963 she gained an equivalent to a Master’s degree with a thesis on midwifery. In her 1988 autobiography, Passioner, Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan provides detailed descriptions of the research she undertook for her thesis. Her knowledge in the field became noted by the media and she was asked to talk on issues concerning mothers and children. Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan also was a candidate on the Liberal People’s Party’s list in the 1960 parliamentary election.
Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan also received medial attention as an expert in sex education and sex. From the late 1950s onwards she had been employed by the Stockholm school authorities, and later by the national school board, as a teacher and trainer in sex education. She soon started writing teaching material for sex education and also taught sex education methodology at university. From 1964 to 1974 she served as an expert in Utredning rörande sexual- och samlevnadsfrågor i undervisnings- och upplysningsarbetet (“enquiry into sexual and cohabitation issues within teaching and informational roles”). From 1965 to 1968 she served as the principal secretary of the enquiry. As a result of her role in the enquiry and her work for Stockholm city and the national school board, Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan was frequently invited to lecture abroad. This enabled her to form a large network of researchers, organisations and institutions for sexology and sex education, largely in the USA.
Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan’s frequent medial appearances made her a well-known name. In 1972 she was referred to as “our sexual prophet” in Aftonbladet, an evening newspaper. She received most recognition for her role as expert in a series of films: Ur kärlekens språk, 1969, Mera ur kärlekens språk, 1970, and Kärlekens XYZ, 1971. These films, intended as educational films, became major global cinema successes due to their long and authentic sex scenes. Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan also contributed to the 2004 sequel to these films, which also contained a lot of sex scenes. Several newspapers such as Kamratposten, Expressen, Aftonbladet, Mitt livs novell, and the gentleman’s magazine Se employed her to answer readers’ questions on sex and relationships.
In the early 1970s Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan set up the private Svenska Sexualforskningsinstitutet (Swedish Institute of Sex Research), which offered sex therapy. In 1971 the institute advertised to people with potency problems and – as the adverts called it – sexual minorities. Later Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan also offered primal therapy and therapy for sex addicts. As director of the institute Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan trained both as a psychologist and as a sex therapist. She undertook the latter training in the USA. Her last advert for the institute was published the year before her death. Svenska Sexualforskningsinstitutet also produced research, teaching material and educational films for school. However, the films were considered to be altogether too explicit, as some scenes had been taken from the Kärlekens språk film series, and lively discussions ensued on whether the films should be shown in schools. Student organisations were favourable whilst the national school board was doubtful.
Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan’s interest in sexual minorities increased towards the end of the 1960s, when she began her research on transvestites at Stockholm University’s Department of Psychology. In the 1970s she responded to the Maoist activist Frank Baude’s speech on homosexuality as an upper-class mannerism by accusing him of Nazi reasoning. She claimed that everyone was bisexual, on a sliding scale. In 1975 she herself came out as bisexual and this revelation was plastered across the front pages of the papers. Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan described how she had fallen head over heels for the Danish psychologist Helle Höpfner Nielsen at a conference in 1974.
Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan’s relationship with Helle Höpfner Nielsen lasted the duration of their lives. They got married in 2007. They worked near each other at Svenska Sexualforskningsinstitutet and in the early 1980s they published a Swedish sequel to the so-called Hite Report, an American study of women’s experiences of sex. Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan and Helle Höpfner Nielsen also highlighted and published articles on sexuality and aging. Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan later collaborated with Malena Ivarsson, another sexologist. They planned to make a TV programme for which they tried to find couples who would undergo sex therapy, and in 1993 they published a book on women’s sexual fantasies.
In total Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan wrote about 50 books throughout the course of her career, the majority of which were informational books which were translated into several languages, such as Transvestism och det andra jaget: ett psykologiskt perspektiv, written with Sam Larsson, 1994.
Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan was also active within World Association for Sexual Health, the international sexology association. She was deputy chair of the European branch from 1991 onwards. In 1997 she was awarded the association’s gold medal. The previous year she had been made honorary doctor at Uppsala University. In conjunction with the 2013 Pride festival she was awarded a prize by RFSL, the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights.
When Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan died in 2014, many Swedish newspapers paid a tribute to her work. Her grave lies in Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm.