Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 14, March 21, 2011


Interview with Osmo Kontula

Guadalupe Brak-Lamy, Ph.D
Post Ph. D. researcher at CRIA (Center for the Research in Anthropology)
Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas/Universidade Nova de Lisboa,
Avenida de Berna, 26-C, 1069-061 Lisboa
guadalupe.lamy at gmail.com

Osmo Kontula is Research Professor at The Population Research Institute, Family Federation of Finland since 1998. Professor Kontula is also Secretary General of the European Federation of Sexology (EFS). Dr. Kontula is a member of Scientific Committee and in the Sexuality Education Standards Working Committee of the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) and he is a member of the Advisory Board in the Archive for Sexology in Berlin.  

Osmo Kontula was a Member of Board of Directors in the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS); 1999 – 2002 and Chair of International Task Force Committee, The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS), 2000 – 2005. He was President of The Nordic Association for Clinical Sexology (NACS), 2001 – 2003. Dr. Kontula was associate Professor, Medical Sociology, at the Department of Public Health of the University of Helsinki from 1996 to1997; Senior Researcher of the National Crime Prevention Council of the Finnish Ministry of Justice in 1995; Research Director of the Department of Public Health at the University of Helsinki between 1991and 1994; Research Fellow of the Academy of Finland from 1986 to 1990.

Research Professor Kontula has been involved with sex research and active in sexological organizations for the past 20 years. He has authored over 280 publications and almost 50 books and presented more than 60 papers in international conferences. For the last ten years he has been a member of expert groups in the European Union in both quantitative and qualitative sex research and population issues, and a consultant of European Population Committee in sexual and reproductive health issues.

Dr. Kontula's fields of expertise are: Sexology, sexual science, sex education, sexual and reproductive health, cultural differences in sexual issues, adolescent sexuality, couple relationships, family, the impact of aging on human sexual activity, population and sexual policies, fertility, demographic behaviour and public health.

The work of Osmo Kontula is very important for social sciences because it reveals the discursive level in the construction of representations of people of different ages (generations) related to thematics like sexual identity, sexual education, sexual well being and sexual health, sexual relationships, couple formation, marriage and divorce, the impact of aging on human sexual desire and activity. Through his work are analysed rules and scripts that govern social interaction and help to understand the issues mentioned above and others like, for example, the process of sexual risk taking.

Within the following interview Osmo Kontula talks about his researches and their relevance for the social sciences. He also talks about the present reception of his work in Finland and about the changes on the construction of femininity and masculinity in that country, giving some advice for the development of a career related to the sexuality subject.

1- As a sociologist, when did you become interested in the sexual subject?

Sexuality has been a special interest for the whole of my life but as a sociologist the first kick for a sexual study came when I was still a sociology student at the University of Helsinki. My Professor at the time, Elina Haavio-Mannila, asked me after a sex role seminar if I would be interested to collect data on the sexual behaviours and values of the students at University of Helsinki. She had received a grant from a Foundation to study associations between alcohol consumption and sexual activities. I was happy to join this project and I conducted a data collection and finally wrote my master thesis in 1984 based on that survey data with title “Sexual Morals of the students at the University of Helsinki”.

During this study process I was also in contact with Professor Matti Rimpelä at the Department of Public Health. He had a plan to conduct surveys of adolescent sexual issues and I was able to join also that project and to conduct the first regional pilot sex survey in 1983 among the school children. In 1986 started a KISS-study project of adolescent sexuality (both quantitative and qualitative data) that was my main task for several years. I published my first popular book on adolescent sexual issues based on that data already in 1987. Later this KISS data was also basis for my doctoral thesis in 1991 with title “Cultural Terms of Adolescent Sexual Initiation”.

2- What kind of fieldwork did you do related to the sexual subject? When I say fieldwork I mean participant observation or observation.

I have never conducted real scientific participant observations in my sexual studies. Concerning qualitative sexual studies I have conducted a number of personal interview studies especially among adolescents and young adults and collected sexual essays among adolescents (Reproductive health behaviour of young Europeans; Trends in Teenage Sexual Behaviour; Pregnancies, Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV infections in Europe, among others ) and later sexual autobiographies among adult population (specially the books Sexual Pleasures: Enhancement of Sex Life in Finland (1995), New Views on Sexual Health : The Case of Finland (2000) and Sexual Lifestyles in the Twentieth Century (2002). They have included very open and detailed stories of sexual issues as a part of personal growth and the whole context of the other life events.

3- What did you learn with those studies or in what way they helped you as a sociologist to understand the mysteries of human sexuality?

After all my studies and books it is impossible to put into very brief what I have learned. However, I believe that the important finding has been an immense individual variation in sexual desires and experiences. Sociologists have to generalize their findings, and a lot it makes fair sense, but at the individual level men and women are trying to work out their sexual identity and find partners who could share the same motivations, interests and satisfactions with them. In most cases this type of match is very difficult to catch up. People try to be satisfied with what they have got but deep inside they keep on hoping for the ideal sexual match. So many of us are ready to leave everything behind if this type of match seems to be in front of us. True passion is something that most people yearn for experiencing at least once in their life time. It gives a feeling that they have not wasted their life.

4 - Which are the major contributions of your field research to the social sciences?

My most important contribution to sexology has been obviously my extensive national sex surveys (about sex education; single and double standards in Finland; masturbation in a generation perspective; explorations in infidelity and commitment; the impact of aging on human sexual activity are some examples). In qualitative studies my extensive books (600 and 800 pages) based on sexual autobiographies have probably given the most to my readers. Based on that data there was also a book in English covering sexual lifestyles in the 20 th century. I have been able to put some of my findings into theoretical framework. That is helpful while looking for methods to implement findings into practical promotion.

5 - Do you think the social sciences, particularly Anthropology and Sociology, are important for the study of sexuality? Why?

There is ongoing competition if sexual issues are mainly building on biological facts and evolution or if our sexuality is transformed in social processes. These both schools of thought have some important contributions in the field of sexology. Sociology has much to give into sexology both at the cultural level and concerning social interaction. There is strong evidence how effectively culture can shape individual sexuality for example by limiting sexual activities only to marriage. This is still a case for adolescent and young women in many cultures around the world. Culture is here much stronger than desires based on biology. Concerning social interaction sociology can analyse rules and scripts that govern actual social interaction and help to understand for example the process of sexual risk taking. Sociology provides tools especially for sexual education and counselling.

6 - What is the present reception to your work in Finland?

After all my studies I have a recognized status of an expert in sexology and sexual issues in Finland. The outcome of this status is that media and journalists quite often ask my comments in public concerning sexual issues and some news of new findings in the field of sexology. At professional level my expertise is asked for as consultant in sex education and sexual health promotion as well as supervisor of many academic manuscripts and thesis. All in all, reception has been very positive.

7 – In the many countries of the western world women are more prevalent in the work space. Also, given the economic instability, there seems to be a masculine prevailing trend away from the company as a basis of identity. How has the construction of femininity and masculinity changed, if at all, in Finland in the last ten years?

Based on international statistics (for example Gender Equality Index) gender equality is number one in the world in Finland together with Sweden and women out number men in higher education. Finnish women work full time more actively than women in any other Western world country and also as actively as men do. Women are more prevalent in leading positions in society including at the moment that both President of Republic and Prime Minister are women. Only in economy and technology men still have most of the leading positions. One outcome of this general equality process has been that especially young women make more sexual initiatives than before and women have more sexual partners in their life time than ever before.

8 - In your book:” Between Sexual Desire and Reality. The Evolution of Sex in Finland” (Kontula, 2009), you mention the importance of the mysteries of sexual desire. What are those mysteries and why are they so considerable?

Sexual desire is the key issue in human sexuality that helps to understand individual motivations and preferences. The determinants of great individual variation in sexual desire are still in many ways unknown. For example the role of genetics and social learning needs to be studied more comprehensively. On population level men have higher sexual desire than women. This has major outcomes to be negotiated in social interaction between the partners. Many mysteries in sexual desire are related to individual and specific sexual fantasies (even violent) at the same time as those very same persons can’t become aware of why they find exactly these types of fantasies the most arousing. Individual sexual desire is still a mystery for most of the people although they can be very powerful motivations to actions that can cause both the greatest pleasure and happiness but also the greatest misery. Sexual desire is an important determinant in our happiness.

9 - I am always curious on why people decide to study sexuality in a foreign country. Why Peru? Was there a specific set of problems and parameters that initially interested you, or was there a more personal connection to Peru?

I respond to these questions right now in the Amazonian rain forest in Peru close to the city called Pucallpa. I have conducted here some pilot surveys in schools and made my personal observations of living habits while travelling both by car and boat to the villages of indigenous inhabitants that are called here shipibos. If our government will grant the applied resources, there will start next year a three year project to promote sexual health among the adolescents in the villages of Rio Ucayali.

This all could had happened also somewhere else than in Peru but I have a strong motivation to try to do here something based on my expertise in sexology. There is so much more to be done here than in Finland, many issues have to start and to build from the beginning. As sociologist and sexologist I find this as a fascinating trip into history that helps me to understand the evolution in social and sexual issues in my own country.

Finnish anthropologist Rafael Karsten has written extensive reports of the life among indigenous people in Ecuador and also in villages in the 1950s in Yarinacocha where I am right now. This historical journey via his work helps me to see how stable some social processes have been here. The assumption of a western type of all the time ongoing social evolution seems to be here invalid. The power of tradition is very strong.

10 - After all the studies you have done, why do you think people want sex? Do you notice differences between men and women, age groups and between cultures? Could you please, summarize your main ideas and conclusions?

Basically it is very human and rewarding to desire to be close to someone and to feel and give touches. This all begins already in the intimacy between a mother and a baby. This type of intimacy provides the most satisfying human rewards. When this intimacy is based on passion it can mentally take us into the almost a spiritual world where the doors into another kind of consciousness can be open.

I have already made a comment how strongly culture can regulate sexual activities and related values. In Western world so called sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s caused the evolution in sexual issues that created differences between cohorts or age groups. Since that time young people have had more liberal views on sexual issues than their parents or grandparents. Sexual issues are evolving but the greatest challenge is how to negotiate the kind of interaction between sexual partners that can provide them the greatest joint pleasure. This is a challenge for all times.

11 -What are the advices you give your students for the development of a career related to the sexual subject?

Sexology and sexual science is really a fascinating field and the knowledge of sexual studies can be adopted also personally. There are still a lot of mysteries and sexual problems that can be studied. The problematic issue can be that there aren’t self evidently positions to work after graduation. The most experts in sexual field work in sexual education, sexual counselling and sex therapy. In the academic world there aren’t many positions available. That is why most academic persons who are qualified in sexology need to study also some other issues of human interest. The issues concerning marriage and couple relationships match well with sexual issues that are in the core of happiness in couple relationships.


 Bajos, Nathalie Guillaume, Agnés & Kontula, Osmo. Le comportement des jeunes Européens face à la santé génésique. Volume 1. Etudes démographiques No.42, Editions du Conseil de l'Europe. Conseil de l’Europe. Strasbourg 2004. 150 pp.

 Haavio-Mannila, Elina, Kontula, Osmo & Rotkirch, Anna. The change of sexual lifestyles in Finland - A Research study based on over 200 autobiographies in three generations. (Translation into Japanese by Noriko Hashimoto). Ohtsuki publishing Co., Ltd. Tokyo 2006.
224 pp.

Haavio-Mannila, Elina & Osmo Kontula, Osmo. Single and Double Sexual Standards in Finland, Estonia and St. Petersburg. Journal of Sex Research, 2003 :40: 1:36-49.

Haavio-Mannila, Elina & Kontula, Osmo: Sexual Trends in the Baltic Sea Area. Publications of the Population Research Institute, Series D41, The Population Research Institute, Family Federation of Finland. Helsinki, 2003. 272 pp.

Haavio-Mannila, Elina, Kontula, Osmo & Rotkirch, Anna. Sexual Lifestyles in the Twentieth Century: A Research Study. Palgrave. Hampshire and New York 2002. 224 pp.

Kontula,Osmo. Between Sexual Desire and Reality: The Evolution of Sex in Finland. The Family Federation of Finland: The Population Research Institute D49/2009. Helsinki 2009. 255 pp.

Osmo Kontula & Elina Haavio-Mannila. The Impact of Aging on Human Sexual Activity and Sexual Desire.. The Journal of Sex Research. 2009, Jan-Feb.46: 1:46-56.

Kontula, Osmo & Meriläinen, Henna. Koulun seksuaalikasvatus 2000-luvun Suomessa (Sex education in school in Finland in the 2000s). Katsauksia E26/2007. Väestöntutkimuslaitos. Väestöliitto. Helsinki 2007. 187 pp.

 Kontula, Osmo. Hallazgos sobre la conducta sexual juvenil, los embarazos y los nacimientos en Europa: el rol de la educación y la información en la salud sexual (Findings in sexual behavior, pregnancies and births among young people in Europe: The role of education and information on sexual health). Construyendo una agenda temática en sexualidad (Ed. Jaime Barrientos). Ediciones  Universidad Católica del Norte. Chile. Antofagasta 2006. pp. 29-61.  

 Kontula, Osmo & Valkama, Sirpa. Characteristics of the sexology profession in Finland in the beginning of 2000s = Caractéristiques de la profession de sexologue, en Finlande, au début des années 2000. Sexologies – European Journal of Sexual Health, 2006:15: 1:22-29.

Kontula, Osmo. Bi- and Homosexuality in the National Surveys in Europe. In Same-sex couples, same-sex partnerships, and homosexual marriages: A Focus on cross-national differentials (Eds. Digoix, Marie & Festy, Patrick). Documents de travail n°124, Ined, 2004, pp. 211-223

Kontula, Osmo. Reproductive health behaviour of young Europeans. Volume 2: The role of education and information. Population Studies No. 45. Council of Europe Publishing. Council of Europe. St rasbourg 2004. 100 pp.

Kontula, Osmo & Haavio-Mannila, Elina. Renaissance of Romanticism in the Era of Increasing Individualism. In The State of Affairs: Explorations in Infidelity and Commitment  (Eds. Jean Duncombe, Kaeren Harrison, Graham Allan & Dennis Marsden). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. New Jersey 2004. pp. 79-102.

Kontula, Osmo. Trends in Teenage Sexual Behaviour, Pregnancies, Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV infections in Europe. In ‘Reproductive health behaviour of young Europeans.’ Volume 1. Population Studies No. 42. Council of Europe Publishing. Council of Europe. Strasbourg 2003. pp. 77-137.

Kontula, Osmo & Haavio-Mannila, Elina. Masturbation in a Generational Perspective. In Masturbation as a Means of Achieving Sexual Health (Eds. Walter O. Bockting and Eli Coleman). The Haworth Press. New York 2003. pp. 49-83.

Kontula, Osmo & Haavio-Mannila, Elina. Sexual Pleasures: Enhancement of Sex Life in Finland, 1971 - 1992. Dartmouth. Hampshire 1995.

Lottes, Ilsa & Kontula, Osmo (Eds.): New Views on Sexual Health: The Case of Finland. D37/2000. The Population Research Institute. Väestöliitto, Family Federation of Finland. Helsinki 2000. 339 pp

The Population Research Institute. Väestöliitto, Family Federation of Finland, Elina Haavio-Mannila and Osmo Kontula: Sexual Trends in the Baltic Sea Area. Publications of the Population Research Institute, Series D41, The Population Research Institute, Family Federation of Finland. Helsinki 2003. 272 pp.and. Helsinki 2000. 339 pp.

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