Story: Sexual health

Syphilis and gonorrhoea were a source of deep shame, embarrassment and denial in the 19th and 20th centuries. During the First World War Ettie Rout pioneered a safe-sex approach to minimise sexually transmitted infections among servicemen – but others opposed her and tried to promote abstinence instead. From the 1980s HIV/AIDS brought a new sense of urgency to sexual-health initiatives, and condoms became a symbol of safe sex.

Story by Jane Tolerton
Main image: VD prevention poster, 1980s

Story Summary

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Sexually transmitted infections are diseases passed on by having sex. Sexual health means attempts to control, prevent and cure these infections. Approaches to stop the spread of disease have varied over time – sometimes blaming infected people and insisting on abstinence (no sex), at other times supporting infected people and promoting safe sex.

Venereal disease

Venereal disease (VD) meant syphilis and gonorrhoea. There was no effective treatment for these before penicillin became available.

  • Syphilis could kill people or make them insane. Babies infected with syphilis in the womb were often born deformed, or died before birth.
  • Gonorrhoea could make women sterile, and make babies blind.

Early approaches to venereal disease

Venereal disease was believed to be due to immoral sexual behaviour. Infected people were often too ashamed to get treatment. When someone died from syphilis, their family sometimes pretended that the cause of death was something else.

Information about sex and sexual health was banned, so it was difficult for people to learn about venereal disease and how to prevent it.

Prostitutes were blamed for spreading venereal disease. From 1869 to 1910, under the Contagious Diseases Act, women suspected of prostitution could be forcibly examined for diseases, then locked up and treated.

First and Second world wars

Many New Zealand soldiers in Europe during the First World War caught venereal diseases. At first, safer sex practices such as condoms were not encouraged. But from 1917, servicemen going on leave were given kits that included condoms, developed by Christchurch woman Ettie Rout. She set up a brothel in Paris where servicemen could have safe sex.

In the Second World War servicemen were given condoms – but many still caught diseases. Some American servicemen stationed in New Zealand infected local women.

Chlamydia

From the late 20th century chlamydia was New Zealand’s most common sexually transmitted infection. Many people with chlamydia have no symptoms, but it can cause infertility.

HIV/AIDS

In the 1980s HIV/AIDS arrived in New Zealand. People infected with HIV could develop AIDS, which made their immune systems fail. At first, most people with HIV died, but since the mid-1990s treatments have kept people alive longer.

Many cases of HIV were in the gay community, and gay activists organised to stop the disease spreading and to support people with HIV. They encouraged people to have safe sex and use condoms.

After prostitution was decriminalised in 2003, it became illegal for clients of prostitutes to have sex without a condom.

How to cite this page:

Jane Tolerton, 'Sexual health', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/sexual-health (accessed 24 May 2018)

Story by Jane Tolerton, published 5 May 2011