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 (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.
In the early 21st century chlamydia was New Zealand’s most common sexually transmitted infection. Before the mid-1970s it was unknown; many cases of what was then called non-specific urethritis in men would now be recognised as chlamydia. Many people with chlamydia have no symptoms, but it can cause infertility.
HIV/AIDS arrived in New Zealand in the 1980s. 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, and pills to prevent infection were introduced in the 2010s.
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.