Story: Sexualities

Page 1. Sexualities – then and now

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What is sexuality?

Some people think that sexuality is determined by biology. They argue that people are born homosexual or heterosexual, and that foetal brain development and hormones determine sexual desires and behaviours.

Others say that sexuality is shaped by social understandings about sex. For example, among European settlers in the late 19th century, for a woman to show an ankle was considered sexy – a view that faded as dress codes changed. In the 21st century, it is commonly thought that sexual behaviour is a product of interactions between biological and social factors.

Sexual orientation, behaviour and identity

Sexuality is often understood to have three aspects:

  • sexual orientation – sexual and/or romantic attraction to people of the other gender, the same gender or both genders
  • sexual identity – how people see themselves and present themselves to others
  • sexual behaviour – sexual activity (what people do).

These different aspects of sexuality do not always sit neatly together. Someone’s sexual identity (how they project themselves to others) may differ from their orientation (who they find attractive) and their behaviour (what they do). A man might identify as heterosexual and live in a traditional marriage, but could also be sexually attracted to men and engage in sexual activity with them. People’s sexual orientations, identities and behaviours may change over time. Increasingly the word ‘sexualities’ is used to capture diversity in sexual desires, identities and behaviours.

Different cultures, different sexualities

Christian religious beliefs had a major impact on Māori ideas about sexuality and sexual practices. A research participant in the Māori Sexuality Project said that ‘when Pakeha [Europeans] came we were made to believe that the way we portrayed our sexuality was wrong. We weren’t doing it according to … the way they portrayed their sexuality.’1

Māori and settler sexuality

Pre-colonial Māori society is thought to have celebrated sexuality and sexual diversity. Carvings, written documents and oral storytelling suggest that erotic love occurred between people of the same gender, and that women and men had several sexual partners during their lives. Some men had more than one wife.

Christian missionaries and settlers brought an ideal of monogamous heterosexual marriage, prejudices against homosexuals, and expectations that children would be conceived within marriage. Māori children born outside marriage were welcomed into their mother’s kinship group, but European women who were sexually active outside marriage were stigmatised and their children defined as illegitimate. While attitudes to single mothers changed over time, their children were legally illegitimate until the passing of the Status of Children Act 1969.

Challenging sexual conventions

Women’s groups in the late 19th century challenged the double standard that punished women much more harshly than men for sex outside marriage. They wanted men to adhere to the same moral standards as women, and argued for community and state support for single mothers. Challenges to different rules for women and men continued into the 20th century, especially from the 1960s and 1970s as more people engaged openly in sexual relationships outside marriage.

Regulating sexuality

By the 2000s many earlier rules about sexuality had changed. Sex between men was decriminalised in 1986 (sex between women had never been legislated against), and sex work was decriminalised in 2003. In the 2010s almost half of all births occurred outside marriage. However, sex with a minor (under 16 years) was against the law and the distribution of pornography and sexually explicit material was regulated.

State agencies and community organisations focused on sexual health, planned parenting, sexuality education, the protection of children from sexual exploitation and the human rights of those with a variety of sexual orientations. However, while formal discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was illegal, those who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender still sometimes experienced discrimination.

Purity and pleasure

Alongside attempts to control bodies and desires, and to impose standards of sexual behaviour, people have always taken pleasure in bodies, erotic images and sexual activity. However, New Zealand historians have often focused on the activities of sexual ‘puritans’ who wanted to control sexuality, rather than those who enjoyed ‘the pleasures of the flesh’.2

Learning about sexuality

Sexual practices can be intensely private and therefore hard to research. On the other hand, sexual images and sexual advice are available through television, movies, magazines, books and the internet. Families, friends, school sexuality-education programmes, the law, and religious and health organisations are other important sources of information about sexuality. People may also discover what pleases them through experimentation.

  1. C. Aspin and J. Hutchings, ‘Reclaiming the past to inform the future: contemporary views of Māori sexuality.’ Culture, Health & Sexuality 9, no. 4 (2007), p. 422. Back
  2. Caroline Daley, ‘Puritans and pleasure seekers.’ In Sexuality down under: social and historical perspectives, edited by Allison Kirkman and Pat Moloney. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2005, p. 62. Back
How to cite this page:

Louisa Allen, 'Sexualities - Sexualities – then and now', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Louisa Allen, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 17 Jul 2018