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by Louisa Allen

The sexual ‘double standard’ punished women much more than men for having sex outside marriage. Men were seen as entitled to sexual pleasure, but little attention was paid to women’s enjoyment of sex. In the 21st century it was accepted that a broader range of people were sexually active – including midlife and older people, gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and people with disabilities.

Sexualities – then and now

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.

    • 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
    • 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

Young people

Many stereotypes exist about young people and sexuality – for instance, that they have many fleeting relationships that lack emotional commitment. Research on New Zealand youth indicates a somewhat different picture.

Sexual activity

A national survey of 8,500 high-school students in 2012 found that 25% of males and 24% of females had experienced sexual intercourse. 18.5% indicated they were currently sexually active. 

In 2012 almost 50% of New Zealand high-school students aged 17 or older had had sexual intercourse. The average age of first sexual experience for New Zealanders was similar to that in the United States, Australia and Germany but higher than Norway, Sweden and Denmark.


Young people are often seen as having ‘short and sweet’ relationships. However, a study of 17–19-year-olds in the early 2000s found that most of those in relationships had been together for 6–12 months. Almost a third indicated that their longest relationship had lasted between one and five years. These findings suggest that young people’s relationships are not always brief. Couples spoke about the emotional bond with their partners and how sex was just a component of their relationship.

Love and lust

It is sometimes assumed that young men just want sex while young women want love. However, research has shown that young men also value the emotional side of sexual relationships. Chris (19) spoke about how sex with his girlfriend was different from one-night stands because it involved ‘more emotion’ and ‘real caring’. He said that ‘sex for sex sake isn’t worthwhile’. Ashby (17) commented that casual sex was ‘more about lust’, while sex with his girlfriend was more intimate and he felt more comfortable.1

Gender and sexuality

Young men are often seen as being emotionally uninvolved in sexual relationships, and only interested in sexual activity. While this is true in some cases, many young men do not see sex as the most important element in relationships and say that they want friendship and love as well as sex.

Young women are often thought to be more interested in the emotional elements of a relationship rather than sexual activity. However, in the 21st century some young women were expressing their sexuality in more traditionally masculine ways. They initiated relationships purely for sexual pleasure and expected male partners to please them.

Sexual identities

For some young people their sexuality does not conform to expected heterosexual models. They are attracted to people of their own gender, or sometimes multiple genders. Most high-school students who are attracted to their own or multiple genders have not talked to other people about their sexual orientation.

Contraception use

A 2012 survey found that 58% of sexually active teenagers used some form of contraception all of the time to prevent pregnancy, and 46% used condoms to avoid sexually transmitted infections all of the time. Of those who were sexually active, 17% did not regularly use condoms or other contraception.

Teen pregnancy

Some teenagers become parents. While sometimes this is unplanned, in other instances it is an active choice. The teenage birth rate has dropped considerably since the 1970s. It peaked at 69 per 1,000 in 1972 and was 19 per 1,000 in 2014 – still high internationally.

Resisting the double standard

Women are increasingly rejecting different sexual standards for women and men. Melissa, who was interviewed about casual sex, said, ‘Guys can have sex with however many [people] they want and … they’re perceived to be a stud or … a great chick magnet or whatever, whereas girls can’t do the same, they get labelled as like a slut … I think it’s very wrong.’ 2

At one time teen mothers had to leave school, but in the 21st century they are encouraged to continue their education, complete qualifications and find employment. Little information is available about teenage fathers because mothers are not required to name or provide details about their baby’s father. Some teenage mothers do not want to name their child’s father, especially if the pregnancy is the outcome of rape or incest.

While teenage fathers are assumed to be less likely to be involved in the care of their children than teenage mothers, research suggests that fatherhood sometimes turns fun-loving adolescents into responsible fathers who enjoy being involved in the lives of their children.

    • Louisa Allen, ‘”As far as sex goes, I don’t really think about my body.” Young men’s corporeal experiences of (hetero)sex pleasure.’ In The life of Brian: masculinities, sexualities and health in New Zealand, edited by Heather Worth, Anna Paris and Louisa Allen. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2002, p. 136. Back
    • M. A. Beres, and P. Farvid, ‘Sexual ethics and young women’s accounts of heterosexual casual sex.’ Sexualities 13, no. 3 (2010), pp. 386–387. Back

Sexuality education

Sexuality education in New Zealand in the 21st century typically covers information on sexual relationships, safer sex, contraception and sexually transmitted infections. However, some young people find this information too medical and clinical, and not particularly relevant to their lives. In the early 2000s, 17–19-year-olds rated friends as the best source of information on sex, followed by school sexuality-education programmes and parents.

Learning about the basics

In a major study in the early 2000s young people said that they wanted to know practical things such as how to get condoms, how to find out if someone you liked wanted to have sex, and also what Peter (18) described as ‘just like the basics, like positioning or whatever’. His girlfriend Amy (17) said that without this knowledge ‘you’ve got basically no idea, you’re just going to stuff around for ages and … most times it’s painful, if you don’t know what you are on about.’1

Early sex education

The introduction of sex education in schools was debated in Parliament in 1910, but for a long time there were no coordinated programmes. Students got information from books, pamphlets and lectures outside school hours.

Often referred to as ‘sex hygiene’, sex education in high schools in the early 1900s focused on sexual purity and preparation for marriage. Students were told to avoid premarital sex and masturbation, which was seen as a vice and a cause of mental illness. Against the background of ideas about ‘race improvement’, sex education was sometimes used to encourage those who were white and middle class to marry within this group.

Sex education was prohibited in primary schools until the Education Amendment Act 1985 permitted it under certain conditions. Limited sex education was offered in some high schools from the late 1960s. Parents had to be consulted, the school committee had to approve sex-education programmes following a written report by the school principal, and parents had the right to withdraw their children. A new health syllabus, Understanding change in puberty, was introduced in 1987, and in 1989 legal restrictions on advising under-16-year-olds on the use of contraceptives were removed.

Sex education or sexuality education

Sex education in schools concentrated on reproductive issues and was highly medicalised and clinical. Often it was used to respond to perceived social problems and health issues. After the first reported case of HIV/AIDS in New Zealand in 1983, fears about the spread of the virus led to a strong focus on condom use. In the 21st century the focus was less on the risk of HIV/AIDS and more on preventing sexually transmitted infections and reducing unplanned pregnancies.

When the new health and physical education curriculum was introduced in 1999, sex education became ‘sexuality education’. Attempts were made to move away from a narrow focus on biology, reproduction and contraception towards broader issues, including the physical, social, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of sexuality.

A special exclusion

Sexuality education is the only part of the curriculum from which parents can have a child removed. Under section 105D of the Education Amendment Act 1985 parents can apply to the principal, in writing, to have their child excluded from these classes. Health education is also the only part of the curriculum on which principals are required to consult with the school’s board of trustees, and with parents of children currently enrolled and those likely to enrol over the next two years.

Gay, lesbian and bisexual identities

Sexuality education has often ignored gay, lesbian and bisexual identities, or presented them as negative, deviant or different. When a group of same-sex-attracted 16–19-year-old high-school students were interviewed, one said: ‘Everything that comes out about sex is straight and being gay is an alternative thing, like they don’t treat it equally.’2 A senior high-school student interviewed for a different research project said that when homosexuality was discussed it was often in terms of HIV/AIDS, and was associated with danger and disease.

Sexuality education in the 21st century

In the early 21st century sexuality education was compulsory until year 10. After that, only senior students who chose health as a subject received further sexuality education. Students were least likely to receive sexuality education at the time when most were having their first sexual experiences.

    • Louisa Allen, Sexual subjects: young people, sexuality, and education. Houndmills New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 47. Back
    • L. Allen, and K. Elliot, ‘Learning and teaching sexualities in Aotearoa.’ In Nga kaupapa here: connections and contradictions in education, edited by Vicki Carpenter, Peter Roberts and Maxine Stephenson. South Melbourne: Cengage, 2008, p. 175. Back

Sexual diversity in schools

Many of our ideas about what is ‘sexually normal’ are perpetuated by institutions such as schools. Schools have often reinforced beliefs that heterosexuality is normal and that homosexuality and bisexuality are abnormal.

Difficult to tell

Many children know quite early which gender or genders they are attracted to. Almost a third know before the age of 12. But a 2007 survey found that only 40% of gay or bisexual high-school students had talked to other people about it. Of these students, 30% of 13-year-olds had told someone close to them about their sexuality, as had 47% of those aged 17 and older. Of those who had spoken to others about their attraction to their own or multiple genders, 24% reported that they could talk easily to family members – but 54% could not talk to their family at all about this.

Official and unofficial curriculum

The official curriculum is what schools intentionally teach and promote. This includes the sexuality-education curriculum, and discussion of sexuality in other subject areas, such as biology, English and social studies. Sexuality education often ignores gay, lesbian and bisexual identities. One of the gay students who evaluated a proposed sexuality-education resource in the early 2000s commented that he did not encounter anything against being gay when he was at school, ‘but there was never anything for it, and there was never any mention of the word ever.’1

The ‘unofficial curriculum’ involves things that are learned at school, but that are not officially or intentionally taught. The unofficial curriculum operates when a student calls another a ‘homo’ as a term of abuse. Some schools ban the use of this term.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer students

In a 2007 study approximately 4% of secondary-school students in New Zealand reported being attracted to their own or multiple genders. This finding was repeated when the study was done again in 2012. In 2007, 74% of these students felt safe at school all or most of the time, compared with 85% of their heterosexual peers. However, others found school unsupportive and decided not to tell others about their sexual identity. Of students who were bullied at school, young people attracted to their own or multiple genders were five times more likely to report being bullied because they were thought to be gay.


Some students report discrimination from other students and teachers. A 17-year-old lesbian said that after other students had ‘outed’ her, some teachers began to ignore her when she raised her hand in class. Other students called her ‘little dyke’, and said, ‘ewe she touched me,’ when she pushed past them on the stairwell. The situation became so bad that she eventually changed schools.2

Legal rights

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex and transgender students have the legal right to be free from sexual discrimination at school. Schools are required to provide an environment in which all students can experience their schooling positively. The 1990 National Education Goals include a statement about the need for ‘equality of educational opportunity for all New Zealanders, by identifying and removing barriers to achievement’.3 This was reaffirmed when the goals were updated in 2004.

The Professional Standards for Teachers also require that teachers ‘demonstrate expertise and refined strategies in the development and maintenance of environments that enhance learning by recognising and catering for the learning needs of a diversity of students’.4

    • Louisa Allen, ‘Keeping students on the straight and narrow: heteronormalising practices in New Zealand secondary schools.’ New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies 41, no. 2 (2007), p. 312. Back
    • ‘Keeping students on the straight and narrow,’ p. 316. Back
    • Ministry of Education, National Education Goals. (last accessed 10 May 2021). Back
    • Safety in our schools: an action kit for Aotearoa New Zealand schools to address sexual orientation prejudice: ko te haumaru i o tatou kura. Wellington: Out There, 2004, p. 8. Back

Adult sexualities

Starting relationships

People meet future sexual partners in a variety of different situations, including bars, workplaces, schools, polytechnics, sports clubs, gyms, parties or the homes of friends and family. Some relationships start as casual encounters and become ongoing attachments. Increasingly people of all ages – heterosexual, gay, lesbian and bisexual – are using internet dating sites to find romantic and sexual partners.

Gendered pleasures

European settlers arrived in New Zealand with ideas about differences in men and women’s sexuality. These included the idea that men, once aroused, need sexual satisfaction. In heterosexual relationships this contributed to a focus on men’s sexual pleasure, with little concern for women’s pleasure – both in popular culture and among those providing expert advice.

Sexual-health activist Ettie Rout argued that both women and men have sex for pleasure. In Safe marriage (1922), she stated that sexual desire and pleasure in sexual intercourse was normal and healthy for both women and men. Rout worked to ensure that New Zealand soldiers had access to condoms during the First World War.

Women’s rights to sexual pleasure were asserted more forcefully in the 1960s and 1970s. This coincided with the availability of the contraceptive pill, which made it easier for sexually active women to avoid pregnancy.

Winging it

Men in New Zealand sometimes use what is called 'the wingman strategy' to pick up a woman when they are at a pub or a party with their friends. According to Terry, who was part of a focus-group discussion in the early 2000s, ‘girls often tend to travel in twos so you need your wingman to take the friend away so you can hit on the girl that you're after ... You know it is like fighter planes, they travel around in pairs, and the wingman always sort of watches out for you ...'1

Mutual pleasure

From the later 20th century, heterosexual couples have increasingly tried to ensure that they both experience pleasure. One male research participant said it was a matter of 'one for her and one for me'.2 Simultaneous orgasm was sometimes seen as the best thing, but was not easily achieved. For many women, penetrative sex was not the major way they experienced orgasm.

Conversations with heterosexual women and men suggest that women’s orgasms are perceived as more difficult to achieve, and are a mark of men’s sexual competence or ‘sexpertise’. Some younger women also see themselves as sexual experts whose partners benefit from their well-honed sexual techniques.

The meaning of ‘sex’

For heterosexuals, sex has traditionally been defined as sexual intercourse. However, research among younger adults suggests that many people view sex more broadly, including practices such as oral sex.

Many people, including gay men, lesbians and bisexuals, engage in a variety of sexual practices. Physical closeness, erotic touching and emotional intimacy – as well as orgasm – are important in many different sexual relationships.

Love after 20 years

Paul and Barry met at Paul’s workplace – a takeaway bar – 20 years ago. They were attracted to one another, exchanged phone numbers and arranged to meet when Paul had a night off. According to Barry they have ‘shared everything from then on because we’ve got a lot in common … shared experiences, shared interests, love still after 20 years’.3

Coupledom and its challenges

Interviews with gay male couples suggest that, as for many heterosexual and lesbian couples, sex is a special way of knowing their partner that they do not share with anyone else. Couples see their relationship as unique and important to their sense of self, and usually value monogamy, even if they sometimes have sex with other people. Talking to partners about sex with others is usually difficult, and can be a threat to coupled relationships.

Long-term gay couples sometimes chose not to use condoms with one another, as opposed to during casual sex. Some heterosexual couples also reported not using condoms in established relationships. The decision not to practise safer sex can be a way of showing commitment to one another.


Bisexuals fall in love with, are attracted to, or have sex with people regardless of their gender. They often see sexuality as a continuum, and may be critical of pressures to fit into conventional gender or sexuality categories. Some bisexuals are equally attracted to their own and other genders, while others are attracted more to people of one gender. Their degree of attraction to different genders can change over time.

Some people are attracted to partners of different genders, but do not define themselves as bisexual. People who are sexually active with only one gender often still consider themselves bisexual.

    • Due Theilade, ‘Talking about sexual negotiations in New Zealand and Denmark: Initiating sexual encounters and the wingman strategy.’ Women’s Studies Conference Papers, Women’s Studies Association, Wellington, 2005, p. 3. Back
    • V. Braun, N. Gavey, and K. McPhillips, ‘The “fair deal”? Unpacking accounts of reciprocity in heterosex.’ Sexualities 6 no. 2 (2003), p. 244. Back
    • H. Worth, A. Reid, and K. McMillan, ‘Somewhere over the rainbow: Love, trust and monogamy in gay relationships.’ Journal of Sociology 38, no. 3 (2002), p. 242. Back

Midlife and later life

Perceptions of ageing and sexuality

While middle-aged and older people are often not seen as sexually active, or as objects of desire, sexuality is a lifelong experience. Since the 1990s the sexual lives of older people have received more attention on television, and in movies and advertisements.

Research has challenged assumptions about an inevitable decline in sexual desire and activity for men and women as they age. In a survey conducted by Relationship Services in 2009, people over 60 reported the most overall satisfaction with their current intimate relationship (94%, compared to 83% for all participants). The people most satisfied with their relationship overall were those most satisfied with their sexual relationship.

Women and midlife sexuality

Interviews in 2001 with 27 midlife women whose partners used Viagra (a drug to treat erection difficulties) suggested that, while some women found that interest in sex declined with age, over half of them experienced more pleasure in sexual encounters than they had when they were younger.

A late developer

Allison (43) described herself as ‘a late developer’. She said that she enjoyed sex much more as she got older and only experienced an orgasm for the first time when she was about 30. For her, pleasure was greater when she learnt about her own body and felt comfortable with one partner. She said it was really about ‘becoming more relaxed with one person’.1

Men and sexual satisfaction

New Zealand research with men aged 54–70 who used Viagra demonstrates that sexual satisfaction may not decrease with age, but it can change. Some men in this study reported being less focused on penetrative sex and orgasm than when they were younger. They may also focus less on their penis and more on other body sensations and pleasures. These men also reported becoming less self-centred in their pursuit of orgasm and more focused on their partner’s pleasure as they aged.

The Viagra era

The advent of what is sometimes called ‘the Viagra era’ in the late 1990s brought a new focus on the sexuality of older adults and affected perceptions of it. The marketing of drugs to treat ‘erectile dysfunction’ suggests that remaining sexually active in later life is an indicator of general health and fitness, and something to strive for. Previously, erectile changes and a lowering of sexual desire were viewed as a normal part of male ageing. Some men (and women) experience this emphasis on ongoing sexual vitality as an unwelcome obligation to perform and to engage in sexual intercourse.

    • T. Vares, and others, ‘Reconceptualizing cultural narratives of mature women's sexuality in the Viagra era.’ Journal of Aging Studies 21 (2007), p. 157. Back

People with disabilities

While sexuality issues are often a sensitive topic, for people with disabilities they pose additional challenges. This is because of the way others view people with disabilities and seek to define and regulate their sexuality.

Perception of sexuality

People with disabilities are often seen as asexual or without sexual desires or experiences. It is sometimes assumed that people with physical disabilities do not have ‘normal’ sexual functions and needs. People with intellectual disabilities can be seen as incapable of responsible sexual relationships. However, people with disabilities have the same sexual needs and desires as everyone else.

Learning about sexuality

Sexuality and relationships consultant Claire Ryan offers workshops on sexuality for those with disabilities and their support people. Topics include sexual desire, romance, contraception, online dating, sexual orientation and sexual identity. Advice is also offered on how to access the services of sex workers. People are invited to bring up 'anything you want to talk about'.1

Sexuality education

Sexuality education has been criticised for not exploring pleasure and desire – and this is especially the case for people with disabilities. Because many people assume that those with disabilities are incapable of desire or sexual pleasure, education on these issues is often seen as unnecessary. While people without disabilities are most likely to receive sexuality education from parents and friends, people with disabilities may have to rely on other sources.

Sexual abuse

Research indicates that people with disabilities experience a higher incidence of sexual abuse than other groups. As a result, parents and carers can be protective of them and restrict their sexual freedom. Incidence of sexual abuse and lack of sexuality education mean that people with disabilities are more vulnerable to sexually transmissible infections.

Sexual citizenship

Disability advocates have argued that the right to sexual pleasure is the real accessibility issue for people with disabilities. A recent project in Australia has produced a training and resource pack for people with learning disabilities and those who support them. It used the stories of 25 people with learning disabilities to develop materials which focus on the rights of people with disabilities to be sexual in ways that are safe for them. The resource pack is also used in New Zealand.

Sexual surrogacy

Sexual surrogates are paid to give people who are not sexually active an opportunity to explore their sexuality. Surrogates may be used by people with disabilities who have few opportunities for sexual encounters, for example those in institutional care with significant mobility disabilities. Advocates for sexual surrogacy argue that everyone has a right to experience sexual pleasure.

Some people are critical of sexual surrogacy because they think that paying someone for sex is immoral. Others would prefer people with disabilities to have opportunities to have relationships that include emotional intimacy as well as sex. A sex worker may provide sexual pleasure, but not an ongoing emotional connection.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Louisa Allen, 'Sexualities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

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