In the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, community approaches to sexual health were shaped by a commitment to sex within marriage and a lack of effective treatments for venereal disease. Disease prevention would be achieved by abstaining from sex outside marriage. When HIV/AIDS became the focus of activism in the 1980s and 1990s, a strongly pro-sex gay community – which faced a particularly high incidence of HIV/AIDS – led campaigns that focused on prevention through safe sex.
The Contagious Diseases Act 1869 provoked opposition from women and some church groups. They argued that the act’s focus on inspection and treatment for venereal disease of women suspected of prostitution allowed ‘vice’ (sexual activity outside marriage) among men to flourish unpunished. After decades of protest, a carefully planned campaign by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) resulted in the act’s repeal in 1910.
Early 20th century
In the 1910s and 1920s groups including the WCTU, the National Council of Women and the Social Hygiene Society (SHS) were involved in activism around venereal disease. They shared a belief that provision of condoms would only encourage vice, and a desire to see the government take responsibility for the treatment of venereal disease. Fear of an epidemic of venereal disease at the end of the First World War gave an impetus to the groups’ activity.
Social Hygiene Society
The SHS, formed in Christchurch in 1916, set up an advice and information centre, distributing pamphlets New Zealand-wide. The society’s members included doctors and nurses who gave talks to senior secondary students, women prisoners, hospital staff and Young Women’s Christian Association classes. The society advocated free testing, drugs and treatment, and guaranteed confidentiality to all those who sought its help.
Initially in New Zealand HIV/AIDS was seen as a gay men’s disease, and prejudice against them increased. Gay activists organised early to stop the spread of the disease and support those who had contracted it. The National Gay Rights Coalition produced a leaflet, AIDS: choices and chances, in 1983.
AIDS support groups
An AIDS Support Network was set up in 1984 by Bruce Burnett in Auckland, and by Bill Logan and Phil Parkinson in Wellington. Te Roopu Tautoko, the Māori Support Network, was formed in 1987. Positive Women, a support organisation for women living with HIV/AIDS, was founded in 1990. In 1992 Body Positive was set up in Auckland as a peer support group for people with HIV.
New Zealand AIDS Foundation
The AIDS Support Network became the AIDS Foundation in 1985. The foundation is a charitable trust which has worked mainly with gay men, and aims to make safe sex a gay community norm. In 2018 its goal was to support people living with HIV, gay men, other men who have sex with men, and the African community. The AIDS Foundation has initiated Pamoja, an HIV prevention and support programme specifically for Africans, by Africans, living in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Prompted by the advent of HIV/AIDS, the government funded a number of community-initiated activities to prevent sexually transmitted infections, including the New Zealand AIDS Foundation clinics in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. HIV/AIDS and sexual-health initiatives in New Zealand were influenced by affected communities to a greater degree than in most other countries.
Australian girl Eve van Grafhorst contracted HIV/AIDS in 1982 when as a premature baby she had blood transfusions. There was a furore when she started kindergarten, with other parents fearing she would infect their children. After moving with her mother to New Zealand in 1986 she became the human face of AIDS, and was popularly known as ‘Angel Eve’. She died at the age of 11, having been given a Variety Gold Heart Award for her work as a campaigner for AIDS awareness.
Safe sex education
The concept of safer sex through condom use has become generally accepted. The first television advertisement, in 1986, likened not using a condom to not using a parachute. In 2009 the New Zealand AIDS Foundation launched a new promotion – ‘Get it on!’1 This was replaced by ‘Love your condom’ in 2011.’2
Sexuality education became a required part of the school syllabus in 2001. Despite this, it remained possible for schools to avoid mention of safe sex and deliver ‘abstinence only’ programmes. The Ministry of Education released a revised set of sexuality education guidelines for principals, teachers and boards of trustees in 2015 following a Health Select Committee Report in 2013 that argued that sexuality education in schools needed to be investigated and standardised.
Boards of trustees are still required to consult with their school community on how they will deliver the sexuality education programme. This is the only aspect of the school curriculum where the community has the power to decide on the content of what is taught.
Sex work and safer sex
In 1988 the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective (NZPC) was given Department of Health funding to promote safer sex and AIDS prevention. It produced a magazine, Siren, and a video, Sold on safe sex, for sex workers. Male, female and transgendered sex workers were all part of the collective. While sex workers have often been viewed as a source of infection, many New Zealand prostitutes saw themselves as educating clients about safe sex. When sex work was decriminalised in 2003, it became illegal for prostitutes’ clients not to use a condom for sex.
The NZPC provides New Worker Packs that include condoms and other safe sex supplies as well as information about working in the industry. They courier safe sex supplies anywhere in Aotearoa New Zealand. NZPC also operates sexual health clinics at its Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch branches.
Acknowledgements to Margaret Sparrow