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Wednesday 08 April 2009


Proclamations of the Red Queen

18th March 2009

Review: Antje Kampf: Mapping Out the Venereal Wilderness: Public Health and STDs in New Zealand 1920-1980 (2007)

Posted by: Craig Young

Antje Kampf: Mapping Out the Venereal Wilderness: Public Health and STDs in New Zealand: 1920-1980: Lit-Verlag: Berlin: 2007. ISBN: 9783825897659

This German medical and social historian has done us much good through his brief account of the histories of venereal disease, the discipline of venereology and affected populations.

The volume examines how changing sexual attitudes were premised on the (un)availability of sex education, health promotion media and prophylactic contraceptives within the lives of (mostly) heterosexual New Zealanders throughout much of last century.

In some literature about medical practitioners and venereal disease (syphilis, gonorrhea and Non Specific Urethritis), there is a tendency to look upon the profession as a source of disciplinary and prescriptive authority, which reinforced conservative gender roles and sexual identities. However, Kampf presents a more complex picture within our own national context, given that venereology wasn’t even recognised formally as a specialty within New Zealand medical education until the formation of the New Zealand Venereological Society in 1970! 

Granted, some of these practitioners held stereotyped perceptions of class, ethnicity, gender, generational cohorts and sexual practice, but they were often in no position to enforce them, even given public health regulations about contact tracing and involuntary treatment if there was no follow-up from the affected service user. In  fact, there was often no further visit to the practitioner, once preliminary diagnosis and treatment had been made. Indeed, there was often an insistence on prescriptive and interminable moralistic lectures and fear-based ‘education’ about risk, as well as reticence by conservative Health Ministry and other government officials when it came to practical health promotion information and actual service provision.

Still, this wasn’t uniform- the Ministry of Defence made sure information about gonorrhea and syphilis was available in practical recognition that soldiers would visit overseas sex workers while stationed in their relevant theatres of conflict, although servicewomen were not so well catered for. “Chastity” and “marriage” were emphasised in their ‘education’ programmes (although one wonders how many servicewomen were lesbians, to whom this sermonising was hardly relevant!)

In the sixties, venereologists were faced with the startling spectacle of a new and assertive generation of patients, who expected a private and confidential service, and neglected deference to either their professional authority, or to eroding religious moralism about marriage, family and sexual abstinence, leading some to embrace strident moral conservatism and denunciation of the younger generation of service users.

As for gay men, I could only find a single reference to our communities in this context. It involved Hepatitis B exposure in the sixties, and even then, gay male exposure was only cited in incidental references in broader Christchurch and Wellington Hospital samples. The National Council of Women and conservative Anglicans called for increased criminal penalties for gay men as a result, but even conservative venereologists thought that this wouldn’t be worth it, given the relative ‘invisibility’ of gay communities back then.  Indeed, due to their itinerant occupation, sailors were regarded as a greater ‘risk population’ than gay men within venereological debates of that period.

One is left aghast at the tendency of older social conservatives to pontificate and sermonise about unsubstantiated myths related to gender, generational cohort, ethnicity and class, rather than actively take practical steps to comprehensively educate the public about STI risk, prevention and safety. Today’s ignorant, elderly and mostly unqualified Christian Right activists obviously have their own predecessors, even if they didn’t leave many archival traces behind.

Tags: Politics

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Celebrity Archives // Apr 8, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    […] Review: Antje Kampf: Mapping Out the Venereal Wilderness: Public … […]

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