Claire Gooder

Pictures are an important and often ignored historical source. The images from a series of sex education pamphlets published between the 1950s and the 1980s tells us a lot about how and what the New Zealand Health Department felt children, adolescents and parents should be taught about sex. Sex education histories often gloss over the pictures. But pictures are powerful, suggestive, and open to interpretation: both then and now. Illustrations often stay with us longer than words.

Sex education illustrations help us think more about both the past and our present. There is a popular perception that sex education is primarily concerned with the reproductive functions of the body and that these are ahistorical facts to be conveyed. These illustrations put paid to both those assumptions. In sex education, the physiological and the social body are intertwined and historically and culturally contextual. 

The Department of Health produced seven sex education pamphlets between 1955 and 1983. The five original brochures were reprinted with minor revisions until the late 1970s when the Department redesigned the series creating two pamphlets in 1978. The new pamphlets were reprinted twice with a final run in 1983. Given that printed sex education material is usually ephemeral this regularly revised series is an exceptional source offering insights into continuity and change over time.

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Unlike earlier sex education guides in New Zealand, these post-war Health Department pamphlets made liberal and considered use of images. The pamphlets’ creators recognised the power of the visual in their task, noting that illustrations had to attract the reader, explicate the messages at a glance, and ‘be presented carefully and tastefully to preclude any charges of offensiveness’. The 1955 edition, for instance, used photos to portray social activities like talking and playing while line drawings showed sex organs and the process of birth. In 1964, concerns that ‘the photographs and covers are somewhat dated and could be given a more sophisticated appearance’ led to calls to revise the pamphlets. Health officials noted that young people might dismiss the entirety of the sex education message if they did not identify with the images. The photos were changed to drawings and were subsequently modernised through a series of revisions in 1969, 1973 and 1975.  While the power of visual appeal remained a concern for the authorities across this period, the anatomical line drawing remained unchanged until the major overhaul in 1978.

By 1978 the Department of Health recognised that their pamphlets were completely outmoded in text and image. The 1970s had witnessed an increase of independent and radical sex education material, with new language, illustration styles, and messages influenced by broader social change at home and abroad. These changes included a focus on the individual and sexual pleasure, non-marital and non-reproductive sexual activity, and recognition that sex education is political.

Age and gender were important divisions. The ‘every family’ depicted in the pamphlets shows  what was considered ideal and normalised: the original covers depict middle-class nuclear, heterosexual Pākehā (New Zealander of European descent) families. Such images were informed by contemporary psychological perspectives, which advocated for both parents to be engaged in family life, with family connection through conversation and physical closeness between parents and children. The pamphlet covers promote the importance of sedate homosocial adolescent interaction and, along with their dress and styling, an idea of middle-class respectability. This was particularly important at a time when fears of ‘juvenile delinquency’ – signalled by certain working-class dress and leisure activities – was heightened in the public imagination, as Chris Brickell explains.

In 1964 the photos were replaced with line drawings, allowing changing hair and clothing fashions to be sketched in through various revisions. The adolescent girl’s hair becomes covered with a head scarf; the adolescent boy’s crew cut from the mid-sixties becomes longer, and he gains sideburns in the 1970s. The cover colour-coding was no longer blue for boys and pink for girls.

In 1978 a major revision of style and information streamlined existing material into two pamphlets: Sex and the Adolescent and Parents, Sex and the Adolescent. They were no longer demarcated by gender, and the primary focus was puberty and adolescence. This reflected a shift in sex education to almost exclusively deal with adolescence, in contrast to the earlier period when marital relations and parenting were deemed an important part of sex education. The redesigned covers of 1978 introduced an overtly sexual image for the first time in the series: a male and female kissing. The 1978 editions also introduced a new style of line drawing of the body.

The original line drawings were stylised both scientifically and medically and showed internal or cross section views of the body. These were designed to look modern and appealing – with a 1950s aesthetic. Three decades later the pamphlets included internal and external views of the body, along with breasts and pubic hair. The 1978 revision introduced drawings of genitals. Genitals were not previously depicted in the series, but their inclusion in the 1970s was indicative of a broader shift across the sex education guide genre. Prior to the 1970s, sex organs were only discussed in their reproductive capacity, and the internal imagery reflected that. But the ideological shift to less of a focus on family and reproduction meant that understanding the external parts of the body was now relevant. Historian Lutz Sauerteig’s argument is pertinent here: as visual signifiers such as hairstyles, clothing, and occupational representations were no longer clearly gendered, genitals became ‘the unequivocal sign of gender’.

The external body also reflected a focus on individualism and the democratisation of knowledge. While an internal view of a body may be seen as ‘medical’, the external body can be viewed by anyone and validates an individual’s own view of their body. The revised guides also used an ‘x-ray’ technique to show both the internal and external body simultaneously. The Parent, Sex and the Adolescent now showed the female body head to mid-thigh with her internal sex organs visible, as well her breasts and face. This new design expanded strictly reproductive line drawings to include the eroticised possibilities of the body. However, these were only visible via the adult booklet.  Both booklets labelled the labia and hymen but not the clitoris. While the inference might have been democratisation of knowledge, in reality, there were still decisions being made about what information to provide and to whom.

The illustrations in the Health Department pamphlets conveyed powerful messages about sexualised and idealised bodies. Despite the text’s acknowledgment of the multi-ethnic diversity of New Zealand, these bodies are all young, white and slim. Youth is foregrounded, with the adult parent simply a conduit of information. The naked adolescent bodies in these official guides hint at sexual pleasure but do not go as far as many contemporary guides in depicting sexual acts. It was common for those independent guides to employ overtly sexual imagery or ‘graphic non-restraint’ – such as visual guides for masturbation, oral and penetrative sex.

Historians Kate Fisher, Jen Grove and Rebecca Langlands recently used visual objects  from the past to encourage twenty-first century adolescents to talk about culture, sexuality, and bodies. The historical and cultural distancing allowed the young people to analyse freely the sexual messages conveyed, but also to consider parallels with contemporary issues on sex and sexuality. Analysing images in sex education materials helps explain how ideas of healthy sex and development are influenced by culture, context, and broader societal ideals. And if all people – not just the young – can critically analyse historical objects and images then maybe they can apply the same thinking to critically analyse current messages about sex, sexuality, gender and bodies.

Further reading Claire Gooder, ‘“To Know the Facts”: The New Zealand Health Department’s Sex Education Pamphlets, 1955–1983’, New Zealand Journal of History, 50, 1, 2016, pp.109–33.

Images from Archives New Zealand, Wellington. All images reproduced with permission of the New Zealand Ministry of Health.

Claire Gooder is a social and cultural historian. Her PhD (University of Auckland, 2010) is on the history of sex education in New Zealand and she is co-author of Sex addiction: A critical history (Polity, 2015).

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