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‘Professional about preventing AIDS’: Sexual health activism in 1980s and 1990s Aotearoa New Zealand

Credit: A prostitute wearing a short tight skirt steps between a doorway into a corridor raising her arm with her bag and some tissues; advertisement for safe sex by the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC). Colour lithograph. Wellcome Collection. In copyright
A prostitute wearing a short tight skirt steps between a doorway into a corridor raising her arm with her bag and some tissues; advertisement for safe sex by the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC). Colour lithograph. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

This paper draws on oral history interviews and archival research to trace sex workers’ sexual health activism from the formation of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective in 1988 to the early 1990s. It examines the vital distinct contributions individual sex workers made to the safe sex campaign at a time when soliciting and brothel-keeping were outlawed across the country and police seized condoms and safe sex literature as evidence for prosecution. Sex workers’ responses to HIV and AIDS are located in a longer trend of sex workers taking charge of their sexual health by conducting physical examinations of clients, voluntarily undergoing regular health checks and insisting on the use of condoms.  

This paper highlights how sex worker activists collaborated with medical professionals to establish free and accessible sexual health clinics for those working in the industry and considers how the prejudice attached to sex work impeded some people from being able to access these services. On a broader level, it traces the support for safe sex and teases out the tensions that emerged as many sex workers mobilised to establish a community-based response to one of the most devastating health crises of the late-twentieth century. 

Speaker 

Dr Cheryl Ware is a Research Fellow in the School of Humanities at the University of Auckland. Her research focuses on oral history and histories of sex, gender and health in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia. She is the author of HIV Survivors in Sydney: Memories of the Epidemic, 1982-1996 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), and has published articles on gay men living with HIV in New Zealand and in Australia, oral history methodology, professional history, the Australian gay press, women sex workers' responses to HIV and AIDS, and on tertiary teaching. Her current project explores the lives of sex workers from 1978 to 2008 and is supported by a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant.  

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Centre for History in Public Health