It is strange to think that only thirty years ago the very existence of anal sex is something that the British government – in the midst of the Aids crisis – were uncomfortable admitting to.
According to the Independent, documents released at the National Archives in Kew, west London, show that the Health Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, Norman Fowler proposed in 1986 to publish full-page adverts in national newspapers explaining, under the title ‘Risky Sex’, that unprotected anal intercourse carried one of the highest risks of transmitting Aids.
In fact, the crisis created in government by the Aids epidemic led to a heated and frankly condescending argument between Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet colleagues over the dangers posed to Britain’s moral well-being by acknowledging the existence of anal sex.
The arrival of the illness in Britain in the early 1980s – with official estimates of up to 300,000 cases within seven years – had persuaded most ministers that urgent action was needed to prevent the spread of HIV. They decided that a public education campaign was required and the Conservative government was told it must issue clear advice on safe sex, not only to those in the gay community but to the wider public.
However, rather than press ahead with the campaign, a handful of ministers including the ‘iron lady’ herself were more concerned with debating the wording of the campaign so as not to cause ‘offence’. While this debate took place public anxiety was growing and ignorance about the disease caused a surge in homophobia.
In a memo describing the campaign, Mrs Thatcher wrote: “Do we have to have the section on risky sex? I should have thought it could do immense harm if young teenagers were to read it?” Only for her to be told by Donald Acheson, the chief medical officer, that the ‘risky sex’ paragraph was the most important part of the campaign.
Undeterred, she went on to launch an investigation into whether the adverts might breach the advertising code as well as the Obscenity Act but when the answer came back that the campaign was legal, the Prime Minister still dragged her heels on the issue.
The row was finally ended when it was suggested that the phrase ‘anal sex’ be replaced with ‘rectal intercourse’ and Mrs Thatcher declared the new language acceptable. A series of leaflets and television adverts followed, famously showing a tombstone etched with the words ‘Don’t die of ignorance’ and although it was accused of scaremongering at the time, the campaign was later recognised to have been one of the most successful in the world, limiting HIV infections in Britain to around the half the level of other European countries.
It really seems ridiculous now, the months of squabbling and putting people’s lives at risk over the wording of something – glad to see politicians have moved on in the last 30 years.