The cry "breakdown of the family" is heard whenever lawmaking touches on sexuality, as it did with prostitution law reform and the civil union legislation.

Most recently, the Destiny Church has adopted the slogan. But there will always be a moral entrepreneur waiting to rally citizens already uneasy about change and wondering where such laws will lead. In an era of global dilemmas and increasing complexity, many yearn for a return to what seemed more stable times.

Legislation over sexual issues serves as a touchstone to ignite controversy, but to understand the debate we need to visit earlier lessons and to ponder the relationship between events here and in the United States.

In the 1970s the American new religious right co-ordinated the activities of lobby groups who were anti-feminist, anti-abortion, anti-gay rights and anti-sex education. Their successful campaign culminated in the 1981 American Family Protection Act, which defined "family" as mother, father and their biological offspring.

The act prohibited federal funding for schools whose curriculum tended to "denigrate, diminish or deny" the role differences between the sexes as they had been "historically understood". By this it meant that a woman's role was biologically determined, her destiny to bear and rear children.

Women have historically been seen as having the potential to destabilise society by breaking out of this role. This fear was manifest in the 17th century witch-hunts in Puritan America, and had echoes here in 1956 when the media sensationalised an incident in Lower Hutt involving teenage sexual experimentation.

The moral panic over the episode led to the Mazengarb Report, delivered to every home as a dire warning of the threat of juvenile delinquency to family values.

This Government inquiry found the girls more to blame than the boys - a theme repeated in a 2001 media flurry over three teenage arsonists. It was the girl who was demonised in the press, with the Herald quoting the prosecution's claim that she had "masterminded the arson, the boys merely tagging along in the hope of having sex".

Events here in the 1970s also illuminate the debate. Gender-linked legislation then included the domestic purposes benefit and the Matrimonial Property Act, which allowed an equal division of marital assets.

Both were seen as causing family breakdown in an era when many citizens were apprehensive about second-wave feminism and the generation gap. At times of rapid social change, a collective anxiety occurs, making the moment right for the emergence of a moral entrepreneur to lead us back to simple truths and certainties.

Media hype surrounding these crusades escalates this apprehension. This happened in 1975 over the Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion, which was viewed by some as a Labour Government attempt to further destabilise the family.

Contraception always arouses strong feelings because of the fear that it has the potential to unleash anti-social female sexual activity. In a conscience vote, the parts of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Bill recommending contraceptive education for adolescents were defeated.

While it is agreed that schools should teach moral values, the insoluble question in a democracy is whose values? This was the crux of debate in the 1970s.

Public apprehension and media scrutiny came together in 1977 to focus attention on the Department of Education over the report of the Committee on Health and Social Education, known as the Johnson report. This far-sighted document recommended that the 1945 regulations forbidding sex education in primary schools be changed.

It sparked intense controversy, and the media fanned the flames. Such publicity helped Christian fundamentalist lobbies to enlist the support of citizens of more moderate political leanings.

The New Zealand religious right of the 1970s was represented in several lobby groups. These included the Society for the Protection of Community Standards, spearheaded by Patricia Bartlett, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, the Family Rights Association, the Community Organisation for Moral Education and the most powerful of all, the Concerned Parents Association.

This last, in the role of moral entrepreneur, lobbied politicians and used the alarm tactics of the American new religious right to enlist public sympathy. It had members elected to parent-teacher committees, monitored textbooks and used the media to warn of liberal plans for further social engineering.

The Concerned Parents Association succeeded in preventing legislation that would have enabled sex education in the pre-Aids era because a Cabinet reshuffle provided the support of a conservative Minister of Education, Merv Wellington, who, ruling that all submissions on the Johnson report were to count as one opinion, claimed a mandate for his decision against sex education.

Moral panic reached its height with the 1984 Homosexual Law Reform Bill, and the Save Our Homes march on Parliament featuring children dressed in white parallels the black-clad marchers of the Destiny Church.

The slogan "breakdown of the family" reflects both fear of the unknown and anxiety about how we are all going to live harmoniously. We will continue to struggle with this as a nation of many ethnicities and religions.

Families will endure and they will continue to do the best they can to raise their young, whatever their structure or culture. Education for parents and parenthood offers a more optimistic path than retreat to a past that did not exist.

It is not change or diversity or the tensions of democratic debate that need be feared but the imposition of an authoritarian rule by those who believe they have a monopoly on the truth.

* Josephine Bowler is an Auckland psychologist.