Sexual Health Roundup: The Sexual Power of Penicillin, the Importance of the First Time, and Testosterone Release


A Pill May Have Led to the Sexual Revolution, But it Wasn’t *The* Pill

A common refrain since the 1960s has suggested that the birth control pill was responsible for the sexual revolution. The argument tends to propose that the new-found control over their fertility took away the fear of pregnancy and gave women the freedom to explore their sexuality. A new analysis from economists at Emory University challenges this long-held notion and suggests that another pill—penicillin—was actually responsible for a more gradual increase in sexual behavior during the 50s and 60s. The analysis published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior points to the decrease in syphilis during the late 50s as the true beginning of the change in sexual norms.

In its primary and secondary phases syphilis causes sores on the mouth, vagina, or anus and rashes to appear elsewhere in the body. When it reaches its later stages, however, syphilis can cause a host of serious health problems including difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, blindness, and dementia. It can also damage everything including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Ultimately, this can lead to death. 

Penicillin, which can easily cure Syphilis if taken early, was invented in 1928 but not used clinically until 1941 when the military began using it treat infected World War II soldiers. Syphilis reached its peak in the United States in 1939 when it killed 20,000 people. As the use of penicillin grew, the incidence of and deaths from the disease shrank rapidly; from 1947 to 1957 the incidence fell by 75 percent and the death rate fell by 95 percent.

Andrew Francis, who conducted the analysis, theorized that the lifting of the fear of syphilis and death led to more risky sexual behavior in this country. He based this theory on simple economic principles

People don’t generally think of sexual behavior in economic terms but it’s important to do so because sexual behavior, just like other behaviors, responds to incentives.

To test his theory, Francis looked at data from the 1930s through the 1970s on three measures of sexual behavior: illegitimate births; teen births; and gonorrhea. He found that: 

As soon as syphilis bottoms out, in the mid- to late-1950s, you start to see dramatic increases in all three measures of risky sexual behavior. 

Francis noted that the parallels between this and the changes in sexual behavior around the AIDS epidemic—safer sex increased when the disease was at it scariest but the advent of antiretroviral therapies has led to decreased the risk and complacency. In fact, some of this complacency has undermined efforts to eliminate syphilis which seemed possible just a few years ago until the incidence began to rise again, especially in men who have sex with men. 

Francis concludes that:

Policy makers need to take into consideration behavioral responses to changes in the cost of disease, and implement strategies that are holistic and longsighted. To focus exclusively on the defeat of one disease can set the stage for the onset of another if preemptive measures are not taken.

New Research says the First Time is Important 

I’ve always resisted our society’s fixation on virginity and the “first time.” It probably comes from the years I spent reading abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula which refer to virginity as a “present” that can only be unwrapped once and suggest that doing it on any night other than your wedding night (which by the way is the most important day of your life) will be a disaster and ruin the experience, the wedding, and, most importantly, you. While I will never belief virginity is something you give to someone else, there is some good research that suggests your first experience is important.  

New research in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy suggests that a positive first time can set one on a course toward a happy sex life whereas negative experiences can lead to depression and other issues. Researchers at the Universities of Tennessee and Mississippi recruited 206 women and 113 men. They asked participants about the first time they had sex. Possible word associations included “anxiety,” “negativity,” “connection,” and “afterglow.” The also asked participants to rate how content they were with the experience or how much they regretted it. Researchers then turned to participants’ current sex lives asking them about satisfaction, general well-being, and sense of control. Finally, participants kept a sex diary in which they recorded their feelings about all sexual interactions.

The result found that positive first times “reliably predicted physical and emotional satisfaction in later sexual interactions.” Similarly, those who experienced anxiety and negativity during their first time were more likely to have lower overall sexual functioning.

The authors note that: “These results suggest that one’s first-time sexual experience is more than just a milestone in development. Rather, it appears to have implications for their sexual well-being years later.” 

As writer Lindsay Abrams points out on Atlantic.com, however, these participants were still young and that first experience was really not that long ago (at most seven years and at the least a few months). There are still years of sexual experiences ahead of them and it’s not clear whether this association with the first time will continue as it becomes a more distant memory. 

Speed Dating Boosts Testosterone

I was already married when the speed dating craze began but it always seemed like fun to me. I can imagine that presenting your best, most- interesting self, over-and-over again, could be an adrenaline rush (exhausting but fun). New research suggests that it also causes a rush of hormones.  

Researchers at the University of Michigan recruited 200 heterosexual men and women who participated in approximately 2,000 speed dates. Volunteers had their testosterone levels checked using a saliva swab two weeks before the date, then right before the date, and finally right after. The results are interesting: if both people on the date were attracted to each other, their testosterone levels went up. A one-sided attraction, however, did not result in higher testosterone levels.

Though these are preliminary results, the researchers theorize that the hormone may be released to “promote efforts toward establishing a relationship with the other person.” What I find most impressive, though, is our internal sense of when someone is returning our interest. We may try to kid ourselves that he or she might like us, but our pituitary glands seem to know right away. 

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

To schedule an interview with contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner