Mt. Vernon Register-News

CNHI Special Projects

February 5, 2013

Did penicillin cause the sexual revolution?

Ask most people to account for the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and they will likely say something about improved access to birth control (as well as improved access to Jefferson Airplane and shrooms). But Andrew Francis, an economist at Emory University, wants to give a little credit to penicillin, too.

 What does the antibiotic have to do with free love? In 1943, scientists discovered that it could treat the STD syphilis, which had been spreading steadily across the United States - and especially through the army. As penicillin shots became more available in the '50s, syphilis deaths declined and risky sexual behavior - as measured in gonorrhea rates, teen pregnancies and illegitimate births - increased. These indices of erotic adventurousness, in other words, were rising way before abortion and the pill became an accepted part of women's reproductive lives during the '60s and early '70s.

Of course, penicillin didn't cause the swinging '60s full stop. Many historians credit progressive social forces that were already germinating in the straight-jacketed '50s. The legalization of the pill and the growing acceptance of abortion couldn't have hurt either. But Francis does make a suggestive case for penicillin's contribution to the decade's freewheeling ways, linking the rise in sexual risk-taking after the syphilis epidemic deflated to the rise in same after a new AIDS treatment came out in 2000.

 The study proposes another weird/ironic chain of cause and effect too. Because "the advent of penicillin may have produced analogous effects on sexual behavior as the advent of HAART [an anti-retroviral drug]," Francis argues, it's possible that the "spread of HIV may have been facilitated by the collapse of syphilis." In other words, people were less worried about doing it once syphilis left the picture, so they didn't take the precautions that might have safeguarded them against AIDS. Francis, the economist, thus offers a few words of caution to health policy makers: "To focus exclusively on the defeat of one disease can set the stage for the onset of another if preemptive measures are not taken."

But that shouldn't stop us liberated women from silently offering penicillin a prayer of thanks next time we embrace the legacy of free love.

 

 

1
Text Only
CNHI Special Projects
  • Church's denied request for National Guard visit draws national attention

    A Missouri church finds itself in the middle of a media storm after the Missouri National Guard, citing short notice and time constraints, was not able to fulfill a request last week to appear at the church’s vacation Bible school.

    August 1, 2014

  • lockport-police.jpg Police department turns to Facebook for guidance on use of 'negro'

    What seems to be a data entry mistake by a small town police department in western New York has turned into a social media firestorm centered around the word "negro" and whether it's acceptable to use in modern society.

    July 31, 2014 3 Photos

  • Survey results in legislation to battle sexual assault on campus

    Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill joined a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday to announce legislation that aims to reduce the number of sexual assaults on college campuses.

    July 30, 2014

  • An alarming threat to airlines that no one's talking about

    It's been an abysmal year for the flying public. Planes have crashed in bad weather, disappeared over the Indian Ocean and tragically crossed paths with anti-aircraft missiles over Ukraine.

    July 30, 2014

  • linda-ronstadt.jpg Obama had crush on First Lady of Rock

    Linda Ronstadt remained composed as she walked up to claim her National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 29, 2014

  • Dangerous Darkies Logo.png Redskins not the only nickname to cause a stir

    Daniel Snyder has come under fire for refusing to change the mascot of his NFL team, the Washington Redskins. The Redskins, however, are far from being the only controversial mascot in sports history.  Here is a sampling of athletic teams from all areas of the sports world that were outside the norm.

    July 28, 2014 3 Photos

  • 'Rebel' mascot rising from the dead

    Students and alumni from a Richmond, Va.-area high school are seeking to revive the school's historic mascot, a Confederate soldier known as the "Rebel Man," spurring debate about the appropriateness of public school connections to the Civil War and its icons.

    July 28, 2014

  • Fast food comes to standstill in China

    The shortage of meat is the result of China's latest food scandal, in which a Shanghai supplier allegedly tackled the problem of expired meat by putting it in new packaging and shipping it to fast-food restaurants around the country

    July 28, 2014

  • wd saturday tobias .jpg Stranger’s generosity stuns Ohio veteran

    Vietnam War veteran David A. Tobias was overwhelmed recently when a fellow customer at an OfficeMax store near Ashtabula, Ohio paid for a computer he was purchasing.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks