Another Season, Another Reason

3b49018r Economist Andrew Francis has done some regression analysis on historical sex data and argues that the cure of syphilis, not the birth control pill, is the cause of the sexual revolution. This is interesting:

Francis also notes that historical syphilis trends very closely mimic the AIDS epidemic of the last few decades. The rate of syphilis deaths in 1939 was nearly as high as the rate of AIDS deaths in 1995, and the two diseases accounted for roughly the same percentage of deaths in those years. Additionally, studies suggest that a similar increase in risky sexual behavior may have occurred after the development of an AIDS treatment plan, the “highly active antiretroviral therapy.”

As for Francis’ conclusion, his paper is behind a paywall, but I don’t see mention of another fact: 16 million men and women, out of a population of 132 million at the time, served in the armed forces during World War II, and their training included sex ed in the form of VD films, which encouraged condom use. I assume that educating 12% of the population, all of whom were just out of puberty, plus the experiences they had traveling around the world, had something to do with changing the nation’s attitudes towards sex.

Prior to the invention of penicillin, the Wasserman test was invented in 1906, and a 60% effective cure for syphilis was invented in 1912. The poster to the left, and these other posters were produced as part of the WPA program in the 30’s to educate the population on the detection and curability of syphilis, and they’re fascinating relics no matter what you think of Francis’ paper.

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54 replies
  1. 1
    MattF says:

    Back in my Wanderjahr days, my dad, who was a physician, gave me a bottle of penicillin tablets, with the assumption that I knew what it was for.

  2. 2
    aimai says:

    I clicked on the link but got bogged down with the author’s use of the economic concept of “demand” when talking about sex as in “when the costs of sex decreased/demand increased.” There are, in a heterosexual society, two different parties to the sex act and the “costs” of sex are not at all balanced in that equation. Syphilis and pregnancy are not equally shared risks and women (not men) faced additional costs like loss of home, hearth, social standing, economic support for having sex freely outside the bounds of matrimony. So to talk of “demand” for sex going up seems weird to me. I mean, sure, you could argue that the demand is present but suppressed for the entire population before WWI and II put men and women on the march, away from social norms. But supply is an issue, too. Costs are, as I’ve indicated, differentially borne by men and women. And although both men and women were controlled by parental style dorms and rules until quite recently the ban, of course, fell more heavily on different classes. Upper class women continued to be extremely controlled by society as to their sexuality while (some) lower class women were used to sop up that excess “demand” regardless of the “cost” to them in illness or pregnancy.

  3. 3
    General Stuck says:

    Syphilis is bacterial and can be cured, though subject to resistence. HIV is one tough viral nut for a vaccine or cure. I was certainly no expert on the sexual revolution, other than a sometimes wonderlusted participant. But when I got out of the army in 1974, and went back to school, it was like night and day on the lucky chart, just after Roe was decided. You would have had to be deaf dumb and blind to not get laid at that point in time. All you needed was working organs and could say far out man. Let’s go smoke a joint at my place.

  4. 4
    the Conster says:

    @General Stuck:

    LOL. That worked on me at college in the 70s.

  5. 5
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @aimai:

    This.

    While a cure for syphilis is not insignificant, avoiding the entire biological consequence that is pregnancy is pretty darn major. The pill freed women from the biological consequences of the sex act in pretty much the same way that men have always had. Men NEVER get pregnant. The pill gave women that same option.

  6. 6
    Brachiator says:

    Economist Andrew Francis has done some regression analysis on historical sex data and argues that the cure of syphilis, not the birth control pill, is the cause of the sexual revolution.

    Well, not just syphilis, but also gonorrhea. Still, this seems somewhat reductive, since fear of disease and fear of pregnancy are two distinct problems. Not having access to the paper, I wonder if social and educational issues are dealt with, since the widespread use of condoms would have reduced rates of both disease and pregnancy before medical cures became available.

    And here of course, the elephant in the room would be laws preventing the sale of contraceptives, and even social customs by which husbands could demand unprotected sex from their wives. I recall an anecdote in the biography of Katherine Hepburn which mentioned a husband infecting his wife. Because of a twisted patriarchal tradition, the family doctor treated the husband, but neither treated nor informed the wife. This insanity propelled one of the Hepburn women to become a doctor.

    There is also, I suppose, the impact of even the cost of condoms, public health, and the broader availability of health insurance that could be added to the mix.

    As an aside, I’ve seen works which suggest that the sexual revolution was kicked off by the expansion of commuter rail and the automobile, which made it easier for middle class and upper class men and women to travel without chaperones.

  7. 7
    PeakVT says:

    I assume that educating 12% of the population, all of whom were just out of puberty,…

    Were women given the same educational treatment as men? My guess would be they were not.

    Anyway, people like to apply the word “revolution” to cultural changes because doing so compresses time down to one easy-to-understand event. But most big changes take decades to come to fruition (boring!). WWII sex ed probably contributed to the change in mores to some degree, but I doubt it was decisive.

  8. 8
    Schlemizel says:

    I remember back in the late 60’s doing a paper for Social Studies class on ‘unwed mothers’. I discovered that the peak year for unwed births as a percentage of the population was 1918. Not part of the paper but my assumption now is that the introduction of the pill in the early 60’s helped that statistic remain true until much more recent times when many unmarried couples choose to have children together.

    My guess is that the cure for syphilis increased the number of men that were widely sexually active but the introduction of effective birth control greatly increase the number of available partners

  9. 9
    Donut says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    I only take exception with applying a blanket “never” getting pregnant to women on the Pill.

    It ain’t 100% effective. My wife was using it, and using it correctly, when I knocked her up the first time. It was quite a shock for us, staring at that home pregnancy test with the big old + staring back at us.

    Ok, pointless interjection over, please carry on.

  10. 10
    vestigial says:

    Pardon my naivete, but what experience did all those GI’s have during their travels to re-adjust their views on sexuality?

  11. 11
    Schlemizel says:

    @Donut:

    Our oldest was conceived while my wife was sporting a CU-7 IUD. My youngest was conceived after my vasectomy (and, yes I am sure she is my daughter). Nothing is 100% is it?

  12. 12
    Zagloba says:

    Begging to differ a bit, Aimai, but if we’re talking about how some innovation raises demand for sex — or to put it in more human terms, asking how much collateral suffering that innovation can prevent — a cure for syphilis beats contraception on two fronts. First, both women and men get sypthilis; only women get pregnant. Second, and not that I want to downplay the effect that pregnancy can have, especially on a woman who does not conform to a society’s idea of an appropriate family situation, but there is life after pregnancy. There is not life after a disease that attacks your central nervous system and leaves one literally insane.

  13. 13
    maya says:

    I wonder. Have they blood checked congress? And that 27%? Seems like a lot of tertiary syphilis rampant there.

  14. 14
    vestigial says:

    And does this explain why wingnuts hate the HPV vaccine? If only enough women died of hoo-hoo cancer, there’d be fewer sluts in the world. Though why they’d want that final outcome is not at all clear to me.

  15. 15
    Schlemizel says:

    @vestigial:

    Yes, although given that the HP virus lives on just about everyone being monogamous is not a great preventative.

    I also wonder how screwed up the parents are that think they have to explain the vaccine is to prevent cancer you can only get from having sex (not true BTW) when the kid is getting the shots. Do they explain the vectors for mumps and measles when the kid gets those shots?

    Also2 – since my throat cancer was caused by HPV maybe we should be looking at vaccinating boys also?

  16. 16
    maya says:

    @vestigial:
    1. Stateside training camps were never far away from some fleabag southern town loaded with camp followers. Servicemen are always a source of easy money. Just as it ever was.
    2. After the battles there was Gay Paree, Italy and occupied Germany and Japan with surplus female populations. Same as IT ever was.
    3. Back home, same thing + celebratory feelings.

  17. 17
    Brachiator says:

    @vestigial:

    Pardon my naivete, but what experience did all those GI’s have during their travels to re-adjust their views on sexuality?

    Significant numbers of women who were willing to have sex with them for all kinds of reasons, including survival.

    And possibly significant numbers of men and women who dropped the pretense of guilt and shame that Puritans insisted was essential to sex.

  18. 18
    Loneoak says:

    It’s interesting to me how often handwringing godbotherers are right about this stuff. Cures for STDs, Roe, loss of social shame, exposure to other cultures, education, birth control … reads like a pamphlet from Focus on the Family or a K-Lo column.

    They’re just dead wrong about whether this is on balance a good thing.

  19. 19
    vestigial says:

    @Schlemizel: Wait, what? I think HPV was only contracted through sex. And this was from pro-vaccine you-guys-are-being-assholes sources. Odd. Maybe I should get it then. Or, I guess I probably have it already, so there’s no point.

    @maya: I’m wondering when GI’s had time to have sex. Is that what leave was for? I also wonder why I have a very vivid image of Japanese houses of ill repute, I have absolutely none of German or French or Italian… but maybe my brain is just transplanting Vietnam to post-war Japan.

  20. 20
    vestigial says:

    @Brachiator: They dropped the pretense probably because they knew their mothers (and girlfriends) would never find out. Same reason you always take two mormons fishing when there’s beer involved.

  21. 21
    Zagloba says:

    @vestigial: So what you’re saying is, if we’d allowed women into the military in the 30’s, we would have prevented the sexual revolution?

    The bishops are readying their time machine as we speak!

  22. 22
    bin Lurkin' says:

    @Brachiator: Actually the social revolution that led to the sexual revolution was kicked off by the bicycle, the later introduction of the auto only accelerated the pace of change.

    http://www.annielondonderry.com/womenWheels.html

    Cycling in the 1890s was nothing less than “a general intoxication, an eruption of exuberance like a seismic tremor that shook the economic and social foundations of society and rattled the windows of its moral outlook.” 2 Nowhere was this more evident than in the role of the bicycle in the changing lives of American women. Indeed, the women’s movement of the 1890s and the cycling craze became so inextricably intertwined that in 1896 Susan B. Anthony told the New York World’s Nellie Bly that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” 3

  23. 23
    maya says:

    @vestigial: All soldiers get “liberty” to go to some nearby town once in awhile. Consider European Theater WWII: Actual combat time for US forces 6/44 thru 5/45. Not a lot of time spent in celibacy when you consider a 2-4 year commitment. Where were they the rest of the time? Women were always available.
    And prostitution didn’t always involve a house of ill repute. Bars do quite nicely.

    Edit. I left out the WWII Italian campaign. But even that had more chances of female contact on the fly.

  24. 24
    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:

    @Schlemizel:

    Also2 – since my throat cancer was caused by HPV maybe we should be looking at vaccinating boys also?

    A friend’s teenage son asked for the vaccine just out of the blue one day last year. She was so proud.

  25. 25
    aimai says:

    @Zagloba:

    Yes, obviously, but. First of all: the incidence of syphilis spread is related to the incidence of infection in the population which is probably quite a bit less than the incidence of fertility. Not even close to half the people who have sex at a given time would pass on syphilis while it is quite likely that half of the people having heterosexual relations would, in fact, risk getting pregnant.

    Second of all this is not at all some kind of bizarre “competition” between things that affect women and things that affect men. Pregnancy to an unmarried couple or an unmarried woman was a complete financial and social disaster if the child was not abandoned or put up for adoption or the couple didn’t marry (and even if they did). Read any social history of the period before the pill and widespread condom use and you will find out that, yes, women’s lives often did “end,” in a social sense, after an illegitimate birth. Check out the history of the Magdalene laundresses in Ireland–women who were essentially imprisoned for a lifetime of servitude because they were deemed “fallen.”

    Thirdly: syphilis though a well known danger (to some) was, in fact, not well known or well understood and there is a long period of latency when the individual can spread it before he/she knows they have it while everyone knew of the dangers of 1) loss of social status due to sex outside of marriage and 2) pregnancy. So if we are talking about what freed up pent up demand then the pill freed up pent up demand by both men and women by freeing up women while the cure for syphilis simply freed up pent up demand by men on a restricted supply due to fears of pregnancy among women.

  26. 26
    vestigial says:

    @Schlemizel: Also2 – since my throat cancer was caused by HPV maybe we should be looking at vaccinating boys also?

    I can think of a way throat cancer could be caused by sex. Are you straight?

    @bin Lurkin’: I remember cycling for me was very liberating. It was the first time I could make my own decisions about where I wanted to go and when. There’s also a bit in “Road to Wellville” suggesting cycling was a very stimulating activity for women.

  27. 27

    The paywall prevents me from reading the paper – does he address actual historical history? Levels of sexual restriction of women have bounced up and down throughout Western history. I’m thinking ‘correlation does not mean causality’, or rather ‘your sample size is too small’.

    @Brachiator:
    And then they came home and created the social structure of the 50s, which was much more sexually restrictive than the pre-WWII era.

    EDIT – @vestigial:
    A mix of wanting to prevent their children from finding out there’s a world out there that isn’t Fundamentalist (their kids are abandoning the tribe in droves) and conservatives being that guy on the sitcom who lives in terror that his daughter will ever have sex because his personal experience is that men use women.

  28. 28
    maya says:

    @aimai: I worked as a Case Epidemiologist for the US Public Health Service in late ’60s contracted out to NYC Health Dept. Chelsea clinic. Our job was to track and find cases of syphilis. {We didn’t know it then but syphilis was on it’s way out as a major STD largely because of the success of such programs and making private doctor blood test results available to public health agencies.]

    Even in a population as large as NYC we would see that the disease was almost always found running within a tight circle of friends – the relationships between, primary, secondary and tertiary stages.

    Aimai is correct. Syphilis is only transmittable during certain periods of the disease, thus making it easier to diagnose, date follow and track. Gonorrhea on the other hand has so little an incubation period it’s almost impossible to track and so were the more exotic STDs coming within the age of VietNam.

    The Chelsea clinic in NYC had a high number of gay clients and quite frankly, they were a big problem, epidemiologically speaking. Their rather promiscuous lifestyle – bathhouse habits e.g., made it tough to track anything. Many didn’t even know their contact’s names. Some would cooperate but most just wanted their shot or pills so they could be on their way. Not a moral judgement but the gay life was the perfect storm condition for the AIDS epidemic.

    Interesting job all in all.

  29. 29
    Brachiator says:

    @vestigial:

    I’m wondering when GI’s had time to have sex. Is that what leave was for? I also wonder why I have a very vivid image of Japanese houses of ill repute, I have absolutely none of German or French or Italian… but maybe my brain is just transplanting Vietnam to post-war Japan.

    American GI’s were purportedly higher paid than other soldiers. They had slightly more money, access to more and better food, and were famous for having access to nylons and chocolate. So you don’t have to consider brothels, although there was that, too. But men and women were brought together in dire circumstances, and an exchange of sex and affection for food and comfort had a logical appeal for many.

    And there was the ordinary stuff as well. I had a cousin who fell in love with a French woman during WW II. His parents strenuously objected, and their love affair soon fell apart.

    @bin Lurkin’:

    I totally forgot about the bicycle and did not know of the Susan B Anthony quote. Thanks.

    Oddly enough, I downloaded a podcast in which the Bowery Boys talk about the bicycle in New York City history. I gotta listen to it today.

  30. 30
    Bubblegum Tate says:

    Well, this is a great excuse to dust off one of my favorite Strangers With Candy quotes:

    Jerri: Do a lot of the people die of syphilis?

    Noblet: Oh, absolutely. Historically, syphilis is right up there with Germans. It wiped out the Romanovs, it decimated our fleet at Pearl Harbor, and of course, Fidel Castro impersonated Marilyn Monroe and gave President Kennedy a case of syphilis so severe that eventually it blew the back of his head off.

  31. 31
    Schlemizel says:

    @vestigial:

    I’m only going by what my oncologist told me. When I asked him how I would have gotten it & could I be endangering my wife he said no, we all (pretty much) carry the virus around with us & it gets into us. The rest is a mystery I guess.

  32. 32
    Schlemizel says:

    @vestigial:

    Yeah, I’m straight & never had a man in me . . . Thats as far as I’ll discuss my proclivities.

  33. 33
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @vestigial:

    I’m wondering when GI’s had time to have sex. Is that what leave was for? I also wonder why I have a very vivid image of Japanese houses of ill repute, I have absolutely none of German or French or Italian… but maybe my brain is just transplanting Vietnam to post-war Japan.

    During WWII, British men complained that Americans were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” France has been famous for its women of easy virtue, both professional and amateur, since forever. Germany? Try a quick google of chocolate bars and stockings.

    As far as when one might have time get busy, the soldiers did not spend every second of their time in in combat – not even those who were frontline infantry.

  34. 34
    PIGL says:

    @vestigial: oh, that’s an easy one. The answer would include such concepts as “bizarre gay dungeon sex with optional diapers”, “rape” and “incestuous abuse of underaged cousins”.

    Opponents of this vaccine are worthy only of sick loathing, universal hatred, and a shockingly prolonged death over a slow fire.

  35. 35
    PIGL says:

    @PIGL: And I mean it. There’s no end sticky enough, no hell hot enough, for patriarchal misogynist fucks who wittingly refuse to protect their daughters, and ours, from horrible deaths.

  36. 36
    PIGL says:

    @PIGL: And I mean it. There’s no end sticky enough, no hell hot enough, for patriarchal misogynist fcuks who wittingly refuse to protect their daughters, and ours, from horrible deaths.

  37. 37
    PIGL says:

    @PIGL: And I mean it. There’s no end sticky enough, no hell hot enough, for patriarchal misogynist FYWPs who wittingly refuse to protect their daughters, and ours, from horrible deaths.

  38. 38
    Persia says:

    @Schlemizel: My understanding is it takes very little to spread the virus. They’re pretty sure there’s a sexual component – a doc I knew said ‘prostitutes almost all have it and nuns don’t get it’ – but it probably doesn’t need to even have a penis involved, just the wrong fluid in the wrong place. (So to speak.)

  39. 39
    Persia says:

    @PIGL: I don’t get the gamble they’re willing to take. Even if you think the sluts deserve it, you’re betting your child will never get sexually assaulted or marry a cheating jerk. Which, you know, those odds are not in your favor.

  40. 40
    Heliopause says:

    First off, was there a “sexual revolution”? Or was that just another one of those Time memes that they came up with to sell magazines? “Sexual revolution” is one of those concepts that comes to encompass just about anything you want it to depending on the needs of the conversation.

    Second, if we’re assuming there was such a thing and coming up with just-so stories for what caused it, here’s mine; television. In that, television challenged the movie industry, and one of the responses was to introduce more aggressive sexual content into mainstream movies, which made people more willing to discuss these issues publicly, and there’s your feedback loop. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Causation arrow is the right direction. I like it as well as anybody else’s armchair hypothesis.

  41. 41
    aimai says:

    @Heliopause:

    Well, yes, there was a “sexual revolution.” My parents generation had parietal rules for college dorms–you simply couldn’t have a visitor of the opposite sex visit you or they had to be signed in and out. Married women could not gain access to contraception prior to Griswold v. Ct. Unprotected sex led women to bear more children than they could physically support, and have more children than they could economically support. Condoms were not readily available in every drug store, and the pill had not been invented and after it was invented was still not readily available.

    –Dick Francis the British Mystery writer wrote an entire novel that turned on the role of British Women in shipping unused birth control pills to their sisters in Italy which forbade married women from controlling their own fertility. The pill, once it was available, put birth control in the hands of women for the first time–you didn’t have to rely on your boyfriend or spouse “permitting” you to use a condom or his purchase of a condom.

    So: yeah. There was a sexual and fertility revolution thanks to the condom and the pill that allowed women to control their own fertility and the timing of their pregnancies, as well as enabled them to engage in “consequence” free sex without having to abandon their entire social world as well.

  42. 42
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    @Schlemizel: The medical community is all about vaccinating boys. They actually were all along, but now they’re getting quite vocal about it. I believe there is a new “male marketed” version of the (exact same) vaccine available now.

  43. 43
    Heliopause says:

    @aimai:

    These things evolve constantly, which is why I question the use of the term “revolution”. In fact, your comment is a case in point; isolate a few cultural norms and historical facts and call it a “revolution”.

  44. 44
    NotMax says:

    Penicillin was a discovery, not an invention.

  45. 45
    Mnemosyne says:

    @aimai:

    I think you’re underestimating the influence of curing syphilis. There was actually a bit of a sexual revolution during and after WWI (as there usually is after a war) and there was more conversation about it because so many soldiers came home from the war as carriers and infected their wives and children. That’s the extra threat to women that syphilis posed that you’re underestimating — once infected, a woman could pass it along in utero and end up with children who had congenital syphilis.

    I think the Pill was much, much more influential in what eventually happened, but I don’t know that the Sexual Revolution would have flowered as much as it did if syphilis and gonorrhea hadn’t been cured a couple of decades before and removed that threat to both the woman and her potential children.

    ETA: And gonorrhea is also a threat to babies — the reason they put eyedrops in your newborn’s eyes is to prevent gonorrhea-related blindness, which used to be a big problem.

  46. 46
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Heliopause:

    They evolve constantly, but not steadily. You occasionally have explosions of change when the social circumstances are right and you have a large population open to that change — like, say, the Baby Boomers all coming of age at the same time right when the Pill became widely available to unmarried women.

  47. 47
    Heliopause says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    Then let’s call it the Sexual Punctuated Equilibrium.

  48. 48
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Heliopause:

    The American Revolution had its roots in the French and Indian War that had happened 15 years before. Should we call that the American Punctuated Equilibrium, or can we recognize that revolutions have roots and multiple events can converge to cause one?

  49. 49
    Heliopause says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    An actual revolution with guns and killing and everything is directly comparable to the rise of co-educational dorms. I learn something new every day.

  50. 50
    JR says:

    @vestigial:

    Oral sex with a partner of any sex who is infected and contagious is one way you get HPV, particularly in your throat…

  51. 51
    Ecks says:

    @Heliopause:

    Then let’s call it the Sexual Punctuated Equilibrium.

    Would that be punctuated with a period, or with the end of a full stop?

  52. 52
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Heliopause:

    That’s right, I forgot — the Sexual Revolution was mostly good for lowly women and their civil rights, so it can be ignored and mocked with impunity, unlike important revolutions that happened to men and involved phallic symbols rather than actual phalluses.

    I guess I’d better go make my husband a sandwich and let others decide for me whether or not I should be allowed to control my fertility since my feeble woman-brain can’t be trusted with such an important decision.

  53. 53
    Brachiator says:

    @Heliopause:

    These things evolve constantly, which is why I question the use of the term “revolution”. In fact, your comment is a case in point; isolate a few cultural norms and historical facts and call it a “revolution”.

    And the Industrial Revolution wasn’t really a revolution, and the Renaissance wasn’t really a renaissance, and the Age Of Discovery wasn’t really an age of discovery. Yeah, I get that rhetorical shorthand often muddles complexity. And other posters and I have noted the other social changes, even such small things as the widespread use of bicycles and automobiles, that contributed to a social and sexual revolution.

    But it is certainly not simply a matter of things constantly evolving. Sometimes, a number of significant moments have a huge impact. The repeal of anti-contraception laws, the invention of the pill, and the shift in cultural attitudes about how unmarried (and even married) men and women could relate to each other, led to a fundamental shift in the culture.

    It’s a bit like the recent analyses which convinces many scientists that a meteor crash in Mexico really did result in the death of dinosaurs. The slow process of evolution continued, but in a vastly different environment and with a different mix of creatures.

    Oh yeah, and the arrival of the Beatles in America wasn’t really a British Invasion. But still ….

  54. 54
    BrianX says:

    I thought the Industrial Revolution was a puppy?

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