The risky sexual relations of the swinging '60s may not have been due to the Pill after all, but due to the widespread use of antibiotics to kill syphilis.
That's the argument of a leading academic who believes the sexual revolution may have begun a decade earlier after penicillin effectively eradicated the disease.
Dr Andrew Francis, an economist from Emory University in the U.S., says the 1950s weren’t as prudish as we all think.
The swinging Sixties, famously depicted by the actions of Mrs Robinson in the 1967 film The Graduate (pictured), may not have been the start of the sexual revolution after all
He says that sexual inhibition is traditionally associated with the launch of the Pill in 1961 - but it was in fact the widespread use of penicillin, leading to a rapid decline in syphilis during the 1950s, that launched the modern sexual era.
As penicillin drove down the cost of having risky sex, the population started being more promiscuous.
Dr Francis, whose research is published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, said: 'It's a common assumption that the sexual revolution began with the permissive attitudes of the 1960s and the development of contraceptives like the birth control pill.
The decline of syphilis during the 20th Century. Dr Francis also found that the historical data of the syphilis epidemic parallels the contemporary AIDS epidemic
'However the evidence strongly indicates that the widespread use of penicillin, leading to a rapid decline in syphilis during the 1950s, is what launched the modern sexual era.'
Syphilis reached its peak in the United States in 1939, when it killed 20,000 people. 'It was the AIDS of the late 1930s and early 1940s,' Dr Francis said. 'Fear of catching syphilis and dying of it loomed large.'
He added that as penicillin drove down the cost of having risky sex, the population started having more of it.
He compared the situation to the economic law of demand: When the cost of a good falls, people buy more of it.
While many factors likely continued to fuel the sexual revolution during the 1960s and 1970s, Francis says the 1950s and the role of penicillin have been largely overlooked.
In his report, he wrote that the 1950s are associated with prudish, more traditional sexual behaviors. 'That may have been true for many adults, but not necessarily for young adults. It's important to recognise how reducing the fear of syphilis affected sexual behaviors.'
Andrew Francis says a rapid decline in syphilis during the 1950s paved the way for the swinging Sixties
Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but it was not put into clinical use until 1941. As World War II escalated, and sexually transmitted diseases threatened the troops overseas, penicillin was found to be an effective treatment against syphilis.
'The military wanted to rid the troops of STDs and all kinds of infections, so that they could keep fighting,' Francis says. 'That really sped up the development of penicillin as an antibiotic.'
Right after the war, penicillin became a clinical staple for the general population as well. In the United States, syphilis went from a chronic, debilitating and potentially fatal disease to one that could be cured with a single dose of medicine.
From 1947 to 1957, the syphilis death rate fell by 75 per cent and the syphilis incidence rate fell by 95 per cent. 'That's a huge drop - essentially a collapse,' said Francis.
In order to test his theory that risky sex increased as the cost of syphilis dropped, Francis analysed data from the 1930s through the 1970s from state and federal health agencies.
For his study, Francis chose three measures of sexual behavior: The illegitimate birth ratio; the teen birth share; and the incidence of gonorrhea, a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease that tends to spread quickly.
'Syphilis was the AIDS of the late 1930s and early 1940s,' says Dr Francis. 'Fear of catching syphilis and dying of it loomed large.'
'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,' he added.
He also found that the historical data of the syphilis epidemic parallels the contemporary AIDS epidemic. 'Some studies have indicated that the development of highly active antiretroviral therapy for treating HIV may have caused some men who have sex with men to be less concerned about contracting and transmitting HIV, and more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.'
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2270720/Penicillin-NOT-pill-reason-swinging-60s--wiped-syphilis.html#ixzz2Jr4wfLjJ
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