In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Andrew Francis of Emory University explores the role antibiotics played in fueling the sexual revolution.
Andrew Francis is an associate professor of economics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His research interests include the economics of marriage, family, education, human rights, law, health, and sexuality. In particular, recent projects on sexuality have examined the ways in which sexual behavior responded to the AIDS epidemic. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.
Dr. Andrew Francis – Penicillin and the Sexual Revolution
Evidence indicates that cohorts of young adults after the mid-1960s exhibited a greater number of sexual partners as well as a greater likelihood of premarital sex, among other changes in sexual behavior. Traditional explanations for this "sexual revolution" have focused on the spread of the birth control pill, increasingly permissive attitudes toward sex, and shifting moral values during the 1960s and 1970s. Many interrelated factors undoubtedly played a role in shaping modern sexuality. Nevertheless, in a recently published study, I explored a rather surprising explanation: the discovery of penicillin.
It was not until 1943 that penicillin was found to be an effective treatment for syphilis. In the United States, the exigencies of war spurred a large-scale public health effort to eradicate syphilis first among the military and then among the population. As a result, the number of syphilis cases and deaths fell precipitously. From 1947 to 1957, syphilis incidence fell by 95 percent and syphilis deaths fell by 75 percent.
My study investigated the hypothesis that a decrease in the “cost” of syphilis due to penicillin spurred an increase in risky non-traditional sex. This decline in “cost” included reductions in death, morbidity, and economic loss. Using nationally comprehensive vital statistics from the 1930s to the 1970s, I constructed three measures of risky non-traditional sexual behavior: the gonorrhea rate, illegitimate birth ratio, and teen birth share. I discovered that risky sexual behavior began to rise during the mid to late 1950s, a period coinciding with the collapse of syphilis cases. I also discovered that risky sexual behavior was inversely associated with syphilis deaths.
These results had fascinating implications. For one, they cast the sexual revolution in a new light. Also, they implied that the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s was facilitated by the collapse of syphilis in the 1950s.