Penicillin + Law of Demand + Sex = Formula For Promiscuity
On Tuesday, January 22, 2013, Emory University’s eScience Commons reported about penicillin’s role in the sexual revolution. Although most people attribute promiscuity and risky sexual behavior to the permissive attitudes of the 1960s, one Emory University economist, Andrew Francis, says that it was not the invention and easy access of birth control in conjunction with the free love of the 60s. Rather, the prevalence and easy access of penicillin in the 50s played a much larger role in the youth’s sexual revolution.
Penicillin? Who knew?
According to Francis, “The evidence, however, 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.” Yep, those supposed prudes from the 50s actually motivated promiscuity thereafter because they could cure syphilis with just one dose of the antibiotic.
By curing a disease like syphilis, which had previously been a serious threat to public health, became as easy as taking one dose of penicillin, then suddenly the financial and health costs minimized. Not only did people have to worry about the financial burden of having syphilis, but they also did not have to worry about the health — physical and mental — burdens of the disease. Thus more people were willing to experiment and become more reckless regarding their sexual activity.
Why not? If penicillin can cure the main deterrent of the time from engaging in more promiscuous sexual behavior, then the people saw no reason not to engage in more risky behavior. As Francis explained, this is like the economic law of demand where when the cost of a good falls, people buy more of the good. In this case the cost of sexual activity became less threatening (at least for the time), so more people engaged in more sex.
To prove his theory, Francis analyzed data from the 1930s to the 1970s specifically looking at three measures of sexual behavior: illegitimate birth ratio, teen birth share, and the incidence in gonorrhea. He found that all three measures of sexual behavior experienced a striking increase as the threat of syphilis bottomed out. In just ten years, from 1947-1957 (no coincidence that this is when penicillin became readily available to the public), the syphilis death rate fell by 75 percent, while the syphilis incident rate fell by 95 percent.
During these ten years, people were still engaging in sexual activity; however, they did not have the same concerns of syphilis because penicillin came to the rescue. The prudishness generally attributed to the 1950s mainly applies to adults. The youth of that era had less concerns about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), so they engaged in more risky sex.
Enter the 1960s, the sexual revolution, and the change of sexual norms. It wasn’t the alleged lack of morals that people blamed previously that brought on more promiscuity and risky behavior. Nope, it was modern medicine. Penicillin inspired people to let their hair down, so to speak.
Understanding how we came to today’s behaviors helps us to understand how to address issues. The promiscuity that came about as a result of penicillin’s role in syphilis has brought other sexual issues such as the HIV and AIDS epidemic and higher teen birth rates. When it comes to sex, we must be responsible. We must protect ourselves from STDs as well as protect ourselves from unplanned and potentially unwanted pregnancies. Penicillin does not cure everything, so make sure you are sexually responsible.
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