Penicillin, Not The Pill, May Have Sparked The Sexual Revolution

Most of you probably know the standard narrative of how the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s came about. The birth control pill became available, everyone got on board and started having sex without fear of unwanted pregnancy. Hooray for sexual freedom! But a new theory could turn all that on it’s head.

According to the statistics, it was actually around the 1950’s that people started engaging in more and riskier sexual behaviour, more teens started to get pregnant and rates of illegitimate children rose. People were having more sex with more people in the 1950’s than in previous decades. These rates only continued to grow in the 1960’s and 70’s and were again increased by the advent of The Pill but the initial spike came years earlier than the birth control pill.

In the early 20th century, syphilis was an epidemic, comparable to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and 90’s. It had the ability to cause blindness, dementia and even paralysis, and by the mid 1940’s had been contracted by approximately 600,000 Americans alone. The rate of syphilis deaths in the late 1930’s was almost as high as the rate of AIDS deaths in the mid 90’s and there was a 1 in 100 chance of a random sexual partner having the infection.

Enter: mouldy bread. Penicillin, a drug derived from bread mould proved to be a highly effective treatment for syphilis. By the end of WWII it was being widely used and by the late 1950’s syphilis was at an all time low. Around the same time, gonorrhea and unwanted pregnancies were starting to spike and continued to increase through the advent of The Pill and the sexual revolution. The increase in sexual promiscuity and freedom seemed to have begun much earlier than previously believed. There is no doubt that The Pill was an important factor in the free love movement but it is likely that penicillin was the real game changer.

In 2000, antiretroviral treatments for HIV/AIDS made it possible for carriers of the infection to have undetectable viral loads, meaning that it was far less likely for them to transmit the infection to their partners or suffer from the ill effects of AIDS. This seems to have changed the game once again, making HIV/AIDS a much less deadly STI. Much like in the case of penicillin, after the introduction of this kind of treatment, the rate of risky sex increased and there has actually been a marked spike in HIV transmission rates over the past decade or so.

I love it when a long held belief is questioned. It’s interesting to me that the 1950’s, a time most consider highly puritanical, was in fact an age of increased sexual promiscuity. But honestly, the theory makes sense to me. I never really got that the advent of The Pill could bring about a free love revolution, always in the back of my mind was the question, “What about all the STIs they must have contracted? Why doesn’t anyone talk about them?” (Of course, social and political factors were at play and helped create the sexual revolution as well). The Pill would have ushered in a new age of unprotected sex, sure there would be fewer pregnancies and HIV hadn’t come about yet, but still, it never seemed to add up for me, until now.


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