It may have been penicillin, not the Pill, that triggered the sexual revolution, a new study indicates. Hypothesizing that “a decrease in the cost of syphilis due to penicillin [which, in 1943, was found to treat syphilis effectively] spurred an increase in risky non-traditional sex,” the Emory University economist Andrew Francis discovered evidence that “the era of modern sexuality originated in the mid to late 1950s,” prior to the debut of oral contraceptive pills in 1960. (Full PDF here.)
Francis is not the first to suggest this; Megan McArdle, for one, floated the idea last year when writing about the advent of seemingly untreatable STDs. Untreatable STDs sound like the stuff of a nightmarish sexual education class (like the scene in Mean Girls: “if you touch each other, you will get chlamydia, and die”), but the CDC seems to consider their development fairly likely. If penicillin sparked the sexual revolution, antibiotic-resistant STDs could lead to something of a sexual un-revolution.
But it’s impossible to know what such an “un-revolution” would look like. It would certainly disrupt the hook-up scene (not to mention today’s “open relationships”) and may make serial monogamy a bit less serial. Nevertheless, given the contraception-related transformation of the sex and marriage markets—which Timothy Reichert has described in our pages—a return to premarital abstinence and lifelong monogamy seems highly unlikely. Let’s hope, for the sake of people who could contract incurable and fatal STDs in this scenario, that we don’t find out.