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Opening Arguments

Shot in the dark

This is an intriguing possbility:

We all know what fueled the sexual revolution: birth control and rock 'n' roll.

But what if that's not the whole story? What if America's libido was liberated not by the pill and heady doses of Jim Morrison, but by the lowly prescription drug penicillin.

Before penicillin was found to be effective against syphilis during World War II, sex brought with it the risk of syphilis, a disease that can cause blindness, dementia and paralysis.

Penicillin can wipe out syphilis with just one shot. As the antibiotic came into wide use in the 1950s, the number of syphilis cases and syphilis deaths plummeted. And that's when teen pregnancies and illegitimate births began to rise — long before the invention of the birth control pill.

That's the provocative thesis of Andrew Francis, an economist at Emory University in Atlanta who studies HIV/AIDS and the cost of disease.

[. . .]

Like many of us, Francis thought of the '50s as the era of Pat Boone and repressed sexuality. Being an economist, he started running the numbers to find out what was going on. His graphs show an almost perfect correlation between the end of syphilis as a deadly sexually transmitted disease, and the beginning of an era of risky sexual behavior. Down goes the syphilis death rate. Up goes the rate of gonorrhea infections, births out of wedlock, and births to teens.

As the story notes, correlation isn't causation, but it makes sense that penicillin had some effect on kickstarting the sexual revolution, because it accomplished the same thing as the pill: reducing the chances of an unwanted consequence from risky behavior. But that just made people more likely to indulge in the risky behavior, so goodbye syphilis, hello HIV/AIDS.

And my sex-and-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll generation shouldn't be so smug about our liberating, anything-goes attitude. The stage had already been set by our poor, repressed parents, with all that pent-up desire nurtured during the war years. Gimme that shot, and turn me loose!