Epidemiology, Evolution, and “Unsafe Sex”


Some prudent reasons why today’s men shouldn’t do what many late-Sixties men did

(c) 2012, Davd

I’ve written several blogs this year in support of modesty and prudence. Many of you have probably noticed that these themes conflict with “the Sexual Revolution”, which began while i was a university student: One of the main motivations for taking part in “the Sexual Revolution” was impulsive erotic pleasure.

(Pause for the resounding chorus of “Duuuuuuhhh!”.)

Am i one of those strange characters who hates pleasure? No … I’m one of those quantitative characters who reminds students to calculate-in the hangover when assessing the pleasures of drink, and analogously for sexual pleasures.

What you can suffer in consequence of sexual indulgence is slower to take effect than a hangover, and longer lasting, and more harmful by far1. In some cases, men find themselves taxed for decades to support a child they may or may not have sired and will have no chance to father. In some cases men find that they are “found guilty of” sexual assault, rape, or some similar charge, when a woman who gave ample indication of consent at the time, changes her mind later. In at least as many cases, men find months later [only weeks later in the case of gonorrhea] that they have acquired a loathsome disease; and this blog will focus on that aspect of “the delayed consequences.”

All these risks, and especially the risk of a loathsome disease, are much greater today than they were in the early years of that Sexual Revolution. The “Revolution” began in the latter 1960s, according to most accounts; but its foundations were in place before and during World War II. The principal foundation was penicillin.

Penicillum is a genus of mould. It exudes a substance which kills bacteria. Alexander Fleming, a Scots scientist, discovered Penicillum killing a sample of Staphylococcus bacteria in his hospital laboratory; so he filtered a broth culture of the Penicillium mould, and called the “filtrate”, “penicillin”. A few researchers studied its effect on bacteria and other disease agents, but it did not become widely used, partly because it was costly and tedious to produce.

World War II gave the United States and its allies a strong incentive to improve penicillin production: Penicillin was very effective at preventing wound infection. With war wounds as an incentive, production was improved: Wikipedia states, “During World War II, penicillin made a major difference in the number of deaths and amputations caused by infected wounds among Allied forces, saving an estimated 12%–15% of lives”. By 1944, the supply was large enough that penicillin was publicly advertised as a cure for gonorrhea.

After the war, it was confirmed that penicillin would also cure syphilis, the other major “VD” [for “venereal disease”, the euphemism used for Sexually Transmitted Diseases two generations ago].

There are three main motivations for sexual restraint: Moral standards, fear of pregnancy, and fear of what was then called “VD”. 100 years ago, they “worked together”: Casual sex was disapproved-of morally, it could lead to unmarried pregnancy, and it could transmit “VD”. Penicillin, when it came into use 60-70 years ago, provided a back-up to condoms, as protection from “VD”: If the condom failed, penicillin could cure the infection.

Condoms were called “prophylactics” in the 1950s, because they forestalled both “VD” transmission and pregnancy. They became widely available at modest cost during the 1930s, but many people felt they detracted from the pleasure of intercourse—plus which, they were known to fail.

People tend to agree with moral standards that prescribe prudent avoidance of risk, even if they do not support the philosophical or religious doctrines from which those standards came; and they tend to keep with moral standards once they have accepted them. People who accepted moral rules against sexual license because those rules were prudent, tended to keep accepting them for some years after the risks that had called for so much prudence, had been “technologically fixed”—especially since the condom “fix” was not 100% reliable.

Penicillin became the standard cure for STDs by some time in the 1950s. It amounted to a “fix” for the disease risk involved in condom failure, but not the pregnancy risk nor the “lack of feeling” bother of condoms. When “the birth control pill” entered mass production in the early 1960s, it seemed as if only morality remained as a reason for sexual restraint—and many young
people, in the process of deciding their moral standards, found sex more appealing than restraint, once the “Pg and VD dangers” seemed to be removed.

During the 1960s, penicillin did indeed cure syphilis and gonorrhea, in nearly every case; “the Pill” was effective in preventing unwanted pregnancy, and “the Sexual Revolution” was announced and discussed in the mass media. It seemed then that the practical reasons for moral restraint were gone—even as the forces of epidemiology and “Evolution by Natural Selection” were quietly bringing them back.

In reality, penicillin’s victory over STDs (as we call them today) was quite temporary. Bacteria evolve very quickly, and a very few of those bacteria responsible for syphilis and gonorrhea—and chlamydia—turned out to be resistant enough to penicillin to survive treatment. They multiplied, the bacteria who died obviously did not multiply—and so, penicillin “selected for varieties of STD bacteria that were resistant to it”.

Even worse was the arrival of a devastating viral STD. AIDS was first reported in the USA in 1981 and named in 1982; Wikipedia estimated it reached the United States in 1969 and reports the HIV virus was first identified in Africa in 1959 or 1960. Penicillin is not effective against viruses.

During the 1970s, the “height of the Sexual Revolution”, AIDS was “unknown to science”; and HIV, the virus that causes the disease, was not thought of as a public health threat in Europe or the Americas. Syphilis and gonorrhea were the “VD”s usually named.

If penicillin-resistant strains of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia bacteria were noticed, they were known to be very rare. For anyone who wanted an excuse to play around sexually, it was easy to treat “VD” as curable, pregnancy as preventable, and the technologies that cured and prevented, as durable.

By now we should know better—but many people don’t want to know better. In 1965-1980, that sexual spontaneity was a whole lot safer than it is today, for good epidemiological reasons. There were two well-known “Venereal Diseases” as of 1970, which penicillin could cure; in 2012 the list of “STD”s numbered a dozen at least, perhaps as many as 15. Many, especially gonorrhea, are resistant to penicillin and many more recent antibiotics in the bacterial cases; while dangerous virus STDs include herpes [known in 1970 largely in connection with “cold sores”], plus AIDS, whose existence hadn’t even been documented back then, and the carcinogenic “Human Papilloma virus”2.

Middle-aged adults who formed their morality when penicillin did cure VD, are just as inclined to “social and psychological inertia” as were their parents and grandparents whose morality was formed when penicillin was a laboratory curiosity and treatments for “VD” were miserable and unreliable. They may be sensitive to the emotional, career, and financial dangers of promiscuity; but they are disposed not to notice news that penicillin has long since failed to cure many strains of gonorrhea, and many successor antibiotics are well along in the process of “selecting for varieties of STD bacteria that are resistant to them”.

Many young adults who know the story of the Sexual Revolution want their turn to have the fun that many of the previous generation-or-two had. The implication of epidemic STD spread combined with “selection for resistance”, is that there is no such turn available for them: The conditions of 1965-80 were unique. Antibiotics, especially penicillin, were recent arrivals then, and most disease-bacteria populations had scant resistance to them. STDs [then known as VDs] were not as widespread in the population.

Today, “due to” the more promiscuous behaviour of the post-1965 generations, STDs are very widespread and antibiotics are not at all sure to cure them. Catching one in the early “revolution” in 1965-75 was not that likely for those who had 2-5 “partners” per year; and the ones most often caught were easily treated. Today, there is a longer list of common-STDs3, the risk of catching at least one of them is much higher, and the difficulty of curing several is far higher than in 1970.

Most revolutions last months or years rather than decades; and the “sexual revolution” was already longer than most political revolutions by 1990. Most revolutions end-up more like they began than like “the height of them”, and the “sexual revolution”—we may hope—is doing the same. To continue the promiscuity of the peak years, would entail a baleful toll of misery and early death.

Prudence is one of the Four Classic Virtues, which predate Christianity. (The other three are Fortitude, Justice, and Temperance.) Like the other Classic Virtues, prudence is honoured because long human experience has shown that “it works” for the general social good and the individual’s long term well-being. Applied to sexual pleasuring, it counsels fewer rather than more ‘contacts’, with more rather than less acquaintance before the eros begins. Applied to the civil marriage of the early 21st Century, it counsels “when in doubt, don’t marry—and without a supporting faith or primary-group4 social community, doubt is usually appropriate.” (With regard to false accusations, it counsels chaperonage—and modesty.)

The “logistic growth curve” of STD infection rates and resistance to antibiotics, has given men decades to learn prudence, at gradually increasing risk to those who don’t learn. Prudence is not always the most pleasant lesson to accept, but the alternative of infection—or of “divorce theft”, or false accusation—is much worse.


1. Portal cirrhosis can take a long time to manifest, as can delirium tremens, and both are quite harmful; but these result from extended excessive drinking, not from a few impulsive episodes or even a few dozen; while STDs (or a “paternity suit”, or false accusation), can result from a single night of “fun.” Cirrhosis and “D.T’s” also seem much less common as consequences of alcohol indulgence, than STDs are today as consequences of impulsive eros; while hangovers (i hear) are rather common.

2. Hepatitis is not always counted as “sexually transmitted” because so many hepatitis infections originate otherwise; but it is often transmitted sexually.

3. A recent Wikipedia list included: Bacterial: Syphilis, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and Non-gonococcal urethritis; Viral: Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV, HPV, Herpes, and Human cytomegalovirus (CMV); plus Molluscum contagiosum, Trichomoniasis [protozoal], Candidiasis [fungal], Crab-lice and Scabies [parasitic]. Hepatitis, herpes, and the parasitic diseases were well-known in 1960-80 but only crab-lice were then considered primarily a sexually transmitted problem (and weren’t then referred to as a VD, rather an annoyance.)

4. A primary group, sociologically, is a group of people who all know one another personally and who interact based on that individual familiarity rather than on rules.


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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