The supposed antidepressant properties of semen have been getting a lot of press lately. We decided to find out if splooge will really boost your mood.
Get your mind out of the gutter: we asked a scientist. But first, a little background. Last month, Dr. Lazar Greenfield, president-elect of the American College of Surgeons, touched off controversy when he wrote in the official ACS newspaper that semen could be an antidepressant and thus would make a great Valentine's Day gift. He ultimately resigned. But now the author of the original semen study is stepping up to defend him.
In 2002, psychologist Gordon Gallup published a paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (full text here) saying that "not only were females who were having sex without condoms less depressed, but depressive symptoms and suicide attempts among females who used condoms were proportional to the consistency of condom use." From this, Gallup and his co-authors theorized that semen might make women happy. And he's standing up for his research in the wake of the Greenfield scandal. He tells the Observer, "Seminal plasma evolved to control and manipulate the female reproductive system so as to work toward the best interests of the donor –- the male." And of the furor surrounding Greenfield's editorial, he says,
I think it's a tragic overreaction. The point at which we begin to let political agenda dictate what science is all about is the point when science ceases to be a viable enterprise.
So how legit is the science at the heart of all of this? We asked Kathryn Clancy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who works on female reproductive physiology, among other areas (and who's written about her work on women's health here). She pointed me to a 2008 study finding essentially the opposite of Gallup's conclusion — namely, that "never married participants who rarely/never used condoms were more likely than those who always used condoms to experience any mood, substance use, and any mental disorder, and suicide attempts." The authors of this study — Natalie Mota et al — also criticized Gallup's study for its use of a convenience sample (one where the scientist just selects an easy group of people to study — in this case, students — rather than trying to get a sample representative of a population as a whole), and for measuring depression with self-reporting questionnaires rather than face-to-face interviews. She also had these reservations about the study:
- The authors never define sexually active.
- The authors use only an indirect measure of semen exposure (condom use).
- The authors never ask (or if they asked, never report) why these women made these different contraceptive or non-contraceptive choices. This is a huge issue to me. Were they for religious reasons? Because they trusted their partner? Because the total number of times they had sex was very low? Were they using a different barrier method than condoms? Did they use spermicide or douching?
- There appear to be significant confounders with oral contraceptive use. The authors found no real effect of oral contraception on the depression index, but with their study design they couldn't really test this question.
She also noted that the group in Gallup's study who "usually" but not always used condoms actually had very high depression and suicide rates, suggesting there might be other factors at work than simple semen exposure — Mota et al. point out that low self-esteem has been associated both with depression and with "infrequent condom use." Clancy added,
If I had been a study author, I would have asked some additional questions about reproductive choice. The way women feel about their reproductive decisions seems to have a huge impact on their mental health. For instance, even though oral contraceptive use is negatively correlated with feelings of well being AND they are widely known to decrease libido, using oral contraceptives and condoms together INCREASES libido because of the fact that it empowers women and makes them feel totally protected when having sex. But the fact that a partner might also have opinions on contraceptive use, particularly barrier methods, is important to consider as well (so, do women who insist on condoms feel guilty, given the wide cultural assumption that condoms don't feel good to men?).
Basically, there are a lot of questions scientists would have to answer before they could really conclude that semen is an antidepressant. Clancy also reminded me that Gallup and his co-authors were clear in their initial paper that their research was by no means the last word on the subject, and that it's a shame that much other scientific literature (other than the Mota study) has cited it uncritically. It's also a shame that Greenfield thought it was a good idea to present the semen-antidepressant link essentially as fact in his editorial, and then make a tasteless joke about it. His resignation isn't a case of politics silencing science, as Gallup alleges. It's a case of science poorly and offensively reported. If Gallup's research were followed up in appropriate ways and appropriate venues, we might all learn something about sexual and mental health — and yes, even about semen.
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