Sigh. These friday weird science titles just keep getting worse and worse! But there’s really no other way to put this paper. And it kind of carries on the depression theme I’ve had going for the past few weeks. Well, kind of.
Gallup et al. “Does semen have antidepressant properties?” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2002.
Now, I saw the title of this paper and went “you’re KIDDING. They want women to take…WHAT?!” I had this strange image of what the marketing department for “semen pills” would be like. But it turns out the title is slightly misleading. And as for the implications…we’ll get to them.
I’m actually not so pleased with this study. I think it’s got some major variables unaccounted for, but it is preliminary. One wonders whether they ever got around to the real study. And heck, the results are…rather weird. And it definitely used the phrase “semen withdrawal”. Because there are so many people out there addicted to semen. Gotta get their hit of all those little swimmers!
As I’m sure many of you are aware, women are diagnosed with clinical depression in higher levels than men. In fact, women are 3-5 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression than men. This may not necessarily be because men are just less depressed, they may simply report it less or not go to the doctor for it. Be that as it may, women are diagnosed with depression more often than men.
And of course we all know that hormones of various types can influence mood. Aside from the hormones that many women have naturally floating around, we can take in hormones from other sources, in pills, or even as herbal or dietary supplements. And, it turns out, women can get doses of hormones from semen. It should be obvious to most people that semen is FULL of hormones, and most of them are ones that the female system is going to recognize (same species and all that). There’s the basic stuff, like testosterone and estrogen, as well as prostaglandins and other hormones.
Finally, we all know that the vagina is…a wondrous thing. The inside of a vagina is not just made of skin, and the membrane is permeable to lots of things. Like hormones. Which you could get from things like a guy’s semen. And hormones, as we all know, have an effect on mood. So the authors of this study hypothesized that women who had sex without condoms, and thus had semen in their reproductive tract, would have differing moods from those who used condoms or were sexually inactive.
So they gave a very large group of college women a questionnaire, asking about frequency of sexual intercourse, whether they used condoms, how long it had been since they had last had sex, and of course, assessing mood via the Beck Depression Inventory. They found that women who did not use condoms during sex showed lower depression scores than women who used condoms or were not sexually active. They also found that the time since last episode of sexual intercourse correlated with mood in women who didn’t use condoms, so the longer it had been, the worse their mood (shocking, I know). Not only that, people who used condoms the most often were also the ones most likely to report having attempted suicide. Whether or not people were in relationships at the time had no effect. Interestingly, they also found that oral contraceptives did not have a significant effect on depressive symptoms. Finally, they found that women who did not use condoms had sex almost twice as often as those who did.
The authors acknowledge that there are lots of issues with the study. The women who didn’t use condoms could be less depressed just because they are having sex more often. They could also be more likely to engage in risky behavior, though this trait doesn’t appear to correlate with depression or lack thereof.
They concluded that, because women who didn’t use condoms were less depressed, that hormones in semen absorbed through the vaginal tract might antagonize depressive symptoms. This could mean that women who might otherwise be depressed could be “treating” it with condomless sex.
But if I were you, I wouldn’t throw out the condoms just yet.
Some problems I had with it:
1) You’re telling me that “possible semen in the reproductive tract” with hormones absorbing through the vaginal wall, has a significant effect on how depressed women are, but oral contraceptives, which are taken every day and contain enough hormone to suppress ovulation, have NO significant effects on mood? This issue alone actually made me doubt the study. But perhaps they were looking at the wrong questions.
2) Sexually active women who do not use condoms are assumed to have semen in their reproductive tract after sex. I would highly doubt this, due to the popularity of “pulling out” and other methods sometimes used instead of condoms. I don’t think a questionnaire could have adequately detected this.
3) They state that females who didn’t use condoms might be more likely to be in a committed relationship, but don’t provide any data. I find this odd, it seems the questionnaire would certainly have asked that question. A committed relationship certainly could make a difference in mood.
So basically, it’s a preliminary study. And even if it DID turn out that semen helped mood in women, the risk of STDs (or pregnancy) in women who are not necessarily in committed relationships is just too high to be tossing out your condoms on the chance semen might help. On the other hand, if this DOES turn out to be the case, it could possibly open up new routes for hormone administration intra-vaginally (like Nuva-ring, except maybe a cream or something), which might have effects on mood, while avoiding some of the global side effects resulting from high levels of circulating hormones. I still doubt it. Hormones absorbed through the vaginal wall would still get into the bloodstream, so you’d still get some effects.
In the meantime, there are less-risky ways to help your mood if you’re not in a committed relationship. If you ARE, and you’re in that stage where you may not be using condoms…well, guys, if she’s in a bad mood, you might have something that can help…
Gordon G. Gallup Jr., Rebecca L. Burch, Steven M. Platek (2002). Does semen have antidepressant properties? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31 (3), 289-293 DOI: 10.1023/A:1015257004839
Filed under: Friday Weird Science