I’m starting to worry that the last few Friday Weird Science write-ups by Scicurious (who seems, these days, to be the primary blogger at Neurotopia) have been of papers that I happen to have read. Just so you know: Thousands of papers are published per week across the diverse sciences, and although Scicurious tends to deal with life science and I tend to read life science, the chances of this particular harmonic convergence across bloggers regarding papers published over the last decade is statistically almost zero. More likely, Scicurious and I just have similar taste … or lack thereof.

The latest paper written up by Sci is on the relationship between certain kinds of sexual intercourse and reduction of depression in women, suggested by a study by Gordon Gallup and others.


ResearchBlogging.org You should go read Scicurious’s analysis first. Briefly, in this study, women who had regular sexual intercourse not using condoms were less depressed than women who had regular sexual intercourse using condoms. The study did in fact account for a number of different possibilities, and the authors did a pretty good job of eliminating many of the alternative explanations, though much of that is done with verbal reasoning rather than re-experiment with new design. The whole study is said to be preliminary, of course.

Scicurious, however, identifies a number of leftover questions, and I’d like to address them (somewhat unevenly and randomly):

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.

The original hypothesis proposed in 1986 by Ney was actually that prostaglandins affect mood. Gallup et al considered both prostaglandins and hormones. I would agree that oral contraceptives may be more significant with respect to hormones than vaginal deposits, but I would not assume that, nor would I assume that oral contraceptives have no effect on mood without experimental evidence designed to compare the two effects.

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.

I think the key word here is “popularity.” I don’t know what was going on in the Gallup study, but this particular variation in practice would not be something one could assume one way or another. What we do know is that variation in sexual practice of this type is great within and across American culture, changing across time sometimes quite quickly, and one cannot make this assumption. I would have thought Gallup would think of this, and I agree that it is not addressed in the study.

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.

This depends on number 2. It is logical, but not addressed adequately.

This was a preliminary study, but to my knowledge it has not been followed up, or if it was, not by Gallup (or at least not yet published). There have been a number of studies that have shown that women in sexual relationships have lower rates of depression or other affective state issues. One could infer that there is a sort of “ideal” (biosocially speaking) sexual relationship, and divergence from that (whatever it happens to be, contextually determined) may result in greater or lesser levels of something that can be measured psychometrically. One recent study (Miguel, 2008) looks at this issue from a Freudian perspective, and concludes that condoms, like masturbation, cause an increase in neurosis. Or something. (Journal of sexual medicine, 5(11) 2522-2532)

Interestingly the Gallup study has found its way into a few places as a citation indicating a relationship between sex and depression. In one Planned Parenthood document, the study is mentioned (uncritically) along with a number of other studies suggesting that sex is good for you, one way or another. No mention of the problem that Planned Parenthood may, through their condom distribution programs, be ruining it for everyone because of the depressive nature of this practice!!!!!

As Scicurious points out, regardless of if this study is valid or not, there are other factors related to depression that are surely more important. Like, I would suggest, overall physical activity levels.

So if you are depressed, get a membership to the nearest gym and start going on a regular basis. And who knows, you may meet someone nice! (Probably not, though.)

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

Comments

  1. #1 Nathan Myers
    March 6, 2009

    I’d like to see a study involving electrically conductive condoms, but I doubt any will be forthcoming.

  2. #2 Dr Vector
    March 6, 2009

    I’d like to see a study involving electrically conductive condoms, but I doubt any will be forthcoming.

    If you build it, they will come?

  3. #3 Lycosid
    March 6, 2009

    I read the latest gallup study and I Jizz in my pants

  4. #4 TEBB
    March 6, 2009

    My first thought as I read this was that a lot of women having sex with condoms likely are having casual sex rather than sex within a committed relationship and a depressed woman might seek casual sex in hopes it would lift her mood. The idea that semen might have a biological/chemical effect to improve mood didn’t even occur to me! A hypothesis that semen in a vagina might have mood improvement properties strikes me as somewhat, er, vain?

  5. #5 Tom
    March 6, 2009

    I think that we have to potentially see this also (though this might be subtle – like the human science data work on pheromones).

    In evolutionary terms – there’s the battle at the sexual level, that Dawkins et al, (I’m thinking
    The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature if it’s valid)
    I think scientists shy away from some of this work – and to be honest – if you could help depression from this. Maybe this ethical, but just a bit NSFW science can be done, to further our knowledge.
    In a different tack – where has the male pill gone?
    This , and also the info on what the pill does to women’s sense of smell (in relation to MHC “compatibility” with their partner, and also the menopause) all kind of loosely link together.

  6. #6 the real PalMD
    March 6, 2009

    Um: Duhh…!

    The problem with all of those dicks that would deny that men sticking it in women is good for womens happiness is that they never get any,and if they do, seldom stick around to notice the smile on their faces, too busy perhaps because they wank it way too much, and blow the moment when it actually arrives …

  7. #7 Miss Cellania
    March 7, 2009

    Another factor might be the REASON people in the one group use condoms (and no one uses them without a reason). Either there is a possibility that their partner might have an STD, or else they are fertile and afraid of pregnancy. Either of those might contribute to depression.

  8. #8 Hesitant Iconoclast
    March 7, 2009

    Stuart Brody researches sexual issues and has published a number of journal (and media) articles. According to his research, only vaginal sex is satisfying in terms of psychosexual desire. No other sexual practice (masturbation, anal, etc) is as satisfying as vaginal sex.

    The connection with this study is interesting where it suggests condom-free intercourse has less depressive effects as compared with condom use.

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