Yes, you read that headline right. Last year, the president elect of the American College of Surgeons, Dr. Lazar Greenfield, resigned from his position after penning a controversial Valentine’s Day editorial in Surgical News. In his editorial, Greenfield cited a controversial journal article published a decade ago which found that women who did not use condoms reported fewer depressive symptoms than women who practiced safe sex.1 Based upon these results, some scientists have argued that semen may have antidepressant properties. Greenfield is an apparent believer because he wrote in Surgical News that “there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.” Female surgeons around the world were offended (and rightfully so) at Greenfield’s implication that semen is the best “gift” for women. Most media outlets that covered this story focused only on the sexism embedded in Greenfield’s editorial, but if you’re anything like me, you probably couldn’t help but wonder whether the study Greenfield cited has even a hint of scientific validity. Does it really provide evidence that semen has beneficial effects on women’s psychological well-being? Let's take a closer look at the research.
The original study surveyed 256 sexually active, female college undergraduates from upstate New York about their sexual practices, symptoms of depression, and past history of suicide attempts. The researchers found that women who never used condoms (and presumably came into contact with more semen) reported fewer depressive symptoms and fewer suicide attempts than women who usually or always used condoms (and presumably came into contact with less semen). They also found that for women who never used condoms, the longer they went without having sex, the more depressed they were (a potential sign of semen withdrawal?). Do these findings provide enough evidence to conclude that semen is an antidepressant? A closer look at the methods of this study suggests not.
First, it's important to highlight that semen exposure was not actually measured in this study. The researchers only assessed condom use, which is not the same thing. We can't say for sure that women who never used condoms were necessarily exposed to more semen--we’re just assuming they were. We also can't say whether semen exposure is lowering depression scores, or if condom use is raising those scores. Isn't it equally plausible to look at these data and draw the conclusion that condom use is a "depressant?" Second, although there were statistically significant differences in depression scores for women who never and always used condoms, the overall depression scores were very low for both groups. The scoring guide for the depression scale used (which the authors didn’t report) actually puts both sets of scores in the “minimal” symptom range (i.e., the lowest level of symptoms). Thus, women who always used condoms were not truly depressed and were hardly exhibiting serious symptoms.
Finally, this study is correlational in nature, which means that we cannot draw conclusions about cause and effect. In fact, condom use might not be affecting depression at all—perhaps this association is explained by some third variable. Just consider all of the ways that women who never used condoms might be different from women who always used condoms. For instance, the authors of this study found that the women who never used condoms were more likely to be taking “the pill” and were having sex twice as often as women who always used condoms. That right there tells you we're not just comparing semen exposure, we're comparing two different types of women! There’s also the possibility that women who weren’t using condoms were in better quality relationships in which the partners had more trust and support for each other. It’s also possible that there are personality differences between women who do and do not use condoms (e.g., maybe women who use condoms have more anxiety or fears about unwanted pregnancy and/or STDs than women who do not practice safe sex).
When you take all of these possibilities into account, it becomes difficult to argue that any differences in depression scores and suicide attempts are attributable only to differences in semen exposure--instead, these mood effects may be a function of specific characteristics of the women or their relationships. There are a few other studies out there which have documented similar associations between condom use and depression, but those studies are subject to many of the same critiques I have raised here.
In short, we do not possess any conclusive evidence that semen has antidepressant properties, which means the claims Greenfield made were not only in poor taste, but they also went well beyond the limits of what the science says.
1Gallup, G. G., Burch, R. L., & Platek, S. M. (2002). Does semen have antidepressant properties? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31, 289-293.
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