Smooth Operator

The New York Times today reports that Dr. Lazar Greenfield, the head of the American College of Surgeons, has resigned. His offense? A Valentine's Day editorial speculating that semen has anti-depressive properties that benefit women who have unprotected sex. According to the Times:

The editorial cited research that found that female college students who had had unprotected sex were less depressed than those whose partners used condoms. It speculated that compounds in semen have antidepressant effects.

'So 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,' it concluded.

That's pretty offensive and sexist on its face, hence the uproar. It's hard to know without looking at the original study, but there's likely more going on between those different types of college students than the presence of semen. The entire issue of Surgery News has been withdrawn, and he and the college have issued apologies.

What's most interesting about this is that this is a really old idea. Across much of the ancient world, sex was seen as a curative for a number of ailments, mostly those affecting women. The gynecology section of the Hippocratic corpus provides really detailed information on how the Greeks viewed women and, given how clueless those doctors were about female bodies, it is in retrospect pretty amazing that any of them managed to reproduce. For the Greeks, women were naturally "hot" and men were "cool"; women needed the cooling power of sex with men to keep from going crazy. Without semen, their wombs, known as hystera, were prone to wandering about like animals in their bodies, and had to be lured back into place with sweet and bad smelling herbs and other medicinal mixtures.

That regressive view of how men and women relate carries through to today, apparently. Setting aside the ill-conceived implicit advice to have unprotected sex, it's worth noting that Greenfield apparently didn't give a second thought, before publishing, to how women in the field might receive such a column. Sigh. Sexism.

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