In a 2002 study, evolutionary psychologists Gordon Gallup, Rebecca Burch and Steve Platek at the State University of New York (SUNY) studied the impact of semen on women's levels of depression. Their research was spurred by the observation that lesbians do not synchronize menstrual cycles (known as the McClintock effect) as happens with heterosexual women. It was therefore theorized that heterosexual women absorb chemicals from semen during sex that could influence hormones and mood.
Given that semen contains over 50 compounds including mood-elevating substances such as endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin, the researchers sought to show that exposure to semen would lead to improved mood and lower depression.
For the study, 293 college women were surveyed about their sexual behavior, condom use and depressive symptoms. In order to assess levels of depression, the women were given the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). In addition to this information, the researchers gathered information about relationship factors and oral contraceptive use.
Results of the study showed that women who never used condoms (and therefore were exposed to semen) showed signficantly better mood, experienced fewer depressive symptoms, and less depressive episodes than women who used condoms or never had sex. Only 5 percent of women who never used condoms had experienced suicidal thoughts compared with 20 percent of those who always or usually used condoms.
At this point you might be thinking - that's all well and good - but couldn't these findings be explained by relationship status or oral contraceptive use? In fact, the researchers controlled for these and other potential confoundings variables (such as frequency of sex) and found that they did not explain the relationship between semen exposure and levels of depression.
Is it possible that women who use condoms are just naturally more nervous and unhappy? A 1983 study by Mark Leary and Sharon Dobbins found that socially anxious women were twice as likely to use condoms. A study in 2010 by Natalie Mota and colleagues found increased levels of depression among single men and women who never or rarely used condoms compared with those who always used condoms.
It seems that the jury is still out as far as cause and effect and whether semen does have an influence on women's moods. It is an interesting discussion, however, because the chemicals that Gallup, Burch and Platek believe improved mood in the SUNY study could also potentially have a positive impact on women with social anxiety disorder (SAD).
Nobody would advocate unprotected sex as a treatment for depression or anxiety, but it may be that women who do engage in sex without condoms reap some sort of psychological benefit. The issue seems pretty complex to me and is crying out for more research to be done; particuarly with respect to the impact of semen exposure on social anxiety.
What do you think? Do you believe the chemicals transmitted during unprotected sex could elevate mood and reduce social anxiety?
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