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No, Swallowing Semen Isn't Better Than Prozac

This week, New Scientist perpetuated a myth that has been around for a decade: that semen controls women's brains. Here's why that's spunk.

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"Semen has controlling power over female genes and behaviour" — so proclaimed a New Scientist headline on Wednesday, in an article about semen...in fruit flies.

That's only the latest in a decade of media coverage claiming that semen has a mysterious power over women's brains.

It all started in 2002, with one study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The study, done by evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup and his colleagues at SUNY Albany, claimed to have found that semen has "antidepressant properties."

It was just one, extremely weak study (more on that later), and even the study's authors admitted in the paper that "our findings raise more questions than they answer." But its message just won't die.

In 2011, the editor-in-chief of Surgery News resigned amid controversy after writing an editorial suggesting readers give their partners semen instead of chocolates for Valentine's Day.

In 2012, seemingly out of nowhere, the Daily Mail ran an article that started with the sentence, "Oral sex is good for women's health and makes you feel happier," talking about the Gallup paper like it was new.

The hype around the study got so intense that the U.K.'s National Health Service told everybody to stop talking about it. "This study is full of holes — and extreme caution should be used when interpreting anything from it," the NHS wrote.

But that hasn't stopped denizens of men's rights message boards from passing the wisdom around, and bloggers asking whether men should set up a sperm bank for depressed people.

"Be a little cautious with this topic," Debra Lynne Herbenick, a sexual-health educator at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, told BuzzFeed News by email. "Every time it hits a news cycle, some men use it in some pretty manipulative ways toward women."

Gallup, the author of the original study, also expressed frustration at how the media has covered it.

"I have to constantly remind people that just because semen may have antidepressant properties, it doesn't mean you should start having unprotected sex," he told BuzzFeed News by email. "If you throw away your condoms and contract an STD or develop and unwanted pregnancy, it could make you current depression seem like child's play as a consequence."

So what did the study claim, exactly?

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The researchers anonymously surveyed 293 women attending SUNY Albany about their sex lives and whether they used condoms. The women also took the Beck Depression Inventory, a 21-question multiple choice test designed to assess mood.

The 88 women who said they "never" used condoms had, on average, the lowest depression scores of all the groups.

What could explain that result? Semen, according to the study's authors.

Semen contains some compounds — such as testosterone, estrogen, and prolactin — that can affect mood circuits in the brain. So, the logic goes, these chemicals must be seeping into the vaginal walls, getting into the woman's bloodstream, and ultimately reaching her brain to alter her mood.

Except...there's no plausible mechanism for how semen would affect a woman's brain.

Giphy / Via giphy.com

It's true that semen contains estrogen, prolactin, and other hormones that can affect our mood.

And it's true that chemicals in semen could seep into the vaginal wall and reach the bloodstream, which is how intra-vaginal birth control like NuvaRing works.

But there is no evidence whatsoever that these chemicals would be in dosages sufficient to make it to the brain and have a significant affect on mood.

Plus, this happy juice theory makes no evolutionary sense.

Pavol Prokop, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Trnava in Slovakia, doesn't think this theory makes any sense. (In fact, in 2002 he published a study replicating the Gallup study in 261 Slovak women, and got totally different results.)

If semen really did have antidepressant properties, Prokop told BuzzFeed News by email, then wouldn't the average woman be excessively promiscuous in order to obtain as much semen as she could handle? "This is, however, not true for majority of women," he said.

"I do not see any strong affinity of women with male ejaculates and could not find any reasonable evolutionary scenario which could support production of antidepressants by men."

But what about the study's findings?

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The study's findings are not as clear-cut as they appear.

For one thing, the 38 women who "usually" used condoms had, on average, the highest depression scores — even higher than women who "always" do. And 11 of the "usually" group had tried to commit suicide, suggesting there were way more issues than condom use at play.

Also, the study results were hugely variable. Among women who never used a condom, for example, the average Beck score was 8, but most of the scores ranged from 1.4 to 14.6. In comparison, women who always used a condom had an average score of 11.3, with a range of 2.8 to 19.8. So there is a huge overlap in scores.

The authors assumed that condom use meant women would have semen in their vaginas. The trouble is, they never clearly defined "sexually active," or distinguished between vaginal intercourse and oral sex. So it's impossible to know if the women were actually getting semen in or on them.

Plus, the study didn't account for many, many possible confounding factors.

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There are basically an infinite number of things that could have affected the study participants — how happy they were in their relationships, their genetic makeup, and how good the sex was, just to name a few.

The study did look at whether women were in relationships and how long those relationships were, but didn't look at relationship satisfaction (despite news reports saying it did).

"Condom use is just correlated to those jillions of other differences," Matt Dean, who studies sexual selection at University of Southern California, told BuzzFeed News by email. He went on to call the study "very bad science."

And there's plenty of research suggesting the study's conclusions are absolutely backwards.

Giphy / Via gph.is

Lots of studies have showed that depressed people are less likely to use condoms, and to use them consistently.

Most of that research focuses on the idea that women who are depressed are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior, or might be less able to negotiate condom use with their partners.

This story has been updated to include comments from Gallup.

Cat Ferguson is a writer based in Oakland, California. You can follow her on Twitter @biocuriosity or email her at carolinetaylorferguson@gmail.com.

Contact Cat Ferguson at carolinetaylorferguson@gmail.com.

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