Tag Archives: sex

Syphillis, sex and fear

Fascinating piece from The Guardian (well spotted, Silvia!), written by Sarah Dunant, whose new book, Blood and Beauty, gets right into the Borgias dynasty. Don’t confuse Cesare with Victor, by the way, or your opinion of piano-based comedy will change forever.

Cesare Borgia
 

History doesn’t recount who gave Cesare Borgia syphilis, but we do know when and where he got it. In the summer of 1497, he was a 22-year-old cardinal, sent as papal legate by his father, Pope Alexander VI, to crown the king of Naples and broker a royal marriage for his sister, Lucrezia. Naples was a city rich in convents and brothels (a fertile juxtaposition in the male Renaissance imagination), but it was also ripe with disease. Two years earlier, a French invasion force including mercenary troops back from the new world, had dallied a while to enjoy their victory, and when they left, carried something unexpected and deadly back home with them.

His work accomplished, Cesare took to the streets. Machiavelli, his contemporary and a man with a wit as unflinching as his politics, has left a chilling account of his coupling with a prostitute who, when he lights a lamp afterwards, is revealed as a bald, toothless hag so hideous that he promptly throws up over her. Given Cesare’s elevated status, his chosen women no doubt were more enticing, but the sickness they gave him (and suffered themselves) was to prove vicious. First a chancre appeared on his penis, then crippling pains throughout his body and a rash of itching, weeping pustules covering his face and torso. Fortunately for him and for history, his personal doctor, Gaspar Torella, was a medical scholar with a keen interest in this startling new disease and used his patient (under the pseudonym of “Niccolo the young”) to record symptoms and attempted cures. Over the next few years, Torella and others charted the unstoppable rise of a disease that had grown men screaming in agony as their flesh was eaten away, in some cases down to the bone.

I still remember the moment, sitting in the British Library, when I came across details of Torella’s treatise in a book of essays on syphilis. There is nothing more thrilling in writing historical fiction than when research opens a window on to a whole new landscape, and the story of how this sexual plague swept through Europe during the 1490s was one of the turning points in Blood and Beauty, the novel I was writing on the rise and fall of the Borgia dynasty.

By the time that Cesare felt that first itch, the French disease, as it was then known, had already spread deep into Europe. That same year, Edinburgh town council issued an edict closing brothels, while at the Italian university of Ferrara scholars convened an emergency debate to try to work out what had hit them. By then the method of the contagion was pretty obvious. “Men get it from doing it with women in their vulvas,” wrote the Ferrarese court doctor baldly (there is no mention of homosexual transmission, but then “sodomy”, as it was known then, was not the stuff of open debate). The theories surrounding the disease were are as dramatic as the symptoms: an astrological conjunction of the planets, the boils of Job, a punishment of a wrathful God disgusted by fornication or, as some suggested even then, an entirely new plague brought from the new world by the soldiers of Columbus and fermented in the loins of Neapolitan prostitutes.

Whatever the cause, the horror and the agony were indisputable. “So cruel, so distressing, so appalling that until now nothing more terrible or disgusting has ever been known on this earth,” says the German humanist Joseph Grunpeck, who, when he fell victim, bemoaned how “the wound on my priapic gland became so swollen, that both hands could scarcely encircle it.” Meanwhile, the artist Albrecht Dürer, later to use images of sufferers in propaganda woodcuts against the Catholic church, wrote “God save me from the French disease. I know of nothing of which I am so afraid … Nearly every man has it and it eats up so many that they die.”

It got its name in the mid 16th century from a poem by a Renaissance scholar: its eponymous hero Syphilus, a shepherd, enrages the Sun God and is infected as punishment. Outside poetry, prostitution bears the brunt of the blame, though the real culprit was testosterone. Men infected prostitutes who then passed it on to the next client who gave it back to a new woman in a deadly spiral. Erring husbands gave it to wives who sometimes passed it on to children, though they might also get it from suckling infected wet-nurses.

Amid all this horror there were elements of poetic justice. In a manifestly corrupt church, the give-away “purple flowers” (as the repeated attacks were euphemistically known) that decorated the faces of priests, cardinals, even a pope, were indisputable evidence that celibacy was unenforceable. When Luther, a monk, married a nun, forcing the hand of the Catholic church to resist similar reform in itself, syphilis became one of the reasons the Catholic church is still in such trouble today.

Though there has been dispute in recent years over pre-15th-century European bones found with what resemble syphilitic symptoms, medical science is largely agreed that it was indeed a new disease brought back with the men who accompanied Columbus on his 1492 voyage to the Americas. In terms of germ warfare, it was a fitting weapon to match the devastation that measles and smallpox inflicted travelling the other way. It was not until 1905 that the cause of all this suffering was finally identified under the microscope – Treponema pallidum, a spirochete bacterium that enters the bloodstream and, if left untreated, attacks the nervous system, the heart, internal organs and the brain; and it was not until the 1940s and the arrival of penicillin that there was an effective cure.

Much of the extraordinary detail we now have about syphilis is a result of the Aids crisis. Just when we thought antibiotics, the pill and more liberal attitudes had taken the danger and shame out of sexual behaviour, the arrival out of nowhere of an incurable, fatal, highly contagious sexual disease challenged medical science, triggered a public-health crisis and re-awoke a moral panic.

Not surprisingly, it also made the history of syphilis extremely relevant again. The timing was powerful in another way too, as by the 1980s history itself was refocusing; from the long march of the political and the powerful, to the more intimate cultural stories of everyman/woman. The growth of areas such as history of medicine and madness through the work of historians such as Roy Porter and Michel Foucault was making the body a rich topic for academics. Suddenly, the study of syphilis became, well, there is no other word for it, sexy.

Historians mining the archives of prisons, hospitals and asylums now estimate that a fifth of the population might have been infected at any one time. London hospitals during the 18th century treated barely a fraction of the poor, and on discharge sufferers were publicly whipped to ram home the moral lesson.

Those who could buy care also bought silence – the confidentiality of the modern doctor/patient relationship has it roots in the treatment of syphilis. Not that it always helped. The old adage “a night with Venus; a lifetime with Mercury” reveals all manner of horrors, from men suffocating in overheated steam baths to quacks who peddled chocolate drinks laced with mercury so that infected husbands could treat their wives and families without them knowing. Even court fashion is part of the story, with pancake makeup and beauty spots as much a response to recurrent attacks of syphilis as survivors of smallpox.
Continue reading

Map of the open country of a woman’s heart

By D. W. Kellogg in Retronaut:

‘According to this map, Love is at the center of a woman’s heart, and Sentimentality and Sentiment (including Good Sense, Discrimination, Hope, Enthusiasm, and Platonic Affection) take up a sizeable portion of the entire territory. This region of Sentiment and Sentimentality is separated from the larger, treacherous areas of a woman’s heart: Selfishness and Coquetry pose dangers, especially to gentleman travelers, and these attributes suggest that all women are basically untrustworthy. The largest regions, Love of Admiration, Love of Dress, and Love of Display, all suggest that women are also essentially shallow and frivolous. Although the image claims to have been drawn by “A Lady,” it is just as likely that it proceeded from the imagination of a man.’

 

- American Antiquarian, via Brain Pickings

 

Healthy mind in a healthy body – coffee, wine, naps and nooky, how to live for ever

The NYTimes Magazine has a story about the Greek island of Ikaria where old people just keep getting older instead of dying. There are many theories as to why this is, but my favorite in the article boils down to diet (just kidding, I like the idea about naps and sex).

Following the report by Pes and Poulain, Dr. Christina Chrysohoou, a cardiologist at the University of Athens School of Medicine, teamed up with half a dozen scientists to organize the Ikaria Study, which includes a survey of the diet of 673 Ikarians. She found that her subjects consumed about six times as many beans a day as Americans, ate fish twice a week and meat five times a month, drank on average two to three cups of coffee a day and took in about a quarter as much refined sugar — the elderly did not like soda. She also discovered they were consuming high levels of olive oil along with two to four glasses of wine a day.

Chrysohoou also suspected that Ikarians’ sleep and sex habits might have something to do with their long life. She cited a 2008 paper by the University of Athens Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health that studied more than 23,000 Greek adults. The researchers followed subjects for an average of six years, measuring their diets, physical activity and how much they napped. They found that occasional napping was associated with a 12 percent reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease, but that regular napping — at least three days weekly — was associated with a 37 percent reduction. She also pointed out a preliminary study of Ikarian men between 65 and 100 that included the fact that 80 percent of them claimed to have sex regularly, and a quarter of that self-reported group said they were doing so with “good duration” and “achievement.”

(Via Kottke)

Better than Botox: seven reasons to have sex tonight

Look younger
A long-term study of 3,500 people between the ages of 30 and 101 found that regular sex may shave between four and seven years off your physical appearance. Researchers at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in Scotland presented photos of the subjects to an impartial panel of judges, who were asked to guess their ages. The people who were judged to be the youngest were also those who had the most sex. What’s the connection between youthfulness and getting it on? In addition to boosting self-esteem and confidence, sex increases the production of human growth hormone, which is known to improve muscle tone.

Get happy
It goes without saying that sex can make you happy and contented, but a paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior takes this idea one step further. Based on a study of 300 women that correlated condom use with depression, researchers concluded that women who never used condoms were the least depressed, while those women who always used condoms were the most depressed. One reason? The vagina may absorb the mood-boosting hormones and prostaglandins found in semen. It’s an interesting theory, but certainly no reason to advocate unprotected sex. Clearly, an unwanted pregnancy or STD would not increase anyone’s happiness.

Slim down
On average, sex burns about five calories per minute, depending upon your weight. Even engaging your partner in a hot kiss boosts your heart rate, which in turn increases your body’s caloric burn. Next time you’re too busy to work out, try getting busy instead.

Fight the sniffles
Sex may help fight off colds. In a study at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, researchers found that college students who had sex once or twice per week had higher levels of immunoglobulin A, an antibody that boosts the immune system.

Keep the pressure down
Want to stress less? Sex could be just the thing to keep you calm. In a study by researchers at the University of Paisley in Scotland, 46 men women were asked to give speeches to an audience who, unbeknownst to the speakers, was told to act bored and disinterested. Afterwards, the participants’ blood pressure was taken—those who reported having sex within the last two weeks had the lowest readings.

Have a heart
A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that erectile dysfunction (ED) is often an early indicator of poor cardiovascular health. Researchers followed more than 2,300 men for an average of four years and found that men with ED had a 58 percent greater risk of coronary heart disease. Another study showed that men who reported having three or more orgasms per week experienced 50 percent fewer heart attacks and strokes as compared with those who had less frequent orgasms. Sex may help the heart because orgasm triggers the release of the hormone DHEA, which helps with circulation and arterial dilation.

Live longer
For reasons that are still unclear, regular sex may even add years to your life. A study published in the British Medical Journal found that men who had sex less than once per month were twice as likely to die in the next 10 years than those who had sex once per week. And guys aren’t the only ones to benefit: Researchers at Duke University found that women who claimed to enjoy their sex lives lived seven to eight years longer than women who were indifferent to sex.

So forget about an apple a day. To feel healthier, look younger, and live longer, an orgasm or two a week may be an effective – and certainly enjoyable – remedy.

(By Ian Kerner on CNN Health)

Tron-a-Sutra

This fantastic instructional series COMPLETE WITH INSTRUCTIONAL VIDEO comes from Wonder How To…Click HERE for the full genius.

Let’s say you’re a 15-year-old boy nerd looking to SCORE. Real life experience has been… limited. (Ok, you’re a virgin.) Lara Croft was inspired (nine years ago when you were six-years-old!). So, where are the sex-ed tutorials that are awesomely geek-friendly?

You can turn to internet porn. But frankly, where’s the romance in that? You can read the Kama Sutra. But really. Sanskrit and Asian cartoon drawings?

At long last, everything a boy nerd needs to know about procreation, but was afraid to ask. One of WonderHowTo’s boy nerd friends crafted twenty glorious and oh-so-important positions for your viewing pleasure. Nine months from today Geek Nation’s population will swell. Watch out world!

Introducing the geek version of the Kama Sutra: SCORE – a users guide to sexual positions. (That last one is called The Drive-Thru)

Now watch the whole set and bone up on your boning.

Of course, you’ll be needing a sound track: