In the second century, the Roman physician Galen named a common ailment whose symptoms included a burning sensation in the urinary tract and (forgive me) the release of pus. He combined the Greek word for "seed," gonos, and "flow," rhoia.
That's how the word "gonorrhea" entered the Western lexicon. And now you know.
For eighteen centuries, the disease was a constant reminder of the dangers of promiscuity. The 18-century British writer James Boswell, Samuel Johnson's biographer, called it a "memorandum of vice" before dying himself from what are believed to be complications of the illness. At the turn of the 20th century, the New York City medical examiner estimated that 80 percent of the men in the city had contracted the illness at least once in their lives.
But then came antibiotics, and we thought we could put Boswell's memorandum in our 'deleted' file.
But not so fast. A recent article in the New Yorker magazine describes a new strain of gonorrhea that is resistant to the only class of drugs that can "reliably treat" the disease.
Since its discovery in 2009, this strain has spread to every country in Europe, and much of east Asia. While it hasn't been discovered yet in the United States, "resistant gonorrhea is likely to arrive and spread long before physicians and the C.D.C. recognize it." By then, of course, it will be too late: "some public-health officials predict that in five to eight years this superbug will be widespread."
Thus, in the magazine's words, "Whatever freedoms were won during the sexual revolution, bacterial evolution promises soon to constrain."
That's an interesting way to put it: a mixture of surprise and regret at the idea that human freedom can be limited by nature; or the idea that somehow, as Chuck Colson used to say, that just as there are physical laws of the universe, so there are universal moral laws. We ignore either at our own peril.
It's a lesson you think people would have learned by now. Thirty years ago, the HIV virus reminded us that microbiology is callously indifferent to changes in human ideas about freedom and morality.
While, thankfully, new therapies mean that testing positive for HIV is no longer a death sentence-at least for those who can afford the drugs-we are still nowhere near a vaccine, much less a cure.
We're even farther behind the curve when it comes to this new strain of gonorrhea. According to the New Yorker, the "primary hope for stemming the expected epidemic . . . lies in persuading people to alter their behavior."
And by "altering their behavior," they don't mean "be chaste." What they really mean is "practicing safe sex." The Sexual Revolution may have lost the war against micro-organisms, but it's still prevailing among public health officials.
These are the same people who, rightly, tell us to eat less, exercise more, quit smoking, etc. In other words, in the name of public health they won't hesitate to ask for radical changes in behavior to combat obesity or hypertension. (Just try finding a super-size soda here in New York City!)
But when it comes to sexual behavior, they somehow believe that asking for a measure of self-control is asking a bit too much.
And as long as we think that way, Boswell's memorandum will occupy a permanent place in our inbox.