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Well, once again we see that there’s little room for a sense of humor in scholarly publishing. This time, Lazar J. Greenfield, MD, the editor of Surgery News, the official newsmagazine of the American College of Surgeons, is the victim.

Published by Elsevier, Surgery News took down the offending issue after complaints about an editorial by Greenfield. They are currently reworking the issue to post it back up, according to Retraction Watch, which is responsible for much of the coverage this post is based on.

Despite the issue being expunged for the time being, Retraction Watch was able to secure the text of the offending editorial, a portion of which I’ve quoted below. The theme was Valentine’s Day, and the editor was obviously trying to tie science and romance together by citing studies from PNAS and Nature, among others. These studies showed that sexual attraction has a biological basis, at least for certain species. And while he ends up in an uncomfortable spot, it’s also a little bit silly and entertaining:

One of the legends of St. Valentine says that he was a priest arrested by Roman Emperor Claudius II for secretly performing marriages. Claudius wanted to enlarge his army and believed that married men did not make good soldiers, rather like Halsted’s feelings about surgical residents. But Valentine’s Day is about love, and if you remember a romantic gut feeling when you met your significant other, it might have a physiological basis. . . .

As far as humans are concerned, you may think you know all about sexual signals, but you’d be surprised by new findings. It’s been known since the 1990s that heterosexual women living together synchronize their menstrual cycles because of pheromones, but when a study of lesbians showed that they do not synchronize, the researchers suspected that semen played a role. In fact, they found ingredients in semen that include mood enhancers like estrone, cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin; a sleep enhancer, melatonin; and of course, sperm, which makes up only 1%-5%. Delivering these compounds into the richly vascularized vagina also turns out to have major salutary effects for the recipient. Female college students having unprotected sex were significantly less depressed than were those whose partners used condoms (Arch. Sex. Behav. 2002;31:289-93). Their better moods were not just a feature of promiscuity, because women using condoms were just as depressed as those practicing total abstinence. The benefits of semen contact also were seen in fewer suicide attempts and better performance on cognition tests.

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.

Greenfield has resigned from his post as editor, and his role as incoming President is “under review.”

Granted, had he ended that last sentence after “suspected,” this whole thing probably would have never happened. With that single edit, the piece goes from icky and sexist to fairly neutral. But even with the reference to a “gift,” is the retraction reaction justified? Is such a faux pas — one that occurred within the normal editorial review process — worth forcing an editor to resign? Especially one who is also (for now) the incoming president of the American College of Surgeons?

While some feel there is more than a whiff of sexism to what Greenfield wrote, writing is a tricky business, and ending a piece with a punch line is always tempting. Given what feels like a toe over the line, not the whole foot, this could probably been allowed to resolve with letters and comments from readers, perhaps a thoughtful apology, and with everyone moving on unscathed. Instead, we have an issue taken down, an editor’s resignation, a presidency “under review,” and very little by way of a public statement defending what seem to be extreme reactions.

Greenfield made an awkward attempt in using humor to tie science to romance. But it was humor based on how children are conceived, how men and women copulate, that men ejaculate, and that substances in ejaculate have been found through scientific research to have mood-altering effects in women. And it was aimed at an audience not only medically trained but also accustomed to operating on some of these same organs and systems. I’m not saying it was a great joke, or completely classy. But resigning over it?

What are we hiding from? Are these not all adults? What’s the big secret? What’s the big shame? Isn’t this kind of interesting?

Unless the American College of Surgeons makes a clear statement about why it’s reacting to this extent, then it seems we’re just seeing the result of a culture resonating with echoes of Puritanism. And what is Puritanism? As H. L. Mencken accurately described it:

Puritanism – the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


12 Thoughts on "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love — At Least Not at the American College of Surgeons"

Well, speaking as a Decadent European, I found it funny. And not offensive.

I took no offense and was interested to hear about the research findings that underlie the editorial. I agree with you Kent, time to grow up!

Perhaps it was the failure to question the correlation last mentioned…perhaps female college students who insist on condom use or are abstinent are less happy because they are more anxious than college students who, for better or worse, are unconcerned about about STDs or pregnancy. And menstrual periods synchronized in college dorms, even among heterosexual women who weren’t sexually active.

And yes, the tone of the editorial is a bit icky, but aren’t editors allowed a misstep or two, followed by a humble apology?

Perhaps in the world of surgery, where “oops” is definitely a four-letter word, even one mistake is too many.

If the mistake had taken place in the world of surgery, I think you’d have a pretty good point. But that’s not where it took place; it took place in the world of socioscientific punditry.

Or perhaps women who are having sex without condoms are (or believe they are) in more committed relationships, and that makes them happier.

The response to the article seems like prudishness and political correctness run amok. I consider myself a feminist, and I thought it was cute. There are plenty of real issues to get upset about; a slightly suggestive Valentine’s Day editorial in a surgery journal doesn’t make the list.

Perhaps the fact that it seems to advocate unprotected sex was the tipping point. I am reminded of the research suggesting that drinking wine is good for you (a personal favorite). I too find nothing offensive here, but then I am not noted for being sensitive, rather the contrary I’m afraid.

The reaction was making a mountain out of a molehill. Way overboard!

To answer one of your questions, Kent: Yes, the people involved in this fiasco are all adults. But that doesn’t mean they’re grown-ups.

Am I alone in thinking that in an article that ultimately extols the virtues of semen in enhancing mood, it’s pretty sexist to say “there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates”?? As in, because it’s a Surgery publication, the audience MUST be 100% straight males? It’s sexist. It’s locker room talk, and maybe he’s permitted to say these things in his operating room, but to a mixed audience? Totally inappropriate.

It might be sexist to assume that only men give V-day gifts. Moreover, to suggest a gift is not to speak only to givers. Gifts are often requested or negotiated. Most importantly, sex is not sexist.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since the original posting. A New York Times Blog post gets more to the heart of the matter, which I think is missing from this post and the commentary.

The context is that surgery is still dominated by men. Comments like this, which I interpreted as sexist without a doubt and just plain icky, are bad enough in the hallways at medical schools and hospitals. But as an editorial in a surgical journal, when the topic doesn’t even have anything to do with surgery? Ugh. The message is “women go home”.

Sex isn’t sexist. But implying that semen is God’s gift to women in a professional journal the women among the readership are in a distinct and recognized minority is. IMNSHO.

Should it have been retracted? I don’t know.

There’s little doubt he crossed a line. As I mentioned, one edit and I think he stays on the right side of the line. That said, the reaction seems to cross many lines. Perhaps there was something festering somewhere this unleashed, but it seems extreme to force a resignation and remove him from the presidential line.

It’s objectionable, but we’re so full of bloodlust for stumbles and momentary lapses in taste and decorum, it seems extreme.

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