February can be a mighty cruel month. The forced comedy of Ground Hogs Day, the slog through the end of winter, and, worst of all, Valentine’s Day, the mirthless pay-as-you-go celebration of romance.
But Valentine’s Day has issues beyond buying roses and chocolates and dinner at condescending restaurants barely able to brook your presence, even. Valentine’s Day turns out to be dangerous too.
No, Valentine’s Day doesn’t show up on the top 10 days of traffic fatalities, lagging far behind Thanksgiving and Labor Day. Nor does it lead to a huge jump in the number of people who have post stuff-your-face heart attacks (Christmas) or firecracker related trauma (July 4). What it does provide however is that most humbling and perhaps poetic way to shuffle off this mortal coil: death in the saddle for those no longer fit for action.
Because Valentine’s Day—for all its Hallmark-ization and its awful powdery heart-shaped candy and its charming grade school moments of first flirting—is our only holiday about sex. (Ok, add New Years Eve. And St Patrick’s Day. Oh and maybe Christmas Eve and National Weed Day and Prom night and Tu B’Shvat.) But V-Day is the only holiday that puts sex up front and center (to wit: February 14 now also is National Condom Day). On Valentine’s Day, sex is mission critical. Romance and flowers and a quiet dinner. What indeed are we discussing here?
The numbers are as follows: one objective measure of the clarity of the message is to track condom sales. According to Durex, which makes condoms and so knows the market, condom sales spike 25 percent on Valentine’s Day. A survey last decade by a different condom maker, LifeStyles, was more extensively numeric. Their market research suggests that 30 million women have sex on Valentine’s Day (about 27 percent of all eligible adult females) and that, given all that coupling, 7.5 million condoms will be “applied” in the 24 hour period—a rate of about 87 condoms per second in the USA. And that was 2006 when there were fewer people in the US. Who knows how much the busier things might be today.
It doesn’t end when it ends either. Per LifeStyles, the “condom application rate” remains high into February 15th in what they call “after-glow” of the big day. Not to mention though V-Day condom clearance sales.
All this is well and good, possibly very good. But what about the health risk per copulation? How dangerous is the strain of excitement and orgasm on the human heart? Wikipedia has an entry called, “Death during Consensual Sex” which addresses the issue and lists with Wiki obsessiveness the more than a dozen famous people who died this way, including a Pope and a famous writer and of course, Nelson Rockefeller.
There have been two excellent medical studies that address the post-coital death issue, each by groups examining triggers to heart attacks ranging from alcohol to stress to exertion, including sex. One set of investigators resides in Boston and the other in Sweden. Both studies seek out people sitting afresh in a Cardiac Care Unit soon after their first heart attack. They present these startled new patients (average age about 50) with a barrage of what-were-you-doing-when questions then tease the numbers back to see how strong an association a certain something—eating chocolate, being pissed off, shoveling snow, having sex—had with the eventual heart attack.
Each study found a quite real though small-ish risk of heart attack in the hour or two after sex, in both men and women, especially among those who were self-described as “sedentary.” As the prim Bostonians put it, “Sexual activity can trigger the onset of [a heart attack]” while the more insouciant Swedes say this: “Having sex once a week only increases the annual risk of [heart attack] slightly.”
AARP has gone to great lengths to inform their dues-paying members that there is nothing to see there emphasizing the small numbers and implicitly the infrequency of sex in their membership. They probably don’t need to worry though; the recommendation of all medical articles and condom makers is the same: have more sex. Not a bad Valentines recommendation.