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How Much Does Economics Really Explain about Sex?

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | August 18, 2011 |

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | August 18, 2011 |

By now you’ve probably read about the study presented by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister at a recent American Psychological Association Meeting on the relationship between gender equality and sex. The study found, not too surprisingly, that people in countries with higher equality have higher rates of sex. The big question, of course, is why. Baumeister and his coauthor Juan Pablo Mendoza favor an economic explanation, in which the “price” of sex is determined by women and that price goes down as women gain access to forms of control outside of the sexual sphere. This is a rather narrow interpretation of what is probably, like all aspects of human society, influenced by a variety of factors.

The article itself is in a journal I don’t have access to, so forgive me for not going into as much detail as I usually would on the study itself. According to the abstract, more than 317,000 individuals from 37 countries answered an online survey about their sexual habits. In countries with higher gender equality (based on World Economic Forum ratings) people were more likely to have casual sex, had more sex partners, younger ages for first time sex, and greater tolerance of premarital sex (exactly how much greater I don’t know but that the differences would be significant is probably a safe assumption). The part where I have an issue with the research is in the interpretation. The study was conducted with the economic principle of sexual relations in mind, and Baumeister has been quoted by multiple news sources as holding the opinion that women have traditionally used sex as a recourse with which they can gain some control over their worlds. This isn’t wrong exactly, but it’s not the whole story.

Throughout history women have often had very few rights or opportunities for independence. Baumeister is quoted in Salon as saying that women have been the primary enforcers of sexual repression in countries with low gender equality in order to keep sex scarce and thus drive up the value of the one recourse that they have control over. This view neglects the many patriarchal reasons for controlling women’s sex lives - more notably the paternity issue. (Are you there idle, protoguy? Did you see I said patriarchal? Why don’t you jump all over that, I could use the bed rest an aneurysm would get me.) Implying that it’s other women who control each other’s sex lives in a world in which men once had to be compensated monetarily for the loss of their daughter’s virginity and in which women are still stoned in some places (by men) for having sex outside of marriage is a bit tone-deaf to say the least. And of course there’s another economic aspect to sex - it’s cost to the practitioner. We tend to forget this thanks to modern advances like the pill, but for women who don’t have easy access to birth control sex carries a higher price than it does for men. Both sexes have to worry about STIs but only women have to worry about pregnancy, and in societies where out of wedlock births are looked down on (i.e. all societies with high gender inequality) sex becomes a very big risk for a single woman to take. Cultural forces often also punish women more harshly for extramarital sex even when it doesn’t result in a pregnancy. While men are often given a free pass for such things, for a women in some places sex carries with it the risk of economic ruin, disinheritance and most horribly, sometimes a brutal and violent death. It’s not exactly surprising that women would be more hesitant to engage in sexual activities in societies in which the punishment for such when caught is so very high.

The economic view also assumes that sex is not something women want for themselves when many women enjoy and desire sex every bit as much as men. The authors note in the study itself that women in oppressive societies could easily internalize the messages about sex all around them (ya think?) and be more sexually repressed in such societies because of cultural factors rather than economic ones. In truth, both economic and cultural factors play a heavy role in how women approach sex. Often women in oppressive countries are taught that sex is dirty and unenjoyable, something they will have to submit to when they get married but not something they could or should enjoy. When sex is seen as something that women grudgingly give up to men - who are of course mere slaves to their lustful urges - when it doesn’t occur to either half of a couple that both should be enjoying the act, well, neither one is likely to think to make any effort to make it enjoyable for both. Given how important things like foreplay are to many women’s pleasure in sex, it isn’t surprising that the myth that women don’t even like sex could become self-perpetuating in a society that doesn’t encourage men to do anything but take in bed. In a more equal society, in which women are freed from the need to use sex as a resource and also feel able to make some sexual demands of their own then of course women (and by extension men) will have sex more often.

I’m not arguing that economics doesn’t play a role. Women do make decisions about sex based on the sort of cost-benefit analysis that economics dictates. But women also have sex because it feels good, because it’s a basic human drive for both sexes. Gender equality leads to more sex for everyone not just because women don’t need to men to support them, but also because it enables women to fully enjoy sex without worrying about so many cultural and physical consequences and encourages an approach to sex that seeks to make it pleasurable for women rather than a duty. Gender equality: everyone benefits!

Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she’s had a little whiskey.