The Weird Science Of Sexonomics

It’s become fashionable to use economics to talk about how the contemporary sexual climate hurts women. But nobody’s talking about how it helps them.

“Economists may seem soulless, unlikely guides to affairs of the heart,” writes Robert Frank in a recent Times review. But talking about love in the language of business is hip right now — and more often than not, this trend makes women out to be the losers. The result can be more than a little patronizing.

Sociologist Mark Regnerus made a splash in 2011 with his argument about the “price of sex” — basically, that with the normalization of premarital sex, men no longer want to “pay” for it with commitment. Ross Douthat, too, has frequently taken a quasi-economic view of human relationships, as when he warned that the sheer availability of abortion might be making men less likely to stick around and raise their kids.

And now there’s Frank, who in a glowing review of economist Marina Adshade’s forthcoming Dollars and Sex argues that the availability of contraception has made casual sex possible, and thus led to a world where all young people feel pressured to have casual sex. He even sees this as an argument for banning birth control entirely: “Proponents of a ban may just want teenagers to grow up in an environment where they aren’t expected to sleep with the first classmate who hits on them.”

Frank stops short of calling for such a ban (it would “cause enormous harm,” he says), but the argument is clear — the advances that have made sex without pregnancy possible have come at a high cost for young people, especially women (his review is itself titled, “In the Quest for Love, Costs vs. Benefits”). One of his main takeaways from Dollars: “the committed relationships of yore have largely given way to a hookup culture that many women view as highly stressful.” The implication, popular in such economic arguments, is that while women might think they want sexual and reproductive freedom, the expert is here to tell them they’d be better off without it.

It’s a little cold to evaluate human love and lust in economic terms, but cost-benefit analyses have an undeniable appeal. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to look in a clear-eyed way at what the cultural changes of the last fifty years have brought us, and what they’ve taken away.

But analyses that do this tend to weirdly elide the former in favor of the latter. Dollars doesn’t come out til April; it may expand upon the “stressful” nature of hookup culture today. But that would make it an outlier. Most discussions of the way sex works among young people in America tend to find women who are stressed or upset about some aspect of their sex lives and stop there, assuming that the system is irrevocably broken and we should go back to a time when, in Frank’s words, “a man couldn’t win an extended conversation with a woman without inviting her out to dinner.”

One of the few to consider the possible upsides of decoupling sex with compulsory dinner (and marriage, baby carriage, etc) has been Hanna Rosin. For her book The End of Men, she talked to college women and heard the familiar anxieties about uncertain relationships and the end of traditional dating. But then she went a step further and asked the girls “might they prefer the mores of an earlier age, with formal dating and slightly more obvious rules?” The result: “This question, each time, prompted a look of horror.”

What Rosin found is that while a culture where you don’t have to marry the first person you have sex with may have some downsides, it also has big benefits: “over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relation­ships that don’t get in the way of future success.”

Or, to get down even closer to brass tacks, women today with access to reliable contraception (which isn’t every woman) can have sex without then also caring for a child. To ignore this very basic change in how women live their lives, and all that comes with it — ability, for instance, to plan a career or achieve financial independence — is to put a pretty heavy thumb on the cost-benefit scale.

As sexual mores, habits, and yes, technology change, it makes sense to think about what these changes are doing to our lives. But amid the vogue for looking at what readily available contraception and normalized premarital sex have taken from women’s lives, many commentators have lost sight of what they’ve given.

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