Economics of Sex and Marriage

I came across an interesting video today from an organization I have not encountered before. The Austin Institute, whose stated mission is “to be a leading resource for tested, rigorous academic research on questions of family, sexuality, social structures and human relationships,” produced the following video on the economics of sex that is worth a watch:

The video applies basic principles of supply and demand to the “market for sex” and views the advent of birth control as a technological innovation that acts as a supply-side shock which shifts the equilibrium price and quantity of pre-marital sex by dramatically reducing the cost of sex for producers (women). This new technology, by allowing copious quantities of sex without the risk of accidental families, bifurcates the “mating market”–allowing individuals whose preferences are primarily sex-oriented (predominantly men) and individuals whose preferences are primarily commitment-oriented (predominately women) to sort themselves into different mating pools. The result is more premarital sex, deferred marriage, and fewer overall marriages. The implicit premise, given the organization’s emphasis on “those practices, habits, and structures that make for greater sources of family stability,” is that deferred and fewer marriages are undesirable social outcomes.

I am always uncomfortable commodifying the uncommodifiable, which is required if we are to talk about sex as fundamentally an economic exchange. In an infamous and cringe-worthy passage from Judge Richard Posner‘s text Economic Analysis and the Law, Posner describes rape as a “coercive transfer” of property. He then proceeds to analyze the merits of permitting such a coercive transfer. Among the several reasons he gives for proscribing such conduct is that “Allowing rape would lead to heavy expenditures on protecting women, as well as expenditures on overcoming those protections. The expenditures would be largely offsetting, and to that extent socially wasted” (1986, 202). Although I take his point, I find it hard to conceive of the crime in question as anything other than an act of grievous violence. Many social relations can be described as markets only by analogy, and some analogies are more attenuated than others.

On the other hand, applying economic analysis to the “mating market” elicits less cringing than the example from Posner, and I think the points are well made. Nonetheless, some responses to the video so far have been (predictably) non sequiturs.

Update: The Business Insider has a slightly more responsive critique here.




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