The Economics of Sex

Sexual freedom and economic theory. What does it mean for men and women?

Policing Female Sexual Behaviour for the Sake of Marriage

Economic theory does not say women should all agree to withhold sex

The newly created Austin Institute's video posted yesterday, titled the Economics of Sex, uses sexual market theory to explain why marriage rates have fallen as birth control has become readily available. The sweetness of the video nearly disguises the bitter pill hidden in all the sugar - the underlying message is that only when women who engage in premarital sex are punished for their behaviour will relationships return to their previously healthy state.

The economic story, which is one we have heard many times before, goes like this:

On the market for sex, men are buyers and women are sellers because men have a stronger sex drive than women. The price of sex on this market is the level of commitment men have to make in order to encourage women to enter sexual relationships. Historically, women have managed to keep the price of sex at the highest possible level by collectively withholding sex until marriage. Enforcing this collusive arrangement between women was easy because the lack of access to reliable birth control meant that pre-martial sex was costly for women. As birth control has become increasingly effective women have increased the supply of sex outside of marriage and, as a result, the price of sex has fallen to dangerously low levels. The solution to this market problem is for women to once again collude to withhold sex from men and drive the price of sex back up to the marriage level.

The video concludes with the statement: “Economists say that collusion, women working together, would be the most rational way to elevate the market value of sex. But there is little evidence of this happening among women today, at least not yet.”

I have discussed the issues raised in this video a number of times, most recently in this talk, and I don't want to get into the many problems with this theory today. I do, however, want to say this:

Not only do economists not say that that collusion is the only way to increase the value of sex, but economic theory makes it very clear that collusion among a large number of sellers is not possible.

I raised this issue with the Austin Institute to which they responded:

Collusion does work in some cases when there are enforcement mechanisms in place. The video attempts to depict how women previously policed women's interests which was the enforcement mechanism that held together a tacit collusive agreement…Without enforcement mechanism you are correct, collusive agreements fall apart quickly.

I think we can only image what the enforcement mechanism that holds together a collusive agreement might look like.

The underlying message of the video is that only when women begin to police each other’s sexual behavior will we see men committing to long-term relationships. And, even worse, if women are not policing each other’s sexual behavior then we are directly responsible for the fact that the current generation of young men are "floundering". [Cue image of man playing video games.] 

“Men only behave as well, or as poorly, as the women in their lives will permit” and, according to the Austin Institute at least, it is the responsibility of women to see the women who are allowing these men to behave poorly are punished for their permissive sexual behavior.

Like I said, the video is very sweet, but the message is a little hard to swallow.

The Economics of Sex