The economics of sex?

March 19, 2014

Despite having given up Facebook and excessive Internet surfing for Lent (sort of), I still managed to come across this video on the supposed “economics of sex.” Produced by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, the video (which has apparently gone viral) seeks to explain the reasons why marriage rates have declined in the US (and why the age of first marriage has gone up). Seeking to explain sex in terms of an economic metaphor, the video argues that women are the “gatekeepers” of sex given that (or so the video asserts) they do not want it as much as men do. “Sex in consensual relationships will happen when women want it to,” the video claims. It then goes on to state that “pricing” is what determines when a woman offers sex to a man – the price might be a few drinks and compliments at the bar, a month of dating, or, in some cases, the promise of a lifelong commitment in the form of marriage.

The video goes on to assert that, despite being the ones supposedly in control of this sexual economy, women do not have control over this “sexual economy”; individual women do not get to set the price. Artificial contraception, which allowed people to have sex without the consequences of pregnancy, drastically lowered the price of sex. “Don’t believe people who say your grandparents were secretly as casual about sex as your friends are,” the video’s voiceover asserts. “They weren’t. Because to mess around with sex eventually meant, well, becoming parents.” Comparing contraception to pesticides (which greatly increased food production with the unintended consequence of killing bees), the video asserts that the pill effectively made it possible for people to seek out sex without the commiting to marriage (and, by implication, the possibility of family life). The video argues that the “mating market” is now split into two “one corner where people are largely pursuing sex” and “another corner where people are largely pursuing marriage.” According to the makers of the video, the sex-seekers’ corner is dominated by men, the marriage-seekers’ by women. Therefore, women hoping to find a serious mate willing to make a lifelong commitment to them are, unfortunately, at a serious disadvantage. The issue is one of supply and demand. Since women outnumber men in this market, men call the shots.

It’s pretty easy to see why this video went viral. Feminist writers such as Christina Sterbenz of Business Insider were quick to refute this video’s claims. “Despite a cutesy veneer, [the video is] bursting with false and blatantly sexist  claims, like the ideas that men want sex more, women want marriage more, and the decline of marriage rates will destroy the world,” Sterbenz states. “Let me be clear, I’m not a new car, a gallon of milk, or a pricey pair of jeans. Labeling women (and men for that matter) as commodities ignores the complexity  of human interaction.”

As a feminist, I am inclined to agree with this and other critiques of the video (such as this one at Jezebel.com. I have always been outraged by the suggestion that sex is basically a commodity that a woman gives a man – in exchange for money, a dinner out or even a wedding ring. What about women’s experience and pleasure? Sex, as I have always understood it, should be a unitive experience of intimacy in which both partners experience pleasure, closeness and joy.

On the other hand…I must admit that, on a purely emotional level, the video struck a chord with me. As an unmarried thirty-year-old woman who does hope to walk down an aisle some day, I can’t help but relate to some of the video’s arguments about the marriage markets. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed the proverbial male fear of commitment in a wide variety of forms. I’ve watched female friends and occasionally relatives engage in completely non-commital long-term sexual relationships with men for three, four, or (in the case of one of my cousins) twenty years waiting for him to put a ring on it… then suffer intense heartbreak when they finally realize that it isn’t going to happen. The fact that women must put up with this situation never ceases to make my blood boil.

As a Catholic, I am ambivalent toward my Church’s teaching on this matter. Personally, I believe that the Church has more important matters to focus on than what takes place in people’s bedrooms.  As a firm believer in the rights of LGBTQTSA peoples, I simply cannot accept the Church’s teaching that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman; as a believer in the sanctity of all life on this planet (not just human life), I refuse to believe that sex must be procreative in order to be considered acceptable (when we live in a world that is arguably overpopulated already).

However, as a teenager taking in my abstinence-only sex education in my private Catholic high school, I dare to say that I was one of the few students in my class who took to heart the message that sex should be saved for marriage. My reasons were more pragmatic than anything else. At age sixteen I experienced my first love, and subsequently my first heartbreak. And I was devastated. I remember I stayed up crying all night…And I hadn’t even kissed this guy, much less had sex with him. We stayed friends afterwards, and for four years I desperately hoped that maybe he would change his mind about me and become the high school sweetheart who’d be my one and only (incidentally, he grew up to become a classic 21st century serial monogamist, so maybe I’m lucky he didn’t).

As an adult I have fallen in love twice more, and while one might think that adulthood would have inured me to heartbreak, the truth is that now breakups (or even the threat of them) are much more painful and difficult to overcome. The stakes are higher; time is going by. While I disagree with this arguably conservative and patriarchy-enforcing video’s assertion that all women want love more than they want sex, the simple truth is that I do.

As much as I am disgusted by the economic metaphor, the truth is that in my own life, I want to “set a high price for sex.” I don’t want to go to bed with a man on the third date (and be left desperately hoping that he’ll call me again). I don’t want to climb into bed each night next to someone whom I don’t know will still be sharing that bed with me in one year’s time, much less in our golden years. I’ve had those experiences, and the benefits of short-term pleasure have not measured up to the anxiety, loneliness, and heartbreak that they have brought me.

But the problem is that the culture we currently live in does not seem to have much room for the likes of me. I know that I am not the only woman (or, for that matter, the only man) who feels this way about sex; however, we seem to be something of a minority in the highly educated, politically liberal, hipster-ish social circles I’m part of. I can’t help but laugh when I imagine putting an ad on a popular dating site: “warmhearted liberal feminist academic seeks serious romantic relationship with intent to marry – please, no sex until after marriage.” While very traditionalist Catholics might be responsive to such an ad, I doubt I’d have much luck meeting someone whose interests and life goals complement my own. But then…I haven’t tried yet, have I?

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