The Economics of Sex

Social life in 21st century America  makes a lot more sense when you think of dating as a split market with separate supply and demand curves

EDIT (18/02/2014): The Austin Institute has also published a neat list of the studies it used to make this video. Many are worth perusing.

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How very sexist and inaccurate. "A promise to share all of his affections, wealth and earnings with her exclusively."… In return for SEX? Aren't we generally against prostitution? A world with less marriage does not automatically equal a less appealing world. The status quo is changing and men and women are becoming equal partners in relationships. Sex is a woman's only valuable resource when attracting a man? Outdated, patriarchal thinking.
Someone's love life is NOT about economics or about the Austin Institute's opinion. It's a personal choice.
And… their "whore pill" rant? No.
And… women aren't hating on each other. We are celebrating each other's freedom of choice. If you want to get married, great. If not, great.
The more I hear about where marriage comes from and why people encourage it, the less I want it.
I don't want any of the "good things" listed at the end of the video. Sex is not the only source of a woman's power. By sharing and believing this video you are making things worse by telling women the same thing they hear from pop culture and cosmo.
Live and let live. Stop being so scared of change (which… let's face it, their rant about the good 'ol days is just not true). Please stop trying to set us back in gender equality. They may try their best to disguise this as "women power"… but they aren't fooling anyone.


Like you, I care little for the Austin Institute’s opinion. I am happy to report that I judge the accuracy of an argument’s claims on empirical evidence, not subjective judgments on what is tasteful, sexist, patriarchal, or whatever else may be the social value of the hour.

In this case the empirical evidence is overwhelming. Just a short listing of what is now an exhaustive body of literature:


The first studies to empirically test the claim that men were eager for sex and that women are the ones who put limits on it date from the the 1980s. Subsequent research shows that the male sexual drive influences desires and decision making more than female’s in almost every conceivable way it can be measured. Studies of long term relationship health (both premarital, marital, and extramarital) show that sex frequency, satisfaction, and physical attractiveness are more important to men than women. The importance placed on female attractiveness is not a new development or particular to Western culture, but found in traditional cultures across the world. Likewise, for women, sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness is much more closely correlated with the emotional strength of the relationship than it is for men across the world.

Women are much more likely to accept sex only in the context of a relationship. Both men and women value affection and status more when looking for a long term partner, but more women are looking for long term partners than men are. The sexual expectations of each group going into a first date reflect this. Heck, when a guy says “I love you” on the first couple of dates he means something different than the girl does! This is all pretty much true for online dating sites as well.

Of course, all men have needs beyond sex. And for some outliers sex is not the main consideration at all. On the flip side, there are some women who want nothing more from than sex from the men they meet. But these men and women are outliers. For the majority of 21st century, early 20-somethings Western men, sex is the main driver of their dating and relationship decisions.


Sex happens on the woman’s timeline. Women not in a relationship or afraid that their partner is losing interest are much more likely to consent to unwanted sex. Female-male ratios successfully predict the number of relationships/sexual partners on college campuses and correlate with marriage age, rates of divorce, and illegitimacy on the here. On the short term women can be – and empirically speaking, are – more choosy than men.

Oh, and then the dozens of studies and examples talked about here.

(I strongly recommend that last link. It explains clearly why it is not only logical, but necessary, to think of sexual activity as a scare resource – e.g. the proper study of economics. )


Not the patriarchy.

Perceptions of body are not driven by media, but by peer groups. In real life “slut shaming” is a female phenomena. (See also this NYT article or this other study.. Suppression of female sexuality is rarely driven by men (who naturally have a great liking for female sexuality), but by other women in their peer groups.

This is just the tip of the ice berg. There are dozens – maybe hundreds! – more studies of this type. The video’s information was accurate, regardless of the unpolitic or ill received it may be. Mark Regenurus summarized the matter well:

"One of the most interesting and significant facts about coupled sexual behavior is the underlying market economy to it all. Once you peer into it, its remarkable how it works. You might think it doesn’t or shouldn’t work this way when it comes to this most intimate and private of actions. But it does. “

We are here unconcerned with how things should be, but with how they actually are. While it seems a bit crass to simplify complicated human emotions to simple variables like "sex" and "security," these models work. They both describe what is happening on a societal scale and successfully predict what individuals do on the smaller scale.

Some complain against public choice theory or human behavioral ecology on the grounds that statesmen do not think of their actions in terms of "personal utility maximization" or that hunter-gatherer groups do analyze their decisions in terms of "reproductive fitness." From a scientific stand point these criticisms are largely irrelevant. How people conceive or justify behaviors does not matter if these things do not change the actual decisions made. As with hunter-gatherers deciding what to gather in the bush, so with singles choosing who to date. The evidence is overwhelming: the name of the game is maximization — though in this case, men and women are trying to 'maximize' slightly different things.

Reader tipped me off that some of the links were broken. Don't why blogger does this to me. As blogger also doesn't let me edit comments, I am just going to throw the real links here:

" in almost every conceivable way it can be measured" — this study

"traditional cultures across the world" —

for men across the world"

"college campuses" —

"sex ratios correlate with marriage… on the global scale" —

"more choosy than men" —

"peer groups" —

"slut shaming" —

"NYT" —

"this other study" —

"by other women in their peer groups" —

"summarized the matter well" —

I think that is all of them. Apologies for not having them linked correctly the first time around.

Hello T. Greer.

Just wanted to post to say it's great to see how much effort you put into your responses to commenters. I doubt 'DOH' will appreciate it but I do!

I've never thought you were one to skive on your research. I admire your passion.

My wholehearted belief in gender equality stands, not because it is "the social value of the hour," but because it is fair and right.

There is no changing your mind, though, I know that. I'm sorry that we can't see eye to eye.


Thank you for the kind words. They are appreciated.


I suppose that, in my view, "what is fair and right" has about as much relevance in this discussion as it does when discussing ecological dynamics, evolution, sea level changes, etc. You are writing about normative claims, while I am focusing on positive ones.

In all fairness to you, the film clip does give some normative advice for 20 seconds there at the end. But the great majority of the video is positive in nature, and it is those positive aspects I endorsed in the post and in my comments here.

Or in other words, the question we should ask is not "Is describing dating trends and sexual decisions in economic terms fair and right?" but "Is describing dating trends and sexual decisions in economic terms accurate, truthful, and conceptually useful?"

It's interesting to observe how much more coherent the Catholic Church's position on these issues is than Protestant denominations.

If you read Humanae Vitae you'll find, veiled beneath theological language, some of the same principles of supply and demand applied to sex and marriage.


Why shouldn't relatioship choices be about economics? Everything else in life is about economics.

Economics is a social science that analyzes and describes the consequences of choices made concerning scarce productive resources.

Or in this case, scarce REproductive resources.

You even state it in your own comment: "It's a personal choice." Every choice involves inherent tradeoffs and expected returns. Relationships are no different – why would they be? People enter into relationships with something to offer: love, sex, etc. And they also have expectations of similar returns. You might even say that these things are "good" and that people both "supply" and "demand" these goods.

Sound familiar?

Economics – not just for bankers.