What do you find really sexy?
If you’re like pretty much any human being, you probably didn’t answer that question with, “Economics!,” “Math!”, or “Numbers!” That’s because most people consider math to be nerdy, boring, or extremely difficult — and we usually don’t associate any of those qualities with sex. But it might shock you to know that economics has a profound impact on our sex lives and the way we think about sexual activity. And over the course of this summary, we’ll learn why.
Chapter 1: All’s Fair in Love and… Math??
If you took a basic economics course in college, you probably didn’t hear sex mentioned often… or even at all. Instead, you probably learned some simple foundational principles of economics along with a few practical life lessons such as how to balance a checkbook. But the author observes that, if you do a deep dive into the history of economics, you might be shocked to learn that sex abounds within the pages of economic theory! In fact, the intersection of sex and money is one of the core issues which informs our current conceptualization of economics. To show you how this works in practical application, we’ll give you a sample straight from the author’s own mouth. In her foreword to this very book, Marina Adshade observes that:
“Economics is called the dismal science, but it didn’t earn that moniker because economists failed to predict the most recent global recession or, for that matter, pretty much every recession in history. It is because erstwhile economist- cum-parish priest Thomas Malthus, at the end of the eighteenth century, predicted that as long as British peasant women couldn’t keep their knees together there was no hope for society to prosper.
When it comes to sex, Malthus, admittedly, was a bit of a downer. But not all economists take such a dismal view of what is one of life’s sweetest pleasures. In the past ten years, in particular, there has been a frenzy ofresearch activity as aca- demics have eagerly used economic theory and data in exploration of matters of the heart—and other body parts. The resulting body of literature is a collection of theories and evidence that would give anyone, frankly, a hard-on for economics.” That probably sounds crazy to anybody, but just wait! Because the author’s examples just get better and better. We’ll start by examining her research on the topics of promiscuity, love, and birth control!
Chapter 2: Lemons Can be Used For Birth Control
If that one-liner has you going, “...what?” for starters, you’re not alone! And secondly, the author asserts that that sentence is not meant to be taken literally. (Seriously — lemons cannot actually be used as birth control, so please don’t try! The results will be both disappointing and painful). But even if that statement isn’t literally true, it certainly gets your attention! The author found that it had the same impact on her when a renowned economist made this statement during a packed economics convention. It also taught her an important lesson about economics and she felt that this insight was vital to include in this very book. Here’s what she has to say about it:
“It’s 2003, and this is what the keynote speaker, an eminent macroeconomist from the University of Pennsylvania, has just said: “Casanova used lemons as contraceptives.” The lunch crowd, a group of attentive economists, is now wide-eyed. While 95 percent of the room (the men) wonder “How the hell does that work?” the other 5 percent of the room (the women) think “Ouch!” I, a member of the latter group, note for future reference the effect of weird sexual facts on audience engagement.
Casanova’s seductive behavior aside, the speaker is making a very good point: The liberalization of sexual values during the twentieth century is an economic story. In this case, the Penn economist is arguing that new technologies, in the form of effective contraceptives, have shaken the great cost-benefit analysis of, well, coitus. The analysis, conducted by millions of women and men each day, goes like this: “Should I have sex tonight, or not?”
This new “technology,” along with changes in education and equality, has completely transformed the sexual landscape. If you doubt that it is economic factors that have been at play in the transition to a more promiscuous society, consider the following evidence:
In 1900, only 6 percent of unmarried 19-year-old women were sexually active compared with 75 percent of unmarried 19-year-old women a century later.
Contraceptive technology has become increasingly effective at preventing pregnancy over the last half century, and yet the number of births to unmarried women have increased from 5 percent to 41 percent over the same period.
Despite this trend toward a greater number of births outside of marriage, 66 percent of Americans still believe that out-of-wedlock births are bad for society.
Premarital sex is strongly tied to family income; girls who live in the poorest households are 50 percent more likely to be sexually active than are girls in the richest households.
Premarital sex may have become the norm, but it has not become completely destigmatized; only 48 percent of women and 55 percent of men under the age of 35 think that premarital sex is not morally wrong.
Attitudes toward teen pregnancy are tied to family income; 68 percent of girls in higher-income households report that they would be “very upset” by a pregnancy compared with 46 percent of girls in lower-income households.
Marriage is increasingly a privilege enjoyed by the rich; in the 1960s, almost equal shares of people with college degrees and people with only a high school education were married (76 percent and 72 percent). Today themarriage rate of less-educated people has fallen to 48 percent while that of college-educated people has stayed relatively high at 64 percent.
According to the Pew Research Center, young adults in the 19-to- 29-year-old age range, more than any other generation, don’t see the point of marriage, with 44 percent reporting that the institution is obsolete and with only 30 percent agree- ing with the statement “Having a successful marriage is one of the most impor- tant things in life.”
To illustrate how these behaviors and beliefs have come together to transform our sexual landscape, let me begin with a tale of a woman who has lived her life in three parts. This is the story of Jane who, at the age of 17, ran away from home. Up to that point, Jane had been a good student in an all-girls boarding school. It was not really the type of school that a student leaves to work as a hotel chambermaid and live in a seedy building in an underprivileged neighborhood. But while every other girl in her class went off to university (in search of husbands and degrees), Jane chose another path.
In the year that Jane lived this way, she spent her time with female companions whose perspective on life was very different from hers. Unlike her, they had grown up in poverty. Some were sex workers, having entered the trade in their early teens, following the path of their sex-worker mothers. A few had migrated from different parts of the country to be near their boyfriends, who were incarcerated locally. Others had fallen off the precipice at a very early age and had never been able to climb their way back up. As it turns out, Jane’s friends (even the ones who were not sex workers) were extremely promiscuous; they had sexual relations with a variety of men, some of whom treated them well and others who did not. Their promiscuity was not the result of a lack of moral fortitude. The economic forces at work made it so their answer to “Should I have sex with him tonight?” was almost always “Why not?” What are those economic forces?
Well, first of all, education. Starting in the early 1980s and up to the present, workers hoping to be economically successful have needed a collegeeducation. This has been true not only because educated workers’ earnings are climbing, but also because the wages of workers with lowest education levels are falling. In fact, Jane’s one year in the ghetto was near the beginning of a thirty-year decline in real earnings for those with a high school education or less, a decline that would turn the gap between educated and uneducated worker’s wages from a narrow crack to a yawning fissure.
While these women may have not known that their earning opportunities were becoming increasingly limited due to their lack of education, there was a second economic factor that they were painfully aware of: The marriage prospects of underprivileged women had become bleak. Incarceration rates were on the rise and, in fact, no less than three of Jane’s friends had boyfriends who were in prison.
Even without a criminal record, the lifetime earning prospects for low-income men were insufficient to make sustaining a family possible. In a time in which more successful men started to seek out wives who would make equal contributions to the household income, higher-income men were out of reach as a possible marriage partner for uneducated and underemployed women.
So, while most women might have feared that promiscuity would affect their lifetime earnings and their prospects for marriage, Jane’s new friends figured they had little to look forward to, regardless of their sexual histories. They lived in a culture of despair where a mistimed pregnancy or “fast” reputation made very little difference to their standard of living—then and into the future. And so, the answer to “Should I sleep with him tonight?” was fated. “Yes, why not?” They really had nothing to lose.”
Chapter 3: What Can We Learn From the Story of Jane?
In the previous chapter, we heard a lot about the hypothetical story of Jane and her experience with promiscuity and the socioeconomic divide. But what does this really have to do with anything? And how is Jane’s story related to the statement that “lemons can be used for birth control?” Hang inthere because it will all make sense soon! To tie the story together, the author contrasts this stage of Jane’s life with her future as a young professional. Eventually, Jane becomes a college-educated, successful woman with a great job. And at this point in her life, she is once again surrounded by a different group of women: women who are also well-educated and successful. In these respects, they could not be more different from the women Jane knew when she was young. But they do have one interesting thing in common: their attitudes toward promiscuity.
Surprisingly, Jane’s new cohort has similar views on promiscuity to her former disenfranchised friends. Both groups of women approach sex with a “what do I have to lose” mindset but for very different reasons. The women who lacked adequate education and material resources to support themselves felt this way because they struggled to imagine how their lives could get much worse. But Jane’s well-educated friends who had stable incomes embraced this attitude because they felt that they had options. In response to the question, “what do I have to lose?” Jane’s new friends could answer, “Not much!” As a result of their situations in life, they either had the resources to care for a child if they chose to have one or the ability to end their pregnancies. Either way, they felt safe.
So, what made the difference in their attitudes? The author asserts that these women are divided by their socioeconomic status, which makes all the difference in the world. But the modern women of today are also empowered by a shift in social norms with regard to female sexuality. Jane’s impoverished friends already felt isolated and stigmatized as a result of their positions in life; the added stigma of being an unwed, sexually active mother would make little difference. They knew that people already looked down on them for so many other reasons. By contrast, well-to-do women of your grandmother’s day were controlled by sexism and stigma. Even if they had wealthy husbands or parents, they might not have access to a lot of money of their own. And because their positions hinged on maintaining a reputation of purity and moral superiority, women in these positions would have lacked the social and financial resources to assert control over their own sexuality.
So, the defining difference between Jane and her former friends is Jane’s ultimate ability to access the social and financial resources that women have historically lacked. Now that we’ve learned a little more about the socioeconomic factors that characterize Jane’s story, we can understand the point the author is ultimately trying to prove. But where does the lemon birth control anecdote fit in? Well, the author explains that access to birth control is essential to a woman’s bodily autonomy. If you want to have control over your own sexuality, you need access to reliable methods of contraception. Today, just like Jane, women have access to a wide variety of effective options. But it might surprise you to know that the history of birth control is basically one long, cringey horror story. And that horror story includes — you guessed it! — using lemons as birth control.
This method was allegedly pioneered by Casanova, who suggested that inserting half a lemon into a woman’s vagina would form an adequate barrier to block sperm and, therefore, pregnancy. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work! But this story goes to show how women have historically been held hostage by a combination of ineffective contraception and lack of financial resources.
Chapter 4: Final Summary
When we think about love and sex, economics rarely enters the equation. That’s mostly because we don’t consider math to be sexy and the correlation between sex and economics is not immediately apparent. However. the author’s research indicates that female attitudes toward sex and promiscuity are heavily influenced by economics. A person’s socioeconomic status often determines her ability to access adequate birth control and/or raise a child.
As a result, the female quest for bodily autonomy has often been hindered by the intersection of classism, misogyny, and the threat of pregnancy. Getting pregnant can be a financially devastating occurrence, even if the pregnancy is planned and desired. But if you don’t want to be pregnant, can’t afford a child, and can’t afford to terminate the pregnancy,becoming pregnant can effectively ruin your life. The author asserts that women of all socioeconomic statuses are very aware of this fact and that economics thus has a powerful impact on female sexuality.