Economic dependence promotes prudishness

Stay home, bake whitebread, don't sleep around.
Stay home, bake whitebread, don’t sleep around.

Marriage, according to those who habitually preface the word with “traditional”, is a collaboration. With complementary roles, filled as predictably by one woman and one man as peanut butter fills the gap between two slices of white bread.

If you encounter somebody clinging to this view of marriage in which women happily traipse down the church aisle into economic dependence on their menfolk, then I’m sure you can predict their views on sex and the thousand other issues that inhere to sex:

Sex education? Abstain until marriage, ‘cos true love waits.

The pill? Okay if you’re using it to control your acne.

Abortion? Causes all those calamities the greenies like to pin on climate change.

Okay, my clumsy stereotype grows unkind. My point is that more often than not women’s economic dependence on men is bundled up with strong views against sexual promiscuity.

But why? Are economic dependence and anti-promiscuity morality both symptoms of the same cause? Patriarchy, perhaps? Or does one bring about the other? A new study in Archives of Sexual Behaviour suggests that economic dependence might lead to anti-promiscuity views.

Paternity no laughing matter

Visiting friends or relatives in the neonatal ward isn’t the place to crack jokes about paternity. In fact, most people, especially relatives of the new mum, go to great efforts to comment on the newborn’s likeness to the guy who thinks he’s dad.

Paternity stikes such a raw nerve with men because they can never be truly sure that they’re the father. At least they couldn’t until recent technological developments in DNA analysis made it possible.

And yet throughout our evolutionary past, some men thought they were working hard to raise their own genetic progeny where they were actually rearing the young of another. Men who were suspicious, jealous and not prepared to raise another man’s children might not have won any nice-guy prizes, but they did ensure their hard work contributed to the success of their own genes. Including any genes that disposed them to jealousy and vigilance about paternity. Unfortunately, we are all descended from many such men.

Today, humanity’s long history of insecurity over paternity can be seen in the politics of paternity testing and the undignified squabble over how many children are really sired by someone other than dad.

Sensitivities over paternity have shaped religious practices, laws, customs for the inheritance of wealth, and behavioural norms.

In their pop bestseller Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá argued that sexual jealousy and paternity insecurity are newcomers to human society, almost unknown in our species’ long hunting and gathering past where love flowed more freely and couples stayed together only briefly. The economic changes wrought by farming tied families to the land, necessitating cultural innovations to ensure wealth and land stayed within the family.

Ryan and Jethá make several mistakes, including unduly romanticising our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and viewing culture as something separate from biology. The cultural practices that surround fidelity and conception are more usefully viewed as extensions of men’s evolved paternity insecurity. And the scale of those extensions varies among places and over time.

When to worry about promiscuity

When women depend economically on their husbands or partners, then both women and men should value paternity certainty more highly. Men working hard to raise a family have plenty to lose in evolutionary terms if the children they raise are actually sired by somebody else. When men don’t do much for their partners or the offspring, they should be much more chilled about paternity, and thus much more relaxed about sexual promiscuity.

Likewise, when a woman depends heavily on a man’s labour, or the money he brings in to the household, then the cost of losing him is much greater. There are two ways she might lose him through extra-pair sex: if he has other sexual relationships he could run off with one of the other women, leaving his existing family in the lurch. But when she has extra-pair sex and gets busted, she might lose him. Or worse. Jealousy can trigger psychological abuse and violence.

In the recent paper that inspired this column, psychologists Michael E. Price, Nicholas Pound and Isabel M. Scott, from Brunel University in the U.K., sought to test the links between women’s economic dependence and both women’s and men’s attitudes to promiscuity.

From online surveys of more than 5000 Americans, Price and his colleagues showed that when the women in a subject’s social network depend economically on men, then subjects tend to judge promiscuity more harshly. And the effects weren’t spurious consequences of religion, or ethnicity or political conservatism. When they fitted these other variables into their statistical tests, the association between female economic dependence and opposition to promiscuity remained.

Price also asked whether the association arose as an artifact of geography: Texas and Utah, for example differ culturally on questions of morality and gender roles from, say, Massachusetts or California. States in which women earned more were also more relaxed about promiscuity. And this result arose out of the effects women’s earnings had on female economic independence.

Even more compelling, by comparing the attitudes of geographic neighbours, in the same or nearby zip codes, Price and his colleagues found that the association held. Irrespective of where you live, the economic dependence of the women a person’s social network predicts how they feel about promiscuity and non-marital sex.

We’ve known for some time that variation among societies in sexual morality is associated with variation in gender roles and, especially, earnings. The exciting development is how the new research suggests the patterns emerge from the bottom upward, with individual attitudes being shaped by prevailing economic circumstances in their close social network. At least in part.

I’m interested to know what the authors think about the relevance of their data to Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs’ ideas on sexual economics in which women restrict the supply of sex under circumstances when they have the most to gain from a high price. This interpretation is not inconsistent with Price et al’s arguments about paternity certainty. But high female economic dependence presents exactly the kind of economic situation in which women need to drive a hard bargain in the sexual marketplace. Intriguingly, women took stronger anti-promiscuity stances, on average, than men did.

There are so many studies I would like to see done with a view to teasing out the causal relationships, and how attitudes to promiscuity change in the headwind of religion and other cultural forces. But this finding explains much about some of the trickiest ideological differences both within and among societies.

It could explain how economic changes since the Second World War paved the way for the sexual revolution. And why conservative politicians, especially in the U.S.A. seem equally hung-up on sexual liberty and the growing proportion of breadwinner moms.

And it may form an important ingredient in the ever-growing and dangerous ideological chasm between patriarchal theocracies and more gender-egalitarian democracies.

Thom Yorke singing Radiohead’s True Love Waits

P.S. I always relish seeing how other media cover research concerning issues touching sexual morality. According to “News Staff” at Science2.0, “If women want their promiscuity to be accepted they have to earn more money say evolutionary psychologists”. Keith Perry of the Telegraph reckons “Promiscuous women more likely to be tolerated if they are high earners”. And Lydia Smith, writing in the International Business Times got even more pithy, declaring “Only poor women are branded sluts”.

These were the first three links to news stories that popped up on Google. Not one headline reflects the real message of the study, but they all find a short path to slut shaming. For the record, the study tracked attitudes to women’s and men’s promiscuity.

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Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Don’t fear the patriarchy, girls. Just keep your knickers on!

There’s a video out there on the intertubes that’s got conservatives cheering and lefties in a lather. Actually such videos are legion, but I’m talking here about a particular one with the rather broad and even-handed title of The Economics of Sex.

You can watch it, but I must offer a trigger warning that people who have ever had sex before marriage, or know someone who has, might find its pure, unadulterated truth-bombiness a little too much for their besmirched souls to withstand.

If you can’t bear to watch, here is a very brief precis of the argument:

  • marriage rates in the US are down. Like, worse than the Dow!
  • to understand this calamity we need to know more about the economics of sex
  • men have higher sex drives than women. That’s just the way it is
  • which makes sex a resource controlled by women. Always has been
  • sex is cheap these days – because the pill largely freed women the cost of becoming unexpectedly pregnant. Lower costs = more supply = lower prices
  • this created a “split mating market” – on one side, people “only interested in sex”, and on the other, people “largely pursuing marriage”
  • there are too many men in the sex market, so women can call the shots
  • but women outnumber men in the marriage market, putting blokes in the drivers’ seat
  • it’s always been up to women to set a high market value for sex by restricting supply
  • this unspoken female pact to set a high market value for sex has all but vanished: women compete for men by hopping in the sack with them, thus lowering the ‘price’
  • which is why Americans are less likely to marry, and do so later in life than ever before
  • if women just resume colluding to set a high price for sex, then men will be nicer, take women on more expensive dates, buy bigger diamonds and get busy marryin’
  • and then balance will be restored to the force.

Qualified admiration

This is a slick piece of strategy. It combines the electronic reach of the internet with a funky old-skool brown-paper and texta visual device sure to appeal to all those youngsters stumbling haplessly onto the sex-marriage market. Not so sure about the Sinatra backing tracks, but love and marriage certainly do go together like a horse and carriage. At least they did, back in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ day. Except when they didn’t.

Strategy? What strategy?

The video is a product of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture a Texas-based think-tank whose mission is “to be a leading resource for tested, rigorous academic research on questions of family, sexuality, social structures and human relationships”. By which they appear to mean research in favour of families with one father married to one mother (preferably stay-at-home).

The brains behind the Institute, according to the Austin Chronicle happens to be one Mark Regnerus, a darling of the pro-marriage (as long as its not gay marriage) right. Regnerus achieved fame/notoriety in 2012 for his New Families Structures Study of young adults who were raised by parents in gay relationships, compared with ‘still-married’ parents. And he’s not so keen on upwardly-trending masturbation tendencies, either.

Who ever said there’s no such thing as a conservative Christian sociologist?

The bulk of the video relies on Timothy Reichert’s economic argument that the contraceptive pill, in reducing the ‘price’ of pre-marital sex, has favoured mens’ interests at the expense of womens’. Reichert’s article, published in the religious organ First Things, even finishes with some helpful suggestions about the future of feminism:

What is needed is a movement of “new feminism” based on a deep understanding of the nature of woman and her role at the center of society.

Riechert and Regenerus’ ideas about a mating market cleft – by the pill – into those seeking sex and those seeking marriage, has long been popular with conservatives. Our very own Cardinal George Pell built an op-ed in The Australian around his work, lamenting the transformation 50 years of the pill had rent upon a formerly chaste and god-fearing society.

Suppression of female sexuality

The bit that interests me most about this video, however, is the way Regnerus uses an important 2002 paper by the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge with the title of The Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality. It doesn’t take much perspicacity to see that where sexual activity – from masturbation to extra-marital activity – is suppressed, women and girls bear much more of the cost than men and boys.

It might seem logical, then, to assume that sexual suppression is something men do to women; that it embodies patriarchal control of female sexuality. Yet Baumeister and Twenge present an impressive body of circumstantial evidence that women enthusiastically engage in policing one another’s sexual activity. From slut-shaming to female genital mutilation, the chief antagonists are often women.

The rationale? That if a majority of women restrict the supply of sex, then all women can drive a harder bargain on the marriage market. When women who engage sexually with a speed or abandon that exceeds the cultural norm get branded ‘cheap’, it isn’t a metaphor.

This idea that women control the price of sex like an unscrupulous cartel is an important one with many implications for our understanding of sexual behaviour and relationships. My reading of the evidence suggests that it is probably true. But that is not to say it is the only dynamic feeding the suppression of female sexuality. Many old ideas about the involvement of men, particularly husbands and religious leaders also appear to have strong support.

This is a very exciting and hotly contrested area of research right now. So I was struck by the sheer audacity when (6:35) the peppy female narrator confidently piped:

Here’s the thing: In the past it really wasn’t the patriarchy that policed women’s relational interests. It was women.

Yep. If women just collectively kept their knees together, they’d all find it easier to ensnare a guy who’d willingly fork up two months’ salary to another cartel – the deBeers diamond company – for a great big diamond ring. And then, as if in a Disney movie, all the bad magic wrought by the pill, including declining marriage rates and …. men playing video games …. would be magically erased.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Sneer as I might, there are interesting research questions embedded in this piece of conservative propaganda and in Regnerus’ research in general. I’m actually happy to entertain the idea that a loosening of cultural suppression of female sexuality may be driving the reduction in marriage rates. And possibly even the drift away from religion. But I’m interested, too, in the broader implications of what it all means.

Regnerus quite astutely summarises the conservative fears that underpin their deep hang-ups with female sexual freedom and the effect it has on supply, when he writes, in Slate:

Don’t forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today’s young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year’s book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, “Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy.” They’re right. But then try getting men to do anything.

You don’t have to be a marrow-deep sexist to embrace this position. The psychoanalyst Mary Jane Sherfey, who bore the wrath of her male colleagues in emphasising the power of the human female sex drive and in questioning Freud’s insistance of the primacy of vaginal (over clitoral) orgasms, argued that suppressing women’s powerful, innate, sex drives was an essential stepping-stone to the success of agrarian societies and thus the rise of civilization.

And yet this idea that sex must be suppressed or all will be chaos hasn’t a whole lot of objective support. It seems to me to be a re-stating of an ancient bias – one that favoured older, wealthier men.

Since at least the dawn of the Roman republic, and probably well before that, conservative leaders have insisted that sexual liberty was the first step toward the end of civilization. The chastity of the Vestal Virgins was considered Rome’s primary safeguard against its enemies. How different is that from Reverends Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Rabbi Noson Leiter blaming calamities like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 on “abortionists, […] feminists, […] gays and the lesbians”?

It doesn’t seem like it should be controversial that all people – not just women – are better off in post-enlightenment wealthy societies where effective medical interventions limit deaths in childbirth, where women can make their own decisions about how many children to bear and when to have them, and in which people have greater choice about when to leave a dysfuntional marriage or whether to enter one in the first place. As Michelle Goldberg puts it, in her exceptional book, The Means of Reproduction, “there is no force for good as powerful as the liberation of women”.

And yet it is controversial. Regnerus and the Austin Institute want the suppression of female sexuality back, and they want it back badly. Women, they argue, should be doing it for their sisters. Now how far they want to wind the clock back they haven’t stated. Apart from the pill, which other forms of female suppression would they like to revoke? Voting rights? Laws against witch-burning?

The great R.E.M. in one of their finest moments. I’ve always loved Mike Mills’ backing vocal “It’s time I had some time alone”.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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