Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, March 03, 2012

A Simple Model of the Sexual Revolution

I want to spell out my thoughts on the sexual revolution in more depth than is possible on Twitter. I should preface what I say a bit. First, I am by no means an opponent of the sexual revolution. I have no desire to return to the sexual mores that preceded it, and I have no admiration for "honor" societies that take it upon themselves to police the sexual activities of women. If there is a society that embodies my beliefs about human thriving, it is somewhere between the Netherlands and Denmark. [Germany? - ed.] Those are two of the most permissive societies in the world.

Second, my model is intentionally simplistic. My goal is to spell out a dynamic by which I think the sexual revolution has had some negative effects. I'm not trying to be precise or exhaustive. For instance, I will ignore gays completely - the rest of this post addresses only straight people. I will stipulate that the sexual revolution was fantastic for gays qua gays. I will separately try to address particular aspects of the sexual revolution in more detail and using other approaches. Note also that this is rather loosely modeled - I am fairly sure I have the logic right, but I haven't worked it out rigorously.

Third, I will write about "markets," but this is shorthand - I do not mean cash markets, just conceptual spaces where people interact. Likewise with "prices" - I don't mean cash prices, I mean the cost imposed or the benefit demanded. So for instance, if a woman insists that I buy her dinner before she will have sex with me, then the dinner is the price of the sex. (Note to the NYPD: This is just an example, I've never bought dinner for a sexual partner.)

So, I think I can spell out my model in a few easy steps, and then describe the consequences.

1. Let's consider two markets. One is a long-term committed relationship (LTCR) market. People make commitments to be in a relationship together for an extended period of time. For our purposes, let's stick to sexual LTCRs, though in real life things can be more complicated. Let's also assume that an LTCR would include a financial commitment - the couple views its income and expenses as a unit, so one partner may end up "subsidizing" the other. Of course, many people in LTCRs get married, but we'll ignore the legal status of the relationship. Also, the commitment is assumed to be significant but not infinite - people sometimes walk away from their LTCRs.

The other market is the sex market - people who are attracted to each other and have sex. This is not necessarily anonymous or even short-term, but by definition it lacks any meaningful long-term commitment.

2. Assume also that pre-sexual revolution, LTCRs were promoted and the sex market was stigmatized. In particular, women were expected either to stick to the LTCR market or to "charge a high price" in the sex market (for instance, refuse to have sex on the first n dates, and avoid anonymous sex entirely).

3. Assume that men want sex with women and that this desire drives men to participate in either the sex market or the LTCR market.

4. Assume that the sexual revolution consisted of (A) reducing society's promotion of LTCRs, and (B) reducing society's stigmatization of women's participation in the sex market.

5. So, what happened? Well, the cost to women of participating in the sex market went down. Moreover, when participating in the sex market, women were no longer expected to charge as high a "price."

6. This increased the availability of women in the sex market, lowering the "price" for men. Men responded by shifting from the LTCR market to the sex market. Women's bargaining power in the LTCR market decreased, so women who wanted LTCRs were forced to settle for less-desirable men or a lower level of commitment. In particular, as the sex market became more attractive relative to the LTCR market, it became more feasible for men to leave LTCRs when they became burdensome (for instance, if the woman got cancer, or became unexpectedly pregnant, or lost her job, or aged). Of course, same goes for women - it became more feasible for them to leave LTCRs when men got cancer, or lost their jobs, or aged. (Though the sex market is probably better for middle-aged men than for middle-aged women.)

7. The characteristics that lead to success in the sex market do not overlap perfectly with the characteristics that lead to success in the sex LTCR [oops] market. In general, the shift benefited physically attractive and socially skilled people. The shift hurt physically unattractive and socially awkward people (hence my bitterness). In relative terms, a stable career became less important to male sexual success, as did a desire to help raise children. These shifts within the male population were exacerbated by the fact that while the LTCR market is relatively egalitarian, in the sex market nothing is to stop some men from being wildly successful while other men are unable to attract a sex partner at all.

8. So the net effect is: fewer LTCRs and less bargaining power for women in the LTCR market. Fewer men with stable careers capable of supporting LTCRs. More children being raised in single-mother households. More inequality for men (the "top 1%" get a lot more sex, the bottom x% don't get any sex at all).

The winners:

A. Young, healthy, attractive women who don't want children. They can participate freely in the sex market, which is now less stigmatized and features more physically attractive, charismatic men. In particular, young, healthy, attractive women who want anonymous or no-strings-attached sex are now much better off.

B. Attractive and charismatic men.

C. Men and women who are newly able to leave their burdensome LTCR partners.

The losers:

A. Women who would be better off in LTCRs. This includes women who want to have children, women who become seriously ill, women who lose their jobs, women who want to be sexually fulfilled later in life. Unattractive or sexually socially [oops!] awkward women may not be able to find sexual partners at all.

B. Children.

C. Men who are not charismatic or who are physically unattractive.

So while the sexual revolution was undoubtedly a good thing overall, I am puzzled by the idea that it had no downsides or that it was unambiguously good for women. Clearly the sex market is fun for a lot of people, and women have enjoyed their access to it, but that access has not come without a price.

25 Comments:

Blogger Sarang said...

I guess I just don't think the model fits the data particularly well, so your last paragraph is unwarranted. In particular, the model totally ignores your Scandinavian poverty chart (proxy for socio-economic status) and also the red-sex/blue-sex effect. My counter-theory, also simplistic, would be something like this: unattractive uncharismatic men would previously have been in miserable relationships but are now miserably single; women who would have been rearing children with drunken/abusive/angry dads -- a fair bit of the time, there being no alternative to marriage in your hypothetical world if one wants sex -- are now rearing them alone. The "marginal case," of the family that would exist in the pre-revolutionary era but cease to exist afterwards, is very like that described in Chekhov's story "The Husband." http://www.online-literature.com/yeats/1173/ You could argue that the tax-collector in the story is better off under pre-revolutionary conditions, but hardly anyone would find that a persuasive argument against the revolution.

My simplistic claim is that, controlling for purely economic disruptions since 1970, this is chiefly how the dynamic has changed.

10:29 PM  
Blogger James said...

I think the Scandinavian chart was probably post-government-transfer. That is, single mothers in Scandinavia are saved from poverty by the social safety net, not because they are high-income.

I am not sure I am familiar with red sex vs. blue sex, but I think my model could easily accommodate higher rates of marriage among the rich than among the poor.

Again, I don't find any of this a persuasive argument against the sexual revolution. However, I find it very implausible that the sexual revolution made literally everyone better off.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Ah but if you just want to make that v. last point you are working too hard. Obviously the sexual revolution was bad for censors and bishops; ergo it wasn't good for everybody.

10:52 PM  
Blogger James said...

Right, but so everyone but bishops and censors is better off now that marriage is disappearing? I mean, maybe. Finally, a whig history that is also accurate.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

I am not claiming that (or anything else)! Just pointing out that -- if all your argument is trying to establish is the failure of dominance reasoning -- the model is unnecessary. The claim you are supposedly trying to refute is indeed very implausible, so much so that no one is considering making it! (One could go further and note that it is overwhelmingly plausible that some fraction of the population make systematically worse life decisions than a computer, so that any increase in freedom would be bad for such people.)

11:17 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

Yeah I'm finding it really hard to feel guilty that my freedom comes at the expense of unattractive men's penises.

Also really hard to believe that that's the case. Lots of women (most, even!) still want committed relationships. They don't seek such relationships with the "top 1%" of sexually active men; they seek them with men who prove themselves reliable/loyal/caring -- not men who think "if a woman insists that I buy her dinner before she will have sex with me, then the dinner is the price of the sex." Women don't generally like to be perceived as prostitues.

Thank goodness that the sexual revolution has allowed us to pursue long-term sexual/romantic relationships before we commit to marriage. These serve as a testing ground, separating the assholes from the keepers. Thank goodness we aren't forced into early marriages to serve as one man's lifelong guaranteed sex machine.

11:42 PM  
Blogger James said...

Well, so, I guess what I'm saying is that the sexual revolution was a step forward for some fraction of people and a step backward for some other, non-negligible fraction of people. There is no logical reason why it had to be good for women on net, and while you say my model doesn't fit the facts, I am not sure which facts you are referring to. As I've said, women's happiness is down, men's happiness is up. That fits my model. Men's labor force participation is down. That fits my model. Single motherhood is up. That fits my model. If you believe in a kind of Houellebecqian vision of modern sexuality (as cited by Dave), then that fits my model too. The perseverance of marriage among the rich does not contradict my model. Low poverty in Scandinavia does not contradict my model.

So sure, it's a very simplistic model with little ability to compel any particular conclusion. But unless you are predisposed to see the sexual revolution as a smashing success for some reason, I don't see why the downsides can be so easily dismissed. You can always invent reasons that it's better this way (those guys are assholes anyway, no one is missing anything!). Maybe! But why is it so important for the sexual revolution not to have had any downsides?

11:43 PM  
Blogger James said...

Steph, that is exactly my point. The sexual revolution has undermined women's ability to pursue long-term committed relationships, because men have exited the market. This is not so true for women in the upper class, but marriage rates in the lower income brackets are abysmal. The fact that so many women want long-term committed relationships and can't get them is evidence against the sexual revolution, not for it.

11:45 PM  
Blogger James said...

So for instance, the majority of children born to women under 30 are born to single mothers. One response is, "Don't worry, their dads are probably assholes anyway." But another response is, those kids are going to grow up with less stability, less support, and generally worse prospects than kids with two parents. We have created a society in which marriage is the exception for a large segment of the population.

11:53 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

No. The sexual revolution prevented women from being forced to marry assholes. Pre-SR married assholes are equivalent to post-SR casual sex assholes.

But it's much easier to leave a casual sex asshole than it is to leave an asshole husband.

Better to be alone than have an asshole husband.

So, hooray sexual revolution.

11:59 PM  
Blogger James said...

I mean, yeah, unattractive men have suffered, probably. This is the Houellebecq point. But that is in addition to the way women have found themselves raising children by themselves because men are unavailable or undesirable. Again, this fits my model. Why should men grow up when there is no sexual pressure to do so?

12:04 AM  
Blogger Steph said...

On another note, you know, white plantation owners weren't 'better off' when slavery was abolished.

Maybe we should have reconsidered! Abolition didn't provide a net benefit for everyone!

But ya know, slavery was wrong. It treated humans as less than human.

Restricting women's freedom is wrong. It treats us as less than human.

12:07 AM  
Blogger James said...

Right, so the idea is that the "missing men" are assholes, so women are better off alone. But does this really make sense? Is our explanation for the higher rate of marriage among upper-income people that rich women are bad at detecting assholes?

12:12 AM  
Blogger James said...

I am a fan of both abolition and the sexual revolution! I don't think I've argued once that the sexual revolution was a bad thing or should be rolled back.

But! We restrict women's freedom all the time. If a woman wanted to build a pipeline from tar sands in Canada to refineries in the U.S., we might tell her no! If a woman tells a racist joke, we stigmatize her! Moreover, we still stigmatize adultery and incest. But why? Is it because we secretly long to re-enslave black people?

12:16 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

The perseverance of marriage among the rich absolutely undermines your model, if you throw in realistic levels of socioeconomic segregation. Take the extreme limit in which each quintile is a separate, closed pool. In this case your model faces a puzzle about why the generic forces you posit do not affect the upper quintiles. I do not know exactly what the numbers are on this but I am pretty sure that there isn't much SES mobility in marriage.

Single motherhood neither contradicts nor fits your model. It is equally consistent with a model in which single motherhood is superior to suffering the potentially available husbands of single mothers.

Women's happiness neither fits nor contradicts your model because the research doesn't strongly support any conclusion and therefore has no real bearing on anything. Also (even allowing your interp. of result) your model does NOT explain why men's happiness should be up unless almost all men are attractive.

I agree that Scandinavia isn't decisive; you read it as a story about transfers, whereas I read it as a story about social homogeneity.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

For the record, I am not asserting that the sexual revolution was self-evidently good for women. I don't even know what that means, honestly! (I have always found it plausible that our medieval ancestors were better off than we are; or, for that matter, that happiness is almost entirely chemical.)

The point of my counter-model is just to note that your model is radically under-determined by the data, and that it is possible to come up with other models that fit the data and disagree on the bottom line.

12:30 AM  
Blogger James said...

Well, for the fun of it I will come up with an alternative model and see how it goes. On some level you have to fall back on intuition, I feel as though people rely on ideological priors to decide. So maybe what is going on is just that my ideological priors are rather unusual for a liberal Democrat.

12:31 AM  
Blogger James said...

Note, it's plausible that most men would be better off because the fall in the price of sex is like an improvement in the terms of trade. Sure, there are distributional effects within men (just as a country's export and import sectors might not be affected the same way), but it could easily work out pretty well for most men.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Well I guess I think I've already provided the model. Let me state it a little more formally. The exp. utility of a husband (assuming you want a child) is either a positive or a negative number w/ some probability before you throw in economic factors like increasing poss. of destitution if you choose to be a single parent. Once you include these effects, a given husband moves along the scale either toward being more desirable (if you think they will make money) or toward being less (if they're a likely deadbeat/abuser). In the pre-SR era, any husband was better than no husband (the "economic shift" was always positive), because of impossibility of supporting a child on one's own. In the post-SR era, this is no longer true; women get married to have kids if they find husbands who are either intrinsically desirable or who are likely to be helpful around the home or w/ the paycheck (i.e. if desirability + economic effect adds up to a positive number). This explains the economic aspects of the story cleanly because dysfunction-of-marriage is concentrated in places where men have (for independent economic reasons) lost a lot of earning power and are therefore likelier to be deadbeats. It doesn't contradict the Scandinavian data. It explains single motherhood going up post-SR, by construction. It doesn't "explain" the happiness data but then the relationship between subjectively measured happiness and other correlates of objective well-being is never that strong.

12:56 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

(PS I am not overly inclined to fret about the happiness data, but you could e.g. make the argument that -- b'se of Stockholm syndrome like effects -- people in bad-but-intense marriages self-report as "happier" than generically dissatisfied people. I agree that my finding this argument plausible is indicative of my priors, which are run-of-the-dark-satanic-Mill liberal.)

1:01 AM  
Blogger Elisa said...

If by "attractive" you mean conventionally attractive, I think it may be naive to assume that attractive people have more sex. It may be easier for them to have sex with other attractive people, but I've seen data that people generally pair up along the same level (3's with 3's and so on).

12:07 PM  
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