Monday, March 10, 2014

The Problems With an Economic View of Sex (Ending the Battle of the Sexes)

I haven't posted in a while but I found a topic on which I could not remain silent. Sex and commitment. I recently saw this video entitled "The Economics of Sex" and it was the perfect impetus for taking a critical look at some of my beliefs about sex and men and women. My conclusion is that this video reinforces exactly what is wrong in our conversation about sex. It presents an argument for why people need to be more careful to keep sex connected to commitment, which I think is a great idea. But the way they interpret sex to make their argument is, to me, a major part of the problem.

Let me try to give a basic summary of the argument posed in this video. First of all, this video only addresses the average heterosexual male and female. Within that context, the argument goes, sex is an exchange wherein men and women give and receive different things. Studies show that on average, men have a higher sex drive, are more sexually permissive and are less likely to connect sex with romance. In other words, men seek sex for itself. On average, women seek sex for love, commitment, affirming their desirability, and for the sake of relationship stability. In other words, women seek sex, not for the sake of sex, but as a means to an end which we could call "commitment". As our culture has changed and with the availability of affordable contraception, people are having sex more often and in less and less committed relationships. The result is that in the "sex economy" the "pricing" has been thrown off in that men get what they want for "cheap" (women are willing to have sex without men having to "pay" the "price" of commitment) while women are less and less able to receive the commitment, or the real reasons they tend to seek sex in the first place. This leads to instability in a critical social unit, the family. And it leads to women losing out. The conclusion, then, is that women need to band together and be willing to refuse sex and raise the "price" again in order to encourage a return of commitment and family stability.

I had so many issues with this argument, but I won't go through all of them. The problems of trying to interpret human motivations with economics are so monumental, and I don't have the sociological, psychological and statistical information at hand to address this issue. All I can say here is that the economic interpretation of humans is extremely narrow and missing out on a lot of other pertinent information that would help interpret the data quite differently than how it's presented here.

The most glaring omission in this video's description of how male and female sexuality differ is that a large portion of those differences are social constructs, and even subject to change. It's hard to measure exactly how much of it is social construct and how much is biological, but to act as if men's and women's desires and choices about sex are purely biological and fixed is absurd. You don't have to get very far into the video to find this fatal flaw in its philosophy. Changing this one point affects the rest of the argument. Here is the description of men's sexual behaviors/attitudes.

“On average, men have a higher sex drive than women. Blame it on testosterone, call it whatever you want. But on average, men initiate sex more than women. They’re more sexually permissive than women, and they connect sex to romance less often than women. Nobody is saying this is the way it ought to be; it’s just the way it is.”

Ok. I'm calling it what I want. A social construct. Men initiate sex more because of how we define masculinity and femininity.  And those concepts are fluid, if we allow them to be. Saying that this is how men are and that it's unchangeable is the same thing as saying this is the way it ought to be. Telling women that men inherently get more out of sex itself and that this is "just the way it is" is actually telling women that sex is a competition that they will always lose. It tells women that commitment is the consolation prize for sex, twisting the nature of commitment and devaluing their ability to enjoy sex. It tells women that sex is a tool to get what you want. And I don't buy that it has to be that way.

The argument for the economic view of sex heavily implies that the sexual liberation of women is a negative thing and that it will ultimately lead to their undoing and the undoing of society. While I think the sexual liberation of women is a positive thing, I can understand people feeling uneasy. As social change happens, some things can get off balance for a while. I agree that serious, committed relationships leading to stable family units are critically important to the health of society. But so are healthy, liberated women.  While encouraging women to withhold sex is one possible solution to the commitment problem, it is also a step backward with very negative consequences as well.

I think whether you are a man or woman, being careful and selective about who you have sex with is healthy. Viewing sex as sacred or special is something I highly value.  To turn sex into a commodity, a transaction or a power struggle is fundamentally destructive to a healthy relationship between the sexes in our culture. In fact I believe it is THE fundamental sickness in the male-female relationship. Here's why. Feminism came along and people started to say, "Wait a minute, our ideas about men and women are largely holding women down and oppressing them. We shouldn't shame women into being passive weaklings who don't have a voice or a choice! We need to liberate women!" This was and is a critical first step, and while we still have a long way to go, we've made a lot of headway. But there aren't very many people who are talking about what the next step will be. And we need another step to follow feminism, because if all we do is liberate women we will end up stuck with a lopsided society. This is why people are afraid of feminism. As the world becomes more feminist, traditional masculine roles become more obsolete and there is a possibility that men can lose out in some regards. Rather than moving backwards we need to keep moving forwards and acknowledge that at some point we need a "masculinist" movement. Just as it is unfair to tell women that they can only have sex to get commitment, it's equally unfair to tell men that the only motive they can have for commitment is to get sex. Perpetuating a macho definition of masculinity holds men back in their obsolete and unhealthy role of "oppressor" when there is no one left to oppress.  Rather than telling women to get back in the role of the oppressed, let's liberate men to be the sensitive, emotional beings that they are. Let's end the battle of the sexes and admit that we aren't inherently at war with each other. We're here to relate, not to compete. Sex is a relationship, not a competition.

If we allowed men to liberate themselves from outdated definitions of masculinity and stopped shaming boys for the qualities that are so useful in healthy, committed relationships (namely expressiveness, emotionality, sensitivity, meekness, etc) we wouldn't have to control women. Men could control themselves. And we could all come to a greater actualization of ourselves, not just as men and women, but as humans. We are all expressive, strong, powerful, sensitive, vulnerable, inquisitive, aggressive, passive, confident and meek. Because that's what it is to be human.

I believe if there was legitimate equality sex wouldn't have to be about a power struggle, and with that there wouldn't be anything to prove. Sex could be a relationship, pure and simple. And that is where the inherent connection between sex and commitment really lies.