Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Baumeister and Vohs Build A Market For Sex. PART 2.


The previous post introduced you to two researchers who advocate something called "sexual economics" as the explanation for gender relationships, the problem with unmotivated young men at schools and colleges and probably everything else, too.  This post will take a much closer look at the concept of "sexual economics" than is probably deserved, given that the concept is created and used by two people who are not economists.  The final and third post will look more closely at the authors' argument that essentially all organizations are created by men because women don't have what it takes.

What IS "sexual economics?"  Astonishingly, the authors fail to define the term.  I have in mind something like the term "labor economics" here.  That refers to a sub-field of economics which analyses the supply and demand of labor in various markets.  Do the authors mean that "sexual economics" is a sub-field of economics which analyses the supply and demand of sex in various markets?  If so, what are those markets?  Actual prostitution?  Marriage as long-term prostitution contracts?  What is the role of one-night stands where no money or gifts are given to the "seller" of sex?

Perhaps all that?  But then what, exactly, IS the price of sex in such markets?  Does it constitute of money only?  How is that price determined?  In some parts of the article Baumeister and Vohs seem to argue that the market supply and demand determine the price, as in a competitive marketplace.  When supply rises, the price falls.  When demand rises, the price rises.  Thus, relative scarcity of the participants in the marketplace affects the price.  But the participants in a market for heterosexual sex are roughly identical in numbers, given the rough equality of men and women of each age group in the population.  Situations of real scarcity of one gender are unusual and atypical and the current US situation doesn't conform to one of those.

Yet later on in the same piece the authors argue that women collude, create a sexual cartel, and decrease the supply of sex by such collusion.  But we cannot have both competitive markets and a cartel at the same time.  If one becomes the other, we need an explanation why that happened.  That explanation is missing.

The kindest way to interpret the Baumeister-Vohs hypothesis is that they believe the best metaphor for sexual encounters is prostitution and its markets.  Because the only real-world sexual markets consist of prostitution.  All other possible markets for sex are theoretical constructs at best.

General Problems with Applying the Market Metaphor to Sex

And there is a very good reason for that.  For the moment, abstract away from the kinds of markets where a basically sexually uninterested woman sells an intercourse or a blow job or whatever to a man who wants those services and pays for them in money.  That situation fits well into the study of labor in general though with many complications, some rather worrisome (such as sexual trafficking).   Instead of that, think of the general kind of heterosexual encounter where the parties are both at least somewhat motivated by sexual desire.

That fits poorly into the general labor economics framework.  I have tried to think of a comparable example from various economic goods and services but I can't think of one which would be routinely discussed in economic terms.  In reality, both sides in such an encounter are demanding and supplying (or buying and selling) at the same time.  The encounter has mutual benefits.

This is what Baumeister and Vohs cut out when they state:

Sexual marketplaces take the shape they do because nature has biologically built a disadvantage into men: a huge desire for sex that makes men dependent on women. Men’s greater desire puts them at a disadvantage, just as when two parties are negotiating a possible sale or deal, the one who is more eager to make the deal is in a weaker position than the one who is willing to walk away without the deal. Women certainly desire sex too — but as long as most women desire it less than most men, women have a collective advantage, and social roles and interactions will follow scripts that give women greater power than men (Baumeister et al. 2001).

They abstract away from the mutual enjoyment of sex by stipulating that women's alleged lower desire makes them the suppliers of sex and that men's alleged higher desire makes them the demanders of sex.  I'm not sure if such a transition makes sense. We move from mutual though perhaps unequal benefits to women providing sex for money.  It's worth noting, at least.

But what really should be pointed out in that quote from the article is an important but hidden shift:

By stipulating that we should use the market metaphor, the authors can then argue " but as long as most women desire it less than most men, women have a collective advantage, and social roles and interactions will follow scripts that give women greater power than men."   

That interpretation derives DIRECTLY from the assumption that sex is traded in a marketplace where equally independent and informed participants trade resources to which the property rights are clearly defined (i.e., that women "own" their sexuality and can trade in it without any punishments, for instance).

This is a crucial point.  The authors have not proven to us that sex actually is traded in some giant marketplace.  But the assumption that women, as the ones who have the sex men want, have a collective advantage depends totally on the market assumption.  It does not derive from empirical evidence, and it is implicitly based on the idea that women and men are equally unhindered in their market moves and that women alone own their sexuality.

When a market metaphor is used, the results will depend on that metaphor.  The side of the market which is scarcer has more power.  But note that antique Chinese vases are scarce in the marketplace for antique pottery, and they still have no particular power.  That's because the power is vested in the owners of the vases, not the vases themselves.  So it's worth asking to what extent women have traditionally owned their sexuality.  Have they been able to trade in it in some fairly legal-looking marketplace, without laws or societal shunning and so on putting pressure on them?

Poorly Specified Supply Curves of Sex

To me the answer is pretty obvious:  Historically the cases where women have had full ownership to their own sexuality have been less common than the cases where someone else owns that sexuality.  The usual owners include a young woman's parents, a woman's husband and even her brothers and sons.   Even in the markets for prostitution pimps may be viewed as the actual owner of the traded woman's sexuality in some cases.

Likewise, laws have traditionally criminalized both adultery and prostitution. Certain types of sexual marketplaces have been illegal markets.  In many cases the punishment has fallen more heavily on the women than on the men.  Prostitutes were in the past treated as criminals when their customers were not.  The Old Testament tells us that adulterers should be stoned but that rule applied to female adulterers.  In some countries the laws concerning adultery have been more severe on women suspected of adultery than on men.

The shaming of "loose women" is a common cultural phenomenon.  The shaming of "loose men" is something I've never come across in my reading.  Societies have traditionally punished women who engage in short-term sexual dalliances, whether they receive payment for those or not, and these punishments have been an actual cost of sex for women.

What about those costs of providing sex in general?  Baumeister and Vohs are silent about that.  In their world the only variable affecting the demand and supply is men's greater libido.  But any economic modeling of markets requires much more detail than that.  As an obvious example,  the price at which a firm is willing to sell you a cell phone depends on the costs of producing that phone.  It depends on many other factors, too, but clearly the costs of production enter into the calculus.

Using the Baumeister-Vohs market metaphor, what are the costs women face in selling sex to men, the kinds of costs men as the sex buyers do not face?  Those costs MUST be taken into account in modeling the supply of sex, even though Baumeister and Vohs do not.

I can think of at least three such costs, historically speaking.  The most obvious one is the risk of pregnancy when it is not wanted (and it cannot be wanted in every encounter in something like the metaphoric sex markets, because if it was, then a better model of these markets would be as the women demanding children and the men supplying them).  The risk of death in childbirth has always not been as small as it is in the western countries today.  Any woman selling sex in the Baumeister-Vohs scenario would have had to take into account the possibility that the encounter could lead to her death.

Even if the pregnancy and childbirth resulting from a sexual encounter passed smoothly, the woman would have faced the additional costs of taking care of the child.  In extramarital liaisons she would have been pretty much on her own.  Before paternity tests became available a man could credibly deny that he was the child's father.  The best way to do that was by arguing that the woman had had several lovers or that she was a prostitute.

A market metaphor which is based on gender differences in desire but not on the biggest gender difference in the cost of having sex?   Now that I really think of this I'm flabbergasted.

Other important costs of non-marital sex for women have traditionally been the possibility of sexual violence (especially given the illegal and semi-legal markets in which much prostitution took place and which the society hasn't bothered to police) and the societal shunning of "loose women."  Men with many partners might be called Casanovas, women with many partners might be called whores, even if they receive no money for the sex.

Today such societal punishments can be trivial.  But in the past they were certainly not trivial.  A woman who lost her reputation might have been made to stand up in church to be publicly scolded, she might have found it impossible to get employment in the town or village in which her "loose morality" became known.  In Victorian England upper-class families might fire a maid who became pregnant.  That the male participant in the sexual encounter might have been her employer, his guest or his son was of no consequence.

Legal consequences of these societal punishments just took the control of "loose women" one step further.

What is the point  about talking so much on the costs of selling sex?  It's a simple one:  If we are to build a market for heterosexual exchanges of sex, that market has to have properly defined supply and demand curves.  To replace those with just the argument that men want sex more than women do is not economic analysis.

If costs matter, how about income?  The Baumeister-Vohs model ignores that one, too.  But note that there could be no sex trade of the kind they stipulate if men had no resources to barter for sex.  For a market to exist, the buyers need to be able to pay the price the market asks.

Seeing why the sellers' incomes matter here is only one step more complicated.  If I had to model the sexual exchanges and if I was forced to view the women as the sellers of sex then I'd use some kind of a modified labor framework for the analysis.  From that angle women sell sex the same way workers sell hours of work.  The supply of those hours depends on many factors, but one of the most important ones is the level of income the worker has from other sources.  People who can afford to live without working in the labor market often do exactly that.

Similarly, a woman might not need to sell sex if she has access to other sources of income.  For instance, a woman who has a job with a living wage doesn't have to engage in prostitution or marry someone (as in a long-term prostitution contract).  Other things being the same, then, the more access women have to alternative sources of income, the less sex they would be willing to supply in the Baumeister-Vohs world.

This matters quite a bit.  In an extreme case we could turn the whole framework upside down and argue that men are selling women food and lodging and that women are buying it from men with sex, because various factors (such as men's greater upper body strength) have resulted in men having more food and lodging.  Flip the Baumeister-Vohs model upside-down and see what you get.

But the effect of alternative sources of income also provides quite different predictions inside this weird prostitution view of the relationship between men and women.  For instance, because women now have more access to jobs and incomes of their own, one would predict that the sale of "desperation sex" would have decreased.  This conflicts with some of the evidence Baumeister and Vohs think is relevant, such as the current near-orgy state of college campuses where men have all the sex they want because they are so scarce.

On the other hand, those costs of providing sex have drastically decreased for women because of improved medical care which has made giving birth much safer and, more importantly, because of the contraceptive pill.  It is a form of contraception with low failure rate and it is a form of contraception women control.  If I had to explain the change in college sexual mores I'd point my finger at the pill, not at the explanation Baumeister and Vohs propose.  Their explanation does not derive from the prostitution model at all:

The changes in gender politics since 1960 can be seen as involving a giant trade, in which both genders yielded something of lesser importance to them in order to get something they wanted more (Baumeister and Vohs 2004). As Regnerus states, partly based on our own extensive survey of research findings, men want sex, indeed more than women want it (Baumeister et al. 2001). Women, meanwhile, want not only marriage but also access to careers and preferential treatment in the workplace.
The giant trade thus essentially involved men giving women not only easy access but even preferential treatment in the huge institutions that make up society, which men created.

Incidentally, it's funny how all the academic references in that article go back to Baumeister himself.  He builds a long and respectable-looking chain involving his own work.

An actual sexual market model would have the opposite prediction.  Having access to those "men's organizations" means that women don't have to "sell sex"  to survive.   Other things being the same, the result should be less sale of sex.

But other things, of course, are not the same, because of the advent of the contraceptive pill.  It's also salutary to remind ourselves here that real heterosexual sex might not be women selling and men buying but a somewhat mutually enjoyable activity.

An Intermediate Summary

To summarize:  I have argued that Baumeister and Vohs do not actually create some new theory of sexual economics.  Their supply and demand curves remain empty of any real variables, everything runs on the assumed difference in male and female libidos and the model ignores the costs of sex provision for women as well as the impact of incomes on both the demand and supply side of sex.

Put in slightly different terms, the greater costs of sex for women and their traditionally more limited access to alternative ways of earning a living  could explain women's traditionally lower supply of sex, even if the female libido was like a blowtorch and the male libido like a glowworm in the dark.   The Baumeister-Vohs market metaphor is partial and not really an example of economic analysis.

More importantly, a market metaphor, the way it is used in their article, seduces our eye away from the proximal causes of gender differences in sexual behavior.  It also charms us into not seeing that the relative positions of men and women in the society have traditionally not fitted very well into that market framework of independent agents trading products with each other.

Finally, positing that institutions such as marriage are forms of prostitution is an assumption, not a proven fact or a conclusion from the model.  There are alternative ways of modeling marriage and the raising of children.  Indeed, there are much richer and more realistic ways of modeling sexuality itself than through the expansion of the metaphor of prostitution to the whole concept.

An Application

I can't stop myself form paying some attention to this statement because it is the most revealing one in an article full of pretty unpleasant revelations:

Meanwhile, the implications of the recent social changes for marriage could fill a book. Sexual economics theory has pointed to a wealth of data depicting marriage as a transaction in which the male contributes status and resources while the woman contributes sex (Baumeister and Vohs 2004). How will that play out in the coming decades? The female contribution of sex to the marriage is evanescent: As women age, they lose their sexual appeal much faster than men lose their status and resources, and some alarming evidence even indicates that wives rather quickly lose their desire for sex (Arndt 2009). To sustain a marriage across multiple decades, many husbands must accommodate to the reality of having to contribute work and other resources to a wife whose contribution of sex dwindles sharply in both quantity and quality—and who also may disapprove sharply of him seeking satisfaction in alternative outlets such as prostitution, pornography, and extramarital dalliance.

This is not the most enjoyable paragraph I have ever read.  It argues that "sexual economic theory" depicts a marriage as a transaction in which the male contributes status and resources while the woman contributes sex.  The reference to the "wealth of data" is to Baumeister and Vohs themselves.

But is it true that the "male" contributes status and resources  while the "woman" only contributes sex?*  Don't women do anything else in marriage but lie on a bed with their legs spread?  Who takes care of the children?  Who cleans the house?  Who cooks, does the laundry, does the dishes, shops for food?  Who takes care of ailing relatives, remembers family birthdays, organizes and caters the family get-togethers?  Even in the most traditional types of marriages the women contribute much more than sex.  Besides, to the extent that women's libidos work at all, the men also contribute sex.

Today most women have jobs outside the home.  They contribute resources and even status, I think.  But Baumeister and Vohs regard women's only contribution the sale of sex.

On top of that, they argue that women's sexual appeal is lost much faster with age than the status and resources of men.  What sort of studies could prove something of that sort?  My guess is that it's Baumeister's own personal opinion that informed him when that sentence was penned down. 

But note that men can easily lose both resources and status (just as women can, of course).  Jobs can disappear, market investments can go bad and a man can do something stupid to lose his status.  Likewise, men can lose their sexual appeal as they age, but this possibility is simply ignored in the above quote.  Because of the view of sex as prostitution where men are the buyers and women the sellers, how women feel about men's sexual appeal doesn't matter.

What about the loss of interest in sex?  That Arndt reference is to a book by an Australian sex therapist who recruited roughly 100 couples to keep diaries of their sexual lives.  She drew the conclusion that women's loss of libido is the biggest problem mentioned, though ten of the couples had the reverse problem and nowhere did I find data on how many couples had evenly matched libidos.

The problem with Arndt's study is that it's based on self selection.  Couples who have happy sex lives are less likely to enter a study where they have to keep sex diaries for months than those who are unhappy with their sex lives.

Here's an important point, ignored by Baumeister and Vohs though:

Some statistics suggest that half of all men over fifty have erection problems.  Thus, from a historical perspective, the loss of either desire for sex or the ability to engage in it has been shared by both sexes.  The introduction of Viagra and other similar drugs has changed older men's ability to have sex. But the imbalance this has created (with no comparable treatment available for women) is a new one, not some historically correct fact.

The point of this application is that the tone of the Baumeister-Vohs paper is very hostile to women, based on some loathing much deeper than that available from the use of a market metaphor for sex.  It denies women any other role, ultimately, than that of a prostitute, and it argues that older prostitutes do a shitty job while still getting paid.   Inside marriages, that is.

The Sexual Cartel Of Scheming Women

My final contribution to criticizing the Baumeister-Vohs sex-as-prostitution model has to do with this:

It is worth pointing out that the cultural suppression of female sexuality is a particular victory for sexual economics theory. The two dominant theoretical perspectives about sex, evolutionary psychology and feminist/constructionist theory, both strongly predicted the opposite. In a rare agreement between those two, both views proposed that cultures suppress female sexuality to serve male interests, and so male influence has been paramount. Evolutionary theory said that the cultural suppression of female sexuality arose because men wanted to restrain women’s sexuality so as to be sure that their partners would be faithful (so the men could be confident of paternity). Feminist theory almost always harks back to male oppression, and so the cultural suppression of female sexuality reflected men’s desires to dominate women, possess them, and/or prevent them from finding sexual fulfillment. In both cases, the cultural suppression of female sexuality should come from men. Yet the evidence overwhelmingly indicated that the cultural suppression of female sexuality is propagated and sustained by women (Baumeister and Twenge 2002). Only sexual economics theory predicted that result. Similar to how OPEC seeks to maintain a high price for oil on the world market by restricting the supply, women have often sought to maintain a high price for sex by restricting each other’s willingness to supply men with what men want.

Bolds are mine.

I went and dug out the reference given in the bolded sentence, to see what the overwhelming evidence is that tells us women culturally suppress female sexuality.  It was a fun read.

One thing needs clarification before I tell you about the evidence, and that is what the authors might mean by the "cultural suppression of female sexuality."  The concept in the 2002 Baumeister and Twenge article varies a lot.  It begins with the idea that this cultural suppression is an attempt to lower women's libido directly.  It then applies the same name to husbands jealously guarding their wives in order to stop being cuckolded, and finally applies the term to phenomena such as mothers warning their daughters not to sleep with boys as teenagers.  It also argues that Female Genital Mutilation is part of this female OPEC cartel:  Older women in countries which practice FGM do it because it serves to reduce the supply of sex from women and thus raises its price**.  Finally, women are more moralistic than men and more opposed to things like the sexual revolution as well as nastier about other women's reputations than men are.***

The description of how women collude to decrease the supply of sex focuses on mothers.  If mothers warn their daughters about the dangers of pregnancy or the dangers of social ostracism of becoming the girl who f**ks all the boys at school, then she is colluding to reduce the supply of sex.  If fathers don't give this type of advice to their daughters, then men are not limiting their daughters' sexual lives.

Likewise, girlfriends who stigmatize a teenager with an atypical sexual life are viewed as nasty OPEC-type monopolists, even if the stigmatization might apply equally well to girls who remain virgins as to those who have sex with many boys.  That the girl's OWN boyfriend is usually found to encourage her to have more sex (though of course only with him), is seen as evidence supporting the absence of any kind of male control of female sexuality!

I had lots of fun reading through the list of evidence.  It looks like the only way for women not to restrain other women's supply of sex to men would be if they urged those women to go on and have more sex.  That, too, takes place.  But to interpret all the female discussions about heterosexual intercourse as a competition-limiting move does take a very weird kind of mind.

What about laws which criminalize prostitution and female adultery more than male adultery?  Those laws have existed a long time before women had any access to law courts or voting booths.  Baumeister and Twenge don't have a very good counterargument for the fact that this is at least one part of the cartel-building which appears to belong to either men alone or to both men and women.

What do they do instead?  Wait for this because it's really hilarious.  When it turns out that laws, indeed, have punished female sexuality more than male sexuality, what do Baumeister and Twenge do?  They state this:

A piecemeal approach to sex laws seems doomed to fail, however, in part because of the thousands upon thousands of law-making bodies and laws, and also in part because of selective enforcement. Undoubtedly, one could cite various specific laws or specific patterns of unequal enforcement to argue that either gender has been targeted here or there. Instead of such an anecdotal, interpretive approach, it seems most appropriate to look at the summary statistics regarding arrests for sex crimes. The male control approach holds that men want to stifle and control female sexuality while letting male sexuality have relatively free rein. If this is correct, then the laws passed by male legislatures  and enforced by male-dominated police forces will lead mainly to the prosecution of women.

Bolds are mine.  It's an eerie experience to read through an article which is pretty preposterous but at least follows basic academic conventions and then comes across something like this.  Baumeister and Twenge argue that if more male rapists are prosecuted than female rapists, then the laws can't be seen as attempting to curtail female sexuality.

They do a similar magic trick with the data on religious suppression of female sexual agency.  Because there's no way getting around the fact that the three male-dominated Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), limit the allowable sexual behavior for women much more than that for men, the authors shift sideway, don their funny hats and argue that none of this is really any kind of evidence because women like church-going more than men.

That's how one finds  "overwhelming data" on women suppressing the supply of sex to men, to create a cartel like the OPEC.   But the initial setup of that 2002 article is a red herring.   Few people would argue that either men or women try to dampen women's libidos even further.  The real question is about the control of female sexuality and access to it.

*How odd that one can almost always spot a misogynist treatment by the use of "male" with the use of "woman" or by the use of "males" exclusively to refer to human males which we usually call men.  I have no idea what this is all about but it's far too common to be accidental.

**Baumeister and Twenge argue that men in those countries prefer intact women, based on one reference, and this reference is then used to imply that it is the women who do not.   But in reality the situation is much more complex than that:

Where female genital mutilation is widely practised,  it is supported by both men and women, usually without question, and anyone departing from the norm may face condemnation, harassment, and ostracism.

Although attitudes towards Female Genital Mutilation are changing in Africa, among both women and men, it is not correct to argue that some one study tells us no man has ever been for it.  From a study carried out in Hamburg among African immigrants:
The most frequently named advantage by both women and men participants was that FGM/C leads to a decrease of sexual desire that helps women to be faithful and to abstain from promiscuous behaviour.
“Female circumcision is our culture and it is a good thing. Uncut women are always scratching themselves [masturbating], and when they scratch, it means that they have to get satisfied from one man to the next. Women need to be circumcised to stop this jumping around from one man to another.” (man of Nigerian origin)
“…it has to be done because women who are not cut are not sexually satisfied and they have many partners which can lead to divorce. I can say that I never had sex with a -circumcised woman.” (man of Nigerian origin)
Some men also shared the idea that FGM/C had a positive influence on the general behaviour of women by making them respectful and submissive.
“Circumcised women are good women. They obey and respect their husbands. They don’t talk rubbish and don’t have big mouths. They don’t look around for other men. I is up to me whether I choose to circumcise my daughter or not. It is nobody else’s concern.” (man of Nigerian origin)

***It's not possible for me to go back to the original literature the 2002 article uses but I wouldn't be surprised if the references in it aren't picked selectively.  For instance,  is it really true that boys at school give absolutely zero hassle to the girl who is suspected of going to bed with all boys?   And that it's only the other mean girls who stigmatize her?  Based on what I read on the Internet, I very seriously doubt that.