Was the Sexual Revolution a Mistake?
My son Patri has a recent blog post raising the question of whether pornography may be harmful to relationships; he points out, correctly, that even if one thinks something should be legal it does not follow that it is desirable. In the same spirit, I want to explore the possibility that the sexual revolution, or at least parts of it, on net made the world a worse place. The argument has two parts:
1. One would expect the availability of reliable contraception and legal abortion to have sharply reduced the number of children born out of wedlock. In fact it was accompanied, in the U.S. and abroad, with a steep increase in that number. Correlation is not causation but it does raise the possibility of causation, especially when it goes in precisely the opposite of the predicted direction.
One possible explanation, which I have discussed elsewhere, looks at the effect of the link between sex and childbearing on the opportunities available to women who want children. In a world without contraception, sex and children are joint products. Rearing a child without a husband to help support you is hard, so women are reluctant to have sex without at least a commitment to marriage if a child results. Men want sex (as do women), but men don't get pregnant, and men arguably are less interested in producing children than women are. The result is that men are willing to commit to support children in order to get (among other things) a reliable source of sex.
Contraception and abortion break the link. Now women who don't want children and do enjoy sex provide an alternative for men who don't want to support children. Their competition drives down the price in commitment that women who do want children can charge to men who want sex. Hence women who want children often find that no suitable man is willing to commit to support them and end up as single mothers.
So far as the adults are concerned, there is no obvious reason to regard this as a bad thing; some people are better off, some worse off. Conventional economic analysis would show it to be a transfer plus a net gain; I leave the demonstration as an exercise for the reader.
But the adults are not the only ones concerned. It is widely believed, and may well be true, that children brought up in a single parent household end up with worse lives than those brought up by a married couple. If so, the gains to (some) adults may have been purchased at large cost to many children, and perhaps to others whom those children affect.
2. So far I have described marriage as only about sex and childbearing, and have implicitly assumed, as economists normally do, that the individuals involved act rationally. I now want to expand the first part of that and hedge on the second. Marriage is also about a complicated set of emotional and material benefits, what I think of as a nest, something that can exist without children and could even exist without sex. For a lot of people, men and women, the world is often a cold and lonely place, and it is nice to have somewhere you belong, with someone who loves you and whom you love.
In a world where non-marital cohabitation is for most people not an option--roughly speaking, the U.S. prior to the 1960's--the usual way of satisfying those desires is marriage. Because, in that world, marriage was seen as a very long term commitment, men and women were reluctant to engage in it without sufficient search to convince themselves that they had found the, or at least a, right partner. Sometimes they were wrong, but less often than if they had been willing to propose to the first even moderately plausible candidate.
In the current world, cohabitation provides many of the same short term benefits as marriage without the long term commitment. Once in such a relationship, however, both search and exit become harder than they were in the pre-marital state under the older system. If you have a nest to come home to, it can be hard to abandon it for the cold world outside and a renewed search. If you are fond of your partner, breaking up is hard to do even if an objective consideration persuades you that it is in the long term interest of both parties. Hence cohabitation may be continued, converted into marriage or the near equivalent, even if the parties are not as well suited to each other as would have been required for mutual assent to marriage under the old system.
At this point I am abandoning, or at least weakening, the assumption of rationality. Sufficiently rational partners would understand all this and choose between cohabitation and search accordingly. But rationality in this context is under pressure from two directions. Many of us are poor at making tradeoffs between short term and long term, as the usual state of my weight demonstrates. And the emotions associated with love, sex, and cohabitation may not be entirely conducive to rational thought. If so, the availability of an attractive short term substitute for marriage may result, in the long term, in ending up with the wrong person.