Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Was the Sexual Revolution a Mistake?

"Women have simple tastes. They get pleasure out of the conversation of children in arms and men in love."
H.L. Mencken
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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.

21 Comments:

At 6:18 PM, November 11, 2008, Blogger Stephen Samild said...

F. Roger Devlin is interesting on this subject, although offensive to some:
http://www.theoccidentalquarterly.com/archives/vol6no2/DevlinTOQV6N2.pdf

 
At 8:44 PM, November 11, 2008, Anonymous Steve said...

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.

I haven't looked at hard data on the subject, but certainly the impression I get from fiction of the 19th and early 20th centuries is that people did propose to the first even moderately plausible candidate, because that was the only respectable way to get sex, and people in their teens and twenties are highly motivated to get sex.

 
At 9:44 PM, November 11, 2008, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

>If so, the gains to (some) adults may have been purchased at large cost to many children ...

But those children *would not exist* without the sexual revolution, so shouldn't the argument be that these children, who wouldn't otherwise be born, *benefited*?

 
At 10:07 PM, November 11, 2008, Blogger perfectlyGoodInk said...

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.

Of course, to introduce yet another wrinkle, search would get easier should polyamory become more culturally accepted (and exit wouldn't be necessary).

 
At 11:10 PM, November 11, 2008, Blogger Jonathan said...

I'm inclined to agree with Steve; I think there were a lot of unsuitable marriages in the old days.

Informal cohabitation allows people a 'trial run' before marriage, which may enable them to find out that they're unsuited to each other. Previously, I think people often got married hardly knowing each other. I think this was true of my parents, for instance, though they were luckier than some in the way it turned out.

 
At 11:36 PM, November 11, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

Phil suggests that the children in question wouldn't exist. I'm not sure if he means that different children would have been born or that fewer would have. If the latter, then my argument suggests the opposite--that without the sexual revolution women would have been more able to get husbands and so more willing to bear children.

The former would require a longer answer, and it's late.

 
At 4:31 AM, November 12, 2008, Anonymous chris hoffmann said...

Very interesting, but I do have my doubts about the second point. Doesn't the fact that cohabitation has become an option lower the transaction costs of the marriage market? I would guess that the rate of trial-and-error-relationships has dramatically increased since. Shouldn't that increase the efficiency of the marriage market?

 
At 6:15 AM, November 12, 2008, Blogger Arthur B. said...

Contraception can also raise the number of accidental pregnancies. Consider a woman seeking casual sex and not desiring to get pregnant. Ih she has no access to contraception, she has to balance the benefit of sex with a high probability of being pregnant. Very few women will find the tradeoff to be in favor of sex, and only those will have accidental pregnancies, whith a high probability. A woman which has contraception has to balance a very low probability of being pregnant (she may forget her pill, condoms break, etc) with the benefit of sex. Much more women will find the tradeof to be in favor of sex. Thus, the lower probability of becoming pregnant is offset by a larger base of women having casual sex. If an X-fold reduction in the risk of unwanted pregnancy after sex is followed by a Y-fold growth of women engaging in casual sex, and Y>X contraception increases unwanted pregnancies. I evaluate X to have a rough order of magnitude 10, and intuitively think Y is much higher as there is a threshold effect. If women are roughly similar, the proportion of women engaging in casual sex will go from around 0 to around 1 when the probability of pregnancy passes a certain threshold that makes sex preferable.

 
At 10:20 AM, November 12, 2008, Anonymous nicole said...

I would agree with steve and Jonathan.

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.

It seems to me that the only requirement for mutual assent to marriage under the old system was wanting to have sex, or possibly getting accidentally pregnant. Not a high bar to clear. People marrying under the old system wouldn't even know if they could stand living in the same space as one another, which cohabitating couples at least do.

 
At 1:00 PM, November 12, 2008, Blogger jimbino said...

There's something screwy about sex in America. Men report far more sex partners than women do do, on average. Men report far more first-date sex than women, on average.

How can this be? Is that much more sex occurring man-on-man or perhaps in threesomes of 2M+1W?

http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/PollVault/Story?id=156921&page=1

 
At 4:37 PM, November 12, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

Arthur points out that contraception might increase the number of accidental pregnancies, if the amount of sex increased by more than the probability of intercourse leading to pregnancy decreased, which is indeed possible. Abortion, however, remains as a backstop to contraception.

Jimbino thinks there is something screwy about sex in America. The obvious interpretation of the data is that men overstate and women understate the number of partners they have had.

 
At 11:24 PM, November 12, 2008, Blogger Damien Sullivan said...

* non-Christian societies are typically a lot looser of divorce, though they vary on the rights that the women has in this. Ancient Egypt reportedly had legal equality and no state involvement in marriage; privately contracts were generally about support of the woman in case of divorce. The Aka and the Tuareg are tribes/groups where the woman can divorce by putting the man's stuff outside.

* The US may provide its own controls. Divorce is highest in the Bible Belt. I haven't investigated, but suspect this is related to "no sex before marriage" and lots of hasty and early marriages, where liberal urbanites would just live together. Both often split after a few years, but the Bible Belters pay more to lawyers and produce more children to be raised by divorced now-single mothers. Or so I posit.

* "birth out of wedlock" has other factors, such as inner-city black culture, "helped" out by public housing and the war on some drugs. I don't think white women, especially middle-class ones, are so out-of-wedlock prone, despite enjoying the sexual revolution as much or more than their sisters.

* Scandinavia has lots of out-of-wedlock birth; they also have strong social support (state, but also families), and Christianized by royal fiat, and possibly not that deeply.

 
At 6:42 AM, November 13, 2008, Blogger John Sullivan said...

"Was the sexual revolution a mistake?"

First, the question makes no sense. Nothing in life or history is a mistake.

History reveals the evolutionary unraveling of power--from the few to the many, or put differently, from tribalism to individualism. All historical events are brought forth by individuals, often in groups, seeking some form or another of power. Just as the slave wants to be free, the free man today votes to enslave others. Everyone is part of this social, economic and political evolution based on our inherent selfish nature (psychological egoism).

The evolutionary process of liberalism encompassess all aspects of individual liberation from collectivist morality as well. The institution of Marriage has concentrated group power in both the Churchs and the States and the individuals aren't yet free to make their own marriage contracts that take precedence over existing state laws--although the slow erosion of group laws is taking place.

 
At 9:01 AM, November 13, 2008, Blogger Don said...

"The evolutionary process of liberalism encompassess all aspects of individual liberation from collectivist morality as well."

I hope to God you mean *classical* liberalism, because left wing thought tends toward collectivism, if not outright slavery.

Also, you forget that the evolutionary tendency to move from collectivism to individualism is countered, in the modern world, by the historical tendency to move from individualism to mob rule. They call this democracy. The founders were suitably suspicious of the process.

 
At 10:01 AM, November 14, 2008, Anonymous Perry The Cynic said...

@David:
Men are genetically predisposed to have children as much as women, and there's a reasonable argument that they are more so; but men are less predisposed to participate in raising them. This does not seem to affect the balance of your argument.

@Phil Birmbaum:
Only if any existence is deemed better than no existence. A buddhist would not agree with this (Samsara and all that).

@jonathan:
The interesting question is to what extent cohabitation acts as a trial run, and to what extent it acts as a substitution.

Cheers
-- perry

 
At 12:33 PM, November 15, 2008, Blogger John_David_Galt said...

Opposition to the sexual revolution centers on the notion that sex should not be treated as a commodity. That argument is in fact exactly the same as (and therefore logically equivalent to) Karl Marx's argument that labor is not a commodity. Women who so argue are simply rent-seekers, trying to increase the price they can extract from men by driving "libertines" out of competition with themselves.

The rise in births out of wedlock is completely explained by two factors you didn't mention: the current child-support-enforcement legal system (in which a woman who gets pregnant decides what to do with the fetus, but if she chooses to keep the child and raise it, the man is forced to pay the huge incremental cost of that choice), and the welfare system (which heavily subsidizes the production of children, including offering to pay any teenage girl to leave home and form her own household as soon as she bears a child). Both of these unjust practices exist throughout the British commonwealth as well as in the US, and so long as they do, they give women a huge incentive to get pregnant by fraud.

Women who profit from either of these laws, or from the outlawing of prostitution, do not deserve respect and give a bad name to all women.

 
At 9:20 AM, November 19, 2008, Anonymous F2XL said...

Honest to God, even though I'm 17 and have only just begun the transition to anarcho-capitalism, I must say there are few people I can agree with on an issue like this as much as I agree with you.

Though it's absurd to think we can somehow monitor every website on the net and regulate culture altogether, there's little reason to doubt that we've become an extremely superficial culture as the result of the sexual revolution.

 
At 10:00 AM, November 26, 2008, Anonymous Linda said...

There are other obvious factors contributing to the "out of wedlock" birth stats that have nothing to do with the higher availability of sexual partners.

First, marriage as a legal institution is no longer (except perhaps in strongly religious communities) regarded as a social imperative, and some regard it as morally offensive, so that mothers who are legally regarded as being "single" can at the same time be in long-term supportive relationships, and this is in fact not uncommon among the young urban and in less-conservative populations (e.g. hippies, pagans, etc.)

Second, marriage of father and mother can and does occur after birth, as shotgun marriages have gone out of style.

Third (and this is probably more relevant to the single mother stats than the out-of-wedlock stats,) women now have the legal and social power to leave men. Not all single mothers are single by virtue of having been victimized by philandering men; they leave for reasons of abuse, conflicting life goals or parenting beliefs, or just a simple "falling out of love".

 
At 11:10 PM, November 27, 2008, Blogger Harvey Irene said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 4:34 PM, December 09, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David's starting post is a shrewd and wise one. His long association with Mrs Friedman appears to have given him much food for thought!

I define the "sexual revolution" as follows. The 20th century saw a vast increase in the:

1. Sexual content of the printed word and visual imagery. Censorship died, and lust has become one more urge to be gratified by our market economy.

2. Likelihood that a marriage end in divorce rather than death. Almost certainly, this is mainly due to the rising human capital of women, consistent with most divorces being initiated by the woman.

3. Willingness of couples to live together without sanction of clergy or state.

4. Fraction of mothers not married at the time they gave birth.

5. Quality and availability of contraception and abortion. The rise in abortions has been more dramatic in the USA than in western Europe.

6. Labor force participation of married women.

Prostitution, on the other hand, may have stagnated or even declined.

I wonder if domestic violence has not increased. If it has, that is ipso facto evidence that there is something amiss with the new sexual order.

Over much of the 20th century, the frequency of sexual assault rose, and that was strong evidence that something was amiss. Fortunately, that trend stopped when the DNA in semen could be linked to the DNA of a suspect.

MacKinnon/Dworkin feminists argue that (1)-(5) were forced down women's throats by lecherous men. I suspect that younger women quietly desired or at least acquiesced in (1)-(5).

Are men better or worse off? They experience less guilt about their sexual urges. They are less pressured to commit and be responsible, which may make many men happier but may also give rise to adverse externalities for women and children.

Are women better or worse off? Again there is vastly less guilt and vastly more anatomical sophistication. But it has become much harder for a woman to find a stable lifelong partner, and women desire such a partner so they will be secure while they rear children and afterwards, when their youthful beauty fades.

Are children better off? The work of Barbara Whitehead and others of her ilk suggests that they are not. I would also point to the ruthless sexualization of girls in childhood, adolescence, and university life. Hundreds of thousands of young women have posted on the Net digital snapshots of themselves in explicit and compromising positions; quite a few do so for money. This stuff is by no means walled off by AdultCheck; hence girls have easy access to material that encourages them to be lewd and rude. Cellphones with internet access mean porn URLs can be easily disseminated among teens.

A high divorce rate deters both sexes from investing in their marriages. This makes children of marriage unambiguously worse off.

There is no evidence that guilt-free cohabitation and dissolution of cohabitation has increased the quality of marriages. That is because marriage is less a two-sided matching problem than a matter of commitment and investment. Hence marriages are seldom made in heaven but are instead the prosaic work of human hands. Men have always had trouble with this point. It was instinctive for most women in the past, but not nowadays. And there's the rub...

 
At 10:22 PM, February 15, 2009, Blogger dr said...

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