More Sex is Safer Sex

The eco­nom­ic case for promiscuity

It’s true: AIDS is nature’s awful ret­ri­bu­tion for our tol­er­ance of immod­er­ate and social­ly irre­spon­si­ble sex­u­al behav­ior. The epi­dem­ic is the price of our per­mis­sive atti­tudes toward monogamy, chasti­ty, and oth­er forms of sex­u­al conservatism.

You’ve read else­where about the sin of promis­cu­ity. Let me tell you about the sin of self-restraint.

Sup­pose you walk into a bar and find four poten­tial sex part­ners. Two are high­ly promis­cu­ous; the oth­ers ven­ture out only once a year. The promis­cu­ous ones are, of course, more like­ly to be HIV-pos­i­tive. That gives you a 50–50 chance of find­ing a rel­a­tive­ly safe match.

But sup­pose all once-a-year rev­el­ers could be trans­formed into twice-a-year rev­el­ers. Then, on any giv­en night, you’d run into twice as many of them. Those two promis­cu­ous bar patrons would be out­num­bered by four of their more cau­tious rivals. Your odds of a rel­a­tive­ly safe match just went up from 50–50 to four out of six.

That’s why increased activ­i­ty by sex­u­al con­ser­v­a­tives can slow down the rate of infec­tion and reduce the preva­lence of AIDS. In fact, accord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Michael Kre­mer of MIT’s eco­nom­ics depart­ment, the spread of AIDS in Eng­land could plau­si­bly be retard­ed if every­one with few­er than about 2.25 part­ners per year were to take addi­tion­al part­ners more fre­quent­ly. That cov­ers three-quar­ters of British het­ero­sex­u­als between the ages of 18 and 45. (Much of this col­umn is inspired by Pro­fes­sor Kre­mer’s research.

If mul­ti­ple part­ner­ships save lives, then monogamy can be dead­ly. Imag­ine a coun­try where almost all women are monog­a­mous, while all men demand two female part­ners per year. Under those con­di­tions, a few pros­ti­tutes end up ser­vic­ing all the men. Before long, the pros­ti­tutes are infect­ed; they pass the dis­ease to the men; and the men bring it home to their monog­a­mous wives. But if each of those monog­a­mous wives was will­ing to take on one extra­mar­i­tal part­ner, the mar­ket for pros­ti­tu­tion would die out, and the virus, unable to spread fast enough to main­tain itself, might die out along with it.

Or con­sid­er Joan, who attend­ed a par­ty where she ought to have met the charm­ing and healthy Mar­tin. Unfor­tu­nate­ly Fate, through its agents at the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol, inter­vened. The morn­ing of the par­ty, Mar­tin ran across one of those CDC-spon­sored sub­way ads tout­ing the virtues of absti­nence. Chas­tened, he decid­ed to stay home. In Mar­t­in’s absence, Joan hooked up with the equal­ly charm­ing but con­sid­er­ably less pru­dent Maxwell–and Joan got AIDS. Absti­nence can be even dead­lier than monogamy.

If those sub­way ads are more effec­tive against the cau­tious Mar­tins than against the reck­less Maxwells, then they are a threat to the hap­less Joans. This is espe­cial­ly so when they dis­place Calvin Klein ads, which might have put Mar­tin in a more social­ly benef­i­cent mood.

You might object that even if Mar­tin had dal­lied with Joan, he would only have freed Maxwell to prey on anoth­er equal­ly inno­cent vic­tim. To this there are two replies. First, we don’t know that Maxwell would have found anoth­er part­ner: With­out Joan, he might have struck out that night. Sec­ond, reduc­ing the rate of HIV trans­mis­sion is in any event not the only social goal worth pur­su­ing: If it were, we’d out­law sex entire­ly. What we real­ly want is to min­i­mize the num­ber of infec­tions result­ing from any giv­en num­ber of sex­u­al encoun­ters; the flip side of this obser­va­tion is that it is desir­able to max­i­mize the num­ber of (con­sen­su­al) sex­u­al encoun­ters lead­ing up to any giv­en num­ber of infec­tions. Even if Mar­tin had failed to deny Maxwell a con­quest that evening, and thus failed to slow the epi­dem­ic, he could at least have made some­one happy.

To an econ­o­mist, it’s clear why peo­ple with lim­it­ed sex­u­al pasts choose to sup­ply too lit­tle sex in the present: Their ser­vices are under­priced. If sex­u­al con­ser­v­a­tives could effec­tive­ly adver­tise their his­to­ries, HIV-con­scious suit­ors would com­pete to lav­ish them with atten­tion. But that does­n’t hap­pen, because such con­ser­v­a­tives are hard to iden­ti­fy. Insuf­fi­cient­ly reward­ed for relax­ing their stan­dards, they relax their stan­dards insufficiently.

So a social­ly valu­able ser­vice is under-reward­ed and there­fore under-sup­plied. This is a prob­lem we’ve expe­ri­enced before. We face it when­ev­er a pro­duc­er fails to safe­guard the environment.

Extrap­o­lat­ing from their usu­al response to envi­ron­men­tal issues, I assume that lib­er­als will want to attack the prob­lem of exces­sive sex­u­al restraint through coer­cive reg­u­la­tion. As a devo­tee of the price sys­tem, I’d pre­fer to encour­age good behav­ior through an appro­pri­ate sys­tem of subsidies.

The ques­tion is: How do we sub­si­dize Mar­t­in’s sex­u­al awak­en­ing with­out simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sub­si­diz­ing Maxwell’s ongo­ing pre­da­tions? Just pay­ing peo­ple to have sex won’t work–not with Maxwell around to reap the bulk of the rewards. The key is to sub­si­dize some­thing that is used in con­junc­tion with sex and that Mar­tin val­ues more than Maxwell.

Quite plau­si­bly, that some­thing is con­doms. Maxwell knows that he is more like­ly than Mar­tin to be infect­ed already, and hence prob­a­bly val­ues con­doms less than Mar­tin does. Sub­si­dized con­doms could be just the tick­et for lur­ing Mar­tin out of his shell with­out stir­ring Maxwell to a new fren­zy of activity.

As it hap­pens, there is anoth­er rea­son to sub­si­dize con­doms: Con­dom use itself is under-reward­ed. When you use one, you are pro­tect­ing both your­self and your future part­ners, but you are reward­ed (with a low­er chance of infec­tion) only for pro­tect­ing your­self. Your future part­ners don’t know about your past con­dom use and there­fore can’t reward it with extrav­a­gant courtship. That means you fail to cap­ture the ben­e­fits you’re con­fer­ring, and as a result, con­doms are underused.

It is often argued that sub­si­dized (or free) con­doms have an upside and a down­side: The upside is that they reduce the risk from a giv­en encounter, and the down­side is that they encour­age more encoun­ters. But it’s plau­si­ble that in real­i­ty, that’s not an upside and a downside–it’s two upsides. With­out the sub­si­dies, peo­ple don’t use enough con­doms, and the sort of peo­ple who most val­ue con­doms don’t have enough sex partners.

All these problems–along with the case for subsidies–would van­ish if our sex­u­al pasts could some­how be made vis­i­ble, so that future part­ners could reward past pru­dence and there­by pro­vide appro­pri­ate incen­tives. Per­haps tech­nol­o­gy can ulti­mate­ly make that solu­tion fea­si­ble. (I envi­sion the pornog­ra­phy of the future: “Her skirt slid to the floor and his gaze came to rest on her thigh, where the imbed­ded mon­i­tor read, ‘This site has been accessed 314 times.’ ”) But until then, the best we can do is to make con­doms inexpensive–and get rid of those sub­way ads.

Steven E. Lands­burg, the author of The Arm­chair Econ­o­mist: Eco­nom­ics and Every­day Life, is a pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rochester. His “Every­day Eco­nom­ics” column–applying the lessons of Econ 101 to every­day life–will be a reg­u­lar month­ly fea­ture of SLATE. E‑mail to the author may be sent to armchair@troi.cc.rochester.edu.

Cur­rent Mood: 🙂amused
Cyn is a proud Mommy & Mémé, professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
Posts created 4241

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top