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You say changes in sexual mores can be explained in largely economic terms. If so, why can't we use economics to predict further changes?


Hi Judge Posner,

Always enjoy reading your take on things. Do you have any data supporting your comment that "In communities (and there are still some) in which premarital sex is strongly disapproved, young people marry to have sex, but marriages so motivated are likely to end in divorce, producing more unmarried people and so more demand for nonmarital sex"? I would've expected a lower divorce rate. I think of women who are promiscuous, I doubt they make good future marriage partners - less likely to remain faithful to their husbands, less feminine and traditional, more selfish. Again, not a good candidate for long-term marriage.

Daniel Chapman

I wondered about that part too. When premarital sex is "disapproved of" in a community, it's usually because people there still respect the institution. Marriage is not just a social liscense to have sex.


I think of women who are promiscuous, I doubt they make good future marriage partners - less likely to remain faithful to their husbands, less feminine and traditional, more selfish.

FYI, "willing to participate in premarital sex" is not the same as promiscuous. Furthermore, this stereotyping of women is completely unfair since for every woman having premarital sex, there is a man having premarital sex (or worse, sex outside of his marriage). Thus, if your point about marriage holds, it is just as likely to be the fault of the men involved as the women.



You sound extremely naive if you think a man having pre-marital sex is the same as a woman having pre-marital sex. Young men have more testosterone (thus, the need for sex) and face more pressure to engage in pre-marital sex than women. Men can "recover" and still have strong committed marriages after having pre-marital sex. Once a woman is "tainted", it's harder for these women to settle down, change their ways and make good marriage partners. Of course, there are lots of stupid men out there who don't care. But a women who is having pre-marital sex is unlikely to find a "good man".



You are joking, right?


While the chance of sitting in on one of their lectures would be a small one, I enjoy being able to read their writings and process their ideas. Thank you Dr. Becker and Dr. Posner for having this blog.

But a women who is having pre-marital sex is unlikely to find a "good man".

I'm willing to side with Erika--note the "k" for future reference, ne?--on this issue. I don't think I can agree where that comment was going unless I'm inferring your point incorrectly. Using vague qualifiers like "good" or "bad" makes the discussion spin its tires for me. What is a "good man"? What is a "bad man"? Either way, any broad generalization about human sexuality between the sexes is going to have a hard time being defended.


Generalizations are not generally unfounded, heh heh.

In the above dispute, if women tend to do more child-rearing and men tend to do more bread-winning, the husband has more to lose from his wife sleeping around and bearing a child by another man, which the husband than supports for years, than vice versa, where the husband may have another child out somewhere that he does not have to support by virtue of marital ties to the mother. That is a valid generalization.

The only major question, then, is whether women tend to be more nurturing and child-rearing by nature, and men tend to be the competitive go-getters who win the bread for the family by nature. That is how men and women by and large are in the world today, cross-culturally and cross-historically. Hard to chalk that up solely to the caprices of cultural habit.

I have one economic factor to add to the mix. I think it is subtly very important, perhaps moreso than people might thing, and that is the public education entitlement. The education entitlement has dramatically lowered the cost of having a baby out of wedlock or by a financially irresponsible man. Once the child turns 5, and 4 in some states, daycare is guaranteed for most of the working hours of the day, and it is paid for by the state. Hence, sexual irresponsibility (having unprotected sex out of wedlock without birth control) comes at a significantly lower price. The long-term effects of this sort of economic entitlement creep into culture over a period of decades�as the cost of irresponsibility is lowered, the social mores against it also tend to water down over time, to the point that responsibility is actually castigated by many people.

In criminal terms at the district court I work at, sentencing defendants with multiple children by multiple mothers they have never married is the rule, not the exception. This will continue, because irresponsibility continues to breed as long as the economic cost of that is low.


RWS's comments about irresponsibility make me wonder a bit if society might be a bit on the far side of the pedulum swing in terms of sexual morality. Often the argument about sexual morality takes on a tone of "it's gotten worse, therefore it will keep getting worse". However, if you think of this in terms of the economic cost of responsibility, the cost of being irresponsible cannot keep going down. Eventually some other factors will come into account and drive the cost of being irresponsible back up. Whether that cost be medical (like AIDS) or monetary (obligation to support all children one creates), an increased cost should increase responsibility.

To look at it in a less economic light, perhaps society is in something like it's college days of sexual morality. The heady fragrence of sexual freedom leads people to take too much advantage of that freedom. That does not mean the freedom was bad; it will just take time for people to learn how to not abuse it.


I think of women who are promiscuous, I doubt they make good future marriage partners - less likely to remain faithful to their husbands, less feminine and traditional, more selfish. Again, not a good candidate for long-term marriage.

Thanks AJ. You have aptly demonstrated a point I was trying to make on a couple of British blogs. Apparently, Britain is even further removed from traditional sexual mores than the US: sex on the first date is exceedingly common in Britain and dates are not as formal as in the US. I made the point that American men often discount the suitability of such women as long term partners.

AJ succintly describes some of the causes of "Chasing Amy" syndrome. (IMDB the term if you aren't familiar.) I wonder how much "Chasing Amy" syndrome impedes sexual satisfaction or mate-search satisficing in the U.S. compared with more libertine nations?

Paul Barnes

I think it is interesting that the article mentions the conservative religious communities, for lack of a better terms, view of marriage and sex. Specifically, the idea that the only reason why couples get married is to have sex.

I do not really dispute this claim, having grown up in a similar community. I recognized that I did not wish to participate in this almost utilitarian view of marriage a few years ago. If I marry, it will not be to have sex. Rather, it will be because I wish to spend my life with this particular person and to raise a family with her.

I am currently (between studying for exams) reading John Paul II's book "Love and Responsibility". In it, he outlines his "personalistic" norm for marriages. Quite frankly, it is a challenging book. It calls for greater love and respect then I am naturally inclined to give the fairer sex. Basically, it calls me to be a better man (ala Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets).


Granted, I won't say that there aren't kernels of truth to broad statements, but when you start stating that "good" people do X while "bad" people do Y, I tend to automatically ask "Why?" or "Where is the proof?". It may be there, but just stating "Once a woman is 'tainted', it's harder for these women to settle down, change their ways and make good marriage partners" seems way off base.

I would think these kind of women could easily change their ways if someone would be willing to give them a chance. It is just that the "taintedness" makes potential mates take a bee-line away from such people. The more that I think about this issue, I would imagine that it is just a case of being unable to end the cycle. Granted, choices a person made during adolescence and early/mid/late twenties are a good sign as to how the rest of their life is going to develope, but let's not call the issue dead and bury them.


Erika, AIDS is an interesting phenomenon from an economic perspective. In this country, it appears to spread rapidly through permiscuous homosexual cultures. Incredibly, permiscuous homosexuality appears to persist in the face of AIDS. I have several friends (younger) who frequent gay bars and engage in promiscuous sex that is almost certainly unprotected, even after we have had 20 years living with AIDS. The tendency towards more monogamous homosexuality, in my observations, is more frequent in older, highly educated gay couples (over 40 or 50 years old), and monogamy in several I know seems to me very likely and is stable. But, among the young, the male enjoyment of promiscuity is just too large a pull. Some of the young gay men I know have expressed a desire for a woman, but the great expense of finding a compatible one and dating for a long time and showing great commitment, not to mention the exposure to shame of rejection and so forth, is just too great in the face of much pleasure at lower cost.
I think that AIDS has changed *how* people have sex, though. That goes especially for homosexual relationships. Let�s not get into that one, *wink*, but there are less risky activities that have grown up in response.

The problem with child support being a deterrent to out-of-wedlock births is that, often, it is not really a deterrent. In federal criminal sentencings, that issue often comes up, and the simple fact is the men generally have no known assets, or credit card debts that greatly exceed assets. Amazingly, too, a lot of women refuse to go to court to get child support. That is just not that great a deterrent for all too many men.

Paul Deignan

I think Posner is omitting the primary causal factor--increases in urbanization.

The relative economic freedom of women only explains (partially) one side of the equation. For every committed female, there is a committed male. Has male economic freedom increased? If so, would this explain the effect?

Urbanization leads to distributed social burden sharing. This later factor is more accurately that factor which undermines marriage as an institution. The notion that it is only due to the relative economic independence of females relies on "old-fashioned" stereotypes of women as servants in an unfair bargaining position. How can this be when the whole institution relies on a 1-1 pairing? Supply and demand doesn't square with this preposition. The only change in that equation is in the distribution of goods being supplied and demanded (follow this line too much further and trouble lies ahead....).

So the primary dynamic is an integrated economy (mechanization), leading to urbanization, leading to social burden sharing, leading to the decreased need for vertically structured relationships (families), leading to a decreased need for stable marriages.

On the other hand, there are societies where woman share an equal social status and do have stable families/marriages but which are not urbanized.

Michael Martin

One trend that Posner doesn't mention but that may also be at work relates to the interpretation of texts.

Protestantism has since its inception emphasized the use of biblical texts in arriving at moral judgments as to what moral principles are God's. An economist might say that the protestant movement itself was made possible by the invention of the printing press, which allowed much cheaper access to those biblical texts. Traditionally, believers had to rely on those who could afford an education and books to tell them what God's will was. Since the reformation, the trend toward believers better informed on what scripture actually says had led to more, and more nuanced interpretations of scripture.

As Posner points out I think accurately, the Bible has relatively little to say about sex. The traditional interpretations of what little it does say have remained almost unchallenged since around the Reformation perhaps because of the cultural factors that Posner cites didn't change much in that period and because of a background norm that exists within Christianity of leaving traditional beliefs unchallenged without convincing evidence against them.

In the last 100 years in the United States, protestants have begun to move from a "plain meaning" approach to the interpretation of scripture into a more nuanced "contextual" approach that incorporates more of an understanding of the historical background to the texts, and even the personalities of the authors (a consideration that the plain meaning approach tends to shun). As a result, there are some who calls themselves Christians today who would have experienced tremendous internal and external resistance had they tried to do and maintain a particular lifestyle even fifty years ago. Peter Gomes, for example, has given a pretty careful analysis of each passage in the bible that traditionally has been interepreted to show homosexuality sinful, concluding finally that these interpretations are not the most accurate.

If it's true that information and education is cheaper now than it ever has been, then it seems a greater variety of more nuanced intepretations of scripture might be possible now than ever before, allowing for many who could not traditionally without at least psychological tension call themselves Christians and engage in a particular behavior to do so with at least some claim to legitimacy. Thus I think that at least some part of the sexual revolution in the United States may be a result of the explosion of the traditional, simple Christian justifications for certain moral beliefs about sexuality into a multitude of more sophisticated moral beliefs still ultimately tied to the bible (and so Christian in that sense) but not necessarily to the traditional conclusions.

At least by protestants, sex might come be treated as a morally indifferent activity not because it is no longer considered dangerous physically, but because it is no longer considered morally relevant scripturally. Or at least, because it has become so much more difficult for any particular scriptural interpretation to claim superiority socially.


As always, an interesting topic. However, I'm left wondering if there are additional factors not directly attributable to economics and the role of women in society. Modern, urban culture, though possibly created in part by a change in the role of women, has created a new social dynamic. Communities are larger and more diverse.

With this increase in community size, there is an increase in annonymity. Members of the community become less involved in the activities of their neighbors and the instance of being caught declines, as does the level of punishment for the crime. Individuals from small rural cultures are highly aware of the crimes of their neighbors, while large communities make this much more difficult. Likewise, being shunned from a small society is much more common and damaging to an individual, whereas being shunned from a large city is next to impossible. The lack of recognition of and punishment for a socially evil act makes doing the act much more common. Urbanization has brought this about and is the reason that in many communities around the world today, there is a direct correlation between the size of the city and moral decline.

Increase in globalization has also created a situation where communities are much more diverse than in the past. This diversity exposes people to differing viewpoints, including those regarding sexual mores. This exposure cannot be exclusively responsible for the change in moral attitudes, but I believe it is a significant factor that cannot be ignored.

This argument is obviously not exclusive to Catholicism, but is as true of Catholics as it is of Jews and Moslems.

scott cunningham

I was wondering whether Judge Posner had read Roger Finke and Rodney Stark's book Acts of Faith, which is an economic study of religion by two sociologists. In it, they argue that the fall in the supply of Catholic priests, nuns and monks is due to Vatican II, which fundamentally changed the psychic incomes of religious professionals. For instance, V2 relaxed the strict requirements that religious professionalism was needed for "spiritual perfection" - it was perfectly legitimate and holy call for a Catholic to serve in a "secular" calling.

My thoughts, after reading the book, were that if it is true that the current priest shortage (which they note in the book) is due to Vatican II, then perhaps the pedophila among priests is due to adverse selection in the labor supply of priests created by Vatican II. For instance, if there always existed two reasons for men to enter into the clergy (one being a spiritual call; two being sexual guilt), then Vatican II, by reducing the benefits of being a priest (while holding constant the costs, such as celibacy), could have reduced the incentives needed to produce the right kind of priests. This might then explain the church's reluctance to fire erring priests - Vatican II had created a shortage, and the priesthood now consisted of a larger proportion of wayward priests.


Heh heh. Posner said "extrude." Heh heh heh he heh heh.


joking now, right?


I think scott's correct about Vatican 2 and the supply of priests. To echo what he said, a Catholic buddy of mine told me that the "unstated" viewpoint on homosexuality and the priesthood was that it was a good place for them because, *wink*, they shouldn't be having sex anyway.

I also think that ch's point that urbanization leads to lower social condemnation of sexual licentiousness is very key, to which I would add that the cost to one's reputation among members of the other sex of sleeping around has also gone way down in urban communities.

Interesting link to a libertarian argument in favor of a traditional approach to sexual relationships:


Paul Gowder

What about that "AIDS notwithstanding?"

How can you "notwithstanding" AIDS when you're claiming that the cost of sex is reduced?

And how can you claim that the cost of sex really is reduced, partly due to things like condoms, when AIDS is running rampant -- suggesting that many people in the U.S. and the world aren't using them? (Condoms, that is.)

And how can you explain anything in seemingly rational "economic" terms when people aren't taking the di minimis extra cost of condom usage and using it to minimize the risk of AIDS?

Doesn't AIDS in fact completely defeat the idea that sex can be seen as "largely" an economic cost-benefit thing? Any rational actor would use the rubber and avoid the death. But we're not dealing with rational actors when we're dealing with sex, we're dealing with mystic darkness and pure reptillian brain-stem evolutionary responses. You can't economize that.

(I'm not even going to touch RWS's suggestions as to homosexuality.)

Paul Barnes

As a male, I wonder how the invention of the condom for (relative) safe sex has affected men's view of the sexual act. For the most part, I can agree with JP II when he says that contraceptives lead to a utilitarian view of the partner. In the end, I do think there is a causual relationship in contraceptive use and the objectivization of women, from a man's perspective.

Maybe this is from my experiences in university, but most sexual acts are short term, with no real intention of commitment. In the end, the guys are using girls to achieve orgasism. That is the only reason why there is a girl. I do not know about anyone else, but I would be hurt if someone did that to me.


Paul Gowder:

The economic answer to your concern is that some people obviously ascribe an exceedingly high value to sexual activity, enough to offset the risk of AIDS. They also may have a high discount rate, which means that they value their future life significantly less in present value terms than they do their present quality of life.

Economics fully explains such phenomena. The people you suggest are so irrational as to lack all economic explanation would almost certainly not engage in sexual activity if someone were pointing a gun at them and guaranteed that they would be shot to death upon completion. At that point, the cost and certainty of the activity outweigh the gains, and so they do not do the activity.

In addition, the fact that someone may consider sex with a condom to be much less satisfying does not defeat the fact that this preference can be subjected to economic analysis. That is his value judgment, which is then entered into the cost-benefit marginal analysis.

Economics also explains such things as tree pollen strategy, insect feeding behavior, and so on. Consciousness or �sophistication� of thought is not a prerequisite for economic analysis.


Why no mention of the rise of consumerism and increasing sophistication in identifying and selling towards a particular consumer's needs, wants and desires? We're talking about the commoditization of desire, which affects how we think of sex and sexuality. I'm not referring as much to the incidences of sex in popular media (which is simplay a reflection of the times), but, rather, the use of behavioral science in business and marketing.

Sex sells on many different levels. Of course, it's not just sex, but all of the other human frailties like greed, envy, hate, hubris, et al. Each of those weaknesses is a starting point for manipulation. And, if the only virtue left is to get people to take a particular action, then we really are worse off.

But I don't think it's so much that social mores have changed all that much. Rather, I think that what was once inherently private or kept behind closed doors of clubs and families is now increasingly public due primarily to technology. Sex and promiscuity are universal to every culture that I've experienced. And we're kidding ourselves in defining a purer, more innocent time in our own western culture. There was perhaps a time when propriety constrained certain actions and expressions of human desire. But make no mistake that the desire and behavior have always and will always be there.

So, rather than an erosion of public morality, we have simply become a more tolerant (ironic, isn't it), honest, transparent society.


Judge Posner,

Speaking of legalizing abortion in response to a change in sexual more, please tell me one state -as opposed to a court decision within a state - where the people (including elected members) have recently passed laws granting more freedom to have abortions? It has been the exact opposite. States and Congress have both passed laws to restrict late term and partial birth abortions, only to have judges strike them down. You're talking about judge-made law.

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