Is Sex All About Supply and Demand?

When you think about the economic concept of “supply and demand,” the first thing that comes to your mind probably isn’t your personal life. You might think about the way gas prices fluctuate, or how rarity of an item (like diamonds) increases its value. But with the video "The Economics of Sex", a think tank called the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture is applying the things you learned in high school econ to one of the most personal activities in your life.

The video attempts to use economic concepts to explain the “transaction” of sex between heterosexual men and women, and if you watch the entire (10-minute-long) thing, you’ll have to wade through a lot of really grand assumptions, which is how I generally feel about most economic analysis. Unlike crude oil prices, sexual relationships can’t be neatly calculated in a spreadsheet, and that makes trying to quantify anything like the “price of sex” damn near impossible.

In the first frame, the Austin Institute tells you that marriage rates are lower than they’ve ever been, but that the online dating industry continues to flourish. Using the framework of marriage to supposedly analyze sex is disingenuous, and skews the survey away from the reality of modern sex between men and women. Sex and marriage have been separated for decades, even if it hasn’t always been presented that way. Sure, in the 1950s, the June Cleaver ideal family was what the media was selling, but that didn’t match the reality of the way people were having sex, even when things were supposed to be more “wholesome” and “pure.”

In the video, the narrator even tells you “Don’t believe people when they tell you that your great-grandparents were as sexually casual as your friends are,” but that’s not really the truth either. According to a 2006 study by the Guttmacher Institute, “the likelihood that Americans will have sex before marriage has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s.” Even 9 of 10 women born in the 1940s reported having premarital sex.

There’s also a wide swath of assumptions that the Austin Institute makes about men and women, which they’ll tell you are based on data. According to the video, men have higher sex drives than women, and as such, sex is like a resource that women control. While it may be true that men initiate sex more often, a number of social factors influence whether or not women have high sex drives, like gender equality and the impossible-to-ignore fact that women’s sexuality is continually suppressed and attacked. This simplistic view of the “economics of sex” doesn’t consider any of these.

Further, the video suggests that women only grant men the privilege of sleeping with them when we want to express love, validate our attractiveness (WHAT?), and, of course, entrance a man into marriage. What about when we are horny though? The video also suggests that men only romance and marry women because they want to get laid, as though sex is a commodity to be purchased with dates, dinners, and fancy engagement rings.

These are all sexist tropes that sex-positive feminists have been working to smash for years — women do have sex outside of serious relationships and, shockingly, they enjoy it. Men, surprisingly enough, can also be emotionally attached to women and enjoy having sex with them because they’re in love, not just because of their boners.

Toward the end of the video, we hear that “women have something that men want, and they’ll pay a lot to get it. One can assume that the Austin Institute means “pussy,” and not “a good caring heart” or “really freaking smart brain.” These types of “educational videos,” in my view, do nothing but reinforce heteronormative courtship standards that aren’t even a reality anymore, by the Austin Institute's own admission.

So no, sex isn’t simple economics. It’s complicated by everything from hormonal shifts to good (or bad) luck. Sex isn’t a rational act like putting gas in your car’s almost empty tank. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite.

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