Sex, dogs, and science.

Susan Walsh at “Hooking Up Smart” recently wrote about a study on adolescent dating, Terms of Endearment.  According to the study, many girls will endure sex they don’t want to find relationships, and boys will endure relationships to find sex.  The degree to which each gender must endure what they don’t want varies according to gender ratios, following the law of supply and demand.  Hence the title of Ms. Walsh’s post, “Sex is Economics, Even in High School.”

Her post made me think of an article by Stephen Budiansky about dogs, which was somewhat cynical.

(Etymological aside:  The word “cynic” derives from the Greek kunikos, which once meant “dog-like,” and was used to describe the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who gained a degree of notoriety by masturbating openly in the marketplace and urinating on people who insulted him.)

In any event, the article said that dogs were essentially parasites, obtaining shelter and food from humans by strategically affecting a simulacrum of love and loyalty.

“Our very cleverness is the start of our undoing when we’re up against an evolutionary sharpshooter like the dog. We are primed to seize on what are, in truth, fundamental, programmed behaviors in dogs and read into them extravagant tales of love and fidelity… If you shout at a dog, it cringes. Does this mean the dog feels sorry for peeing on your Oriental rug? The fact is that it doesn’t matter, as far as the dog is concerned, whether he feels sorry or not. The cringe is a successful technique for deflecting aggression. Millions of years of wolf evolution have selected such behaviors because they are socially effective; thousands of years of dog evolution have fine-tuned such behaviors so that they are socially effective on people.”

So this would mean, for example, that Andrew Sullivan’s beagles are playing him for something of a chump.  He may see a trace of God’s creation in dogs, but the reality – so say the cynics – is that dogs provide only the appearance of love in exchange for shelter and food.

Which brings me back to Ms. Walsh, who says that the “premise of (her) blog” is that boys want sex, girls want relationships, and the equilibrium is reached according to classic economic principles.  Her take on sexual relations is hardly less cynical than Mr. Budiansky’s view of dogs, and she mistakenly assumes that if economic analysis can help to explain sex, it must follow that sex is economics.

She also misses the point that “science” is descriptive and not prescriptive.  The study she cites apparently shows girls will have sex when they don’t want to in order to find relationships, especially if there is a shortage of boys.  She then assumes that this “proves” that sex-positive feminists (“sex pozzies” as she calls them) are wrong and “can’t run from science.”  But just because this particular study describes in economic terms the sexual trade-offs made by young men and women, it does not follow that it prescribes Ms. Walsh’s sexual austerity program (to use an economic metaphor) as the best solution to the problem she describes:  “We may have made girls louder and sassier in the classroom, but they still submit to guys behind the bleachers.”

In fact, if Ms. Walsh were to convince girls to withhold sex more often, I have a nagging suspicion about who they’d be withholding sex from.  And it wouldn’t be the guys currently pressuring them behind the bleachers.

As far as I can tell, it is her belief that young women are acting to their detriment when they are promiscuous, because that reduces the “market value” of female sexuality, thereby reducing the amount of sexual currency available to women to purchase love and relationships from men.  The solution she proposes (far as I can tell) is for women to dole out their affections sparingly in order to produce the desired behavior in men.  (The way you might sparingly dole out treats in order to train your dog.)

Apart from the fact that sex-as-economics is a rather depressing way to view human relationships, Ms. Walsh might consider that if she is going to use economics as her model, she’s choosing a field that is notoriously unreliable at predicting optimal outcomes.  After all, economic analysis has a pretty spotty track record when it’s been applied to the economy.  So if she’s going to apply a simplistic economic model to human sexual relations, she might consider that, just like economic systems,  interpersonal relations are complicated affairs with multiple variables and occasional counterintuitive realities.

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