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Dollars and Sex: Love and sex through an economic lens

Economist shows correlation between gay cruising spots and social tolerance

In Dollars and Sex, author Marina Adshade turns an economist’s lens on marriage, online dating, monogamy, infidelity and a host of other subjects you wouldn’t expect to find in an economics classroom. Credit: thinkstock

In November 2010, I was surprised to find myself walking into a pharmacy in Nanjing, China, to inquire about the price of birth control.

“Excuse me,” I said in apprehensive Chinese. “How much for one morning-after pill?”

The pharmacist, a bored-looking woman in her 20s, stared at me — a blond white man — with both eyebrows raised. “Twenty-seven forty,” she said finally.

I smiled, thanked her, told her I was just doing some research and beat a hasty retreat out the door. I’m sure she did not believe me.

I was, however, telling the truth. A few days before, I had received an email from Marina Adshade, an economics professor at my university back in Canada and the instructor of one of its most popular classes, Econ 2214: The Economics of Sex and Love. She wanted to know, please, how much morning-after pills were going for these days in China. Cheap, it turns out: 27.40 yuan was about $4.20 Canadian, the same price a Nanjinger would have paid to go see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

To Adshade, this sort of thing matters. She tracks how the price of a shot of Jägermeister regulates the prevalence of casual sex, how high college tuition boosts teen pregnancy, and how economic downturns curb divorce.

In her recent book, Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love, she turns an economist’s lens on marriage, online dating, monogamy, infidelity and a host of other subjects you wouldn’t expect to find in an economics classroom.

And it isn’t all about money. Adshade also demonstrates how dating pools act like markets and how players seek to maximize benefits and minimize risks like brokers on a romantic trading floor. That may seem cynical, but she says helping people understand how the economics of relationships works allows them to make better choices.

“I do think that love is important. I just think that love can be understood in an economic perspective,” Adshade told me in Vancouver, where she now teaches at UBC. “I think it’s good to step back and get a better understanding of the market. I have zero interest in telling people what to do with their own lives.”

Here are some tidbits on the economics of gay sex and love you’ll find in her book.

The more gay-friendly a region, the fewer gay bars

Conservatives may grumble about how same-sex marriage will lead to non-stop gay orgies, but actually the opposite seems true. Two economists at Emory University in Atlanta found that a 20-percent rise in tolerance toward gay people in an American  state is associated with an average of four fewer gay cruising locations and a drop in HIV rates of one case per hundred thousand. A gay-marriage ban, on the other hand, bumps HIV rates higher. Why? In more accepting cultures, gay people are more likely to seek out marriage and long-term relationships, Adshade says, and more risk-averse gay men are more likely to enter the dating pool.

Lesbians are paid better than straight women

Even after controlling for lesbians being more educated, white and professional than average, they are still paid more than heterosexual women. Half a dozen papers based on the American General Social Survey and the 2000 US Census all show a wage premium of at least eight percent paid to lesbians compared to heterosexual women with similar jobs and education.

Adshade suggests this might be because lesbians never have the expectation of marrying men, who are paid more on average. Therefore, she says, lesbians invest more in their careers. Another study seems to support this theory: lesbians who were once married to men, it finds, have less of a financial advantage.

Lesbian couples in the US also save more money than straight couples, regardless of income, perhaps to save up for women’s longer life spans or to hedge against instability caused by discriminatory laws.

Unattractive people are less honest online

Take note for your next session on Grindr: research shows that less attractive people are more likely to lie about their height and weight in online dating forums and are more likely to choose a picture that is significantly more attractive than how they look in real life. Adshade guesses this is not because they know they are unattractive (few people do, according to her research) but rather because, after struggling to find partners, the less fortunate are more likely to tweak their profiles to increase the odds.