Pillow Talk: Marina Adshade of Dollars and Sex

You’ve probably never stopped to consider how the price of a drink at your local watering hole affects your sex life .Or ever wondered about the connection between penis size and economic growth. But Dr. Marina Adshade, a macroeconomist at Dalhousie University, and her many students definitely have. According to Dr. Adshade, economics has more to do with love and sex that most of us recognize.

Sexlife Canada sat down with Dr. Adshade for a chat about all things love, sex and economics.

SLC: The Economics of Sex and Love is described as a class “that applies the analytical and statistical tools available to economists to examine human sexuality and mating behavior.” When you started teaching the class in the fall of 2008 it was the first of its kind. Is that still the case? And do you think the ‘newness’ of the idea was the main reason for the international media attention it got at the time?
MA: It was the first of its kind, in North America and around the world. The media attention was almost certainly in part due to the newness of the approach. People are surprised to hear that we talk about sex in universities, but we do in many disciplines: health, philosophy, history, psychology and anthropology. So it probably was the revelation that students can take classes that talk about sex combined with the fact that it was an economic perspective that made it so interesting to the international media.

SLC: What can a student who enrolls in your class expect to learn?
MA: We cover such a variety of material, thirty-six classes all with a different theme. So it’s difficult to sum it up quickly, but I can give you a few examples of the topics we cover. When talk about the explicit market for sex (prostitution, porn and strip clubs) we do at least one class on how prostitutes set their prices. The students love that class because we look at the prostitution rating sites (where sex workers’ clients go online to rate their performance) to see where economists have collected their data. When we talk about risky sexual behavior, we discuss how the “cost” of risky sexual behavior can be estimated using a value of life method. So, for example, what is the cost of unprotected anal sex with a homosexual man compared to the cost of protected oral sex (students quickly adjust to the fact that they now have a prof who uses the expression “blow job”). In another class we play a game that has been used to show that sexually stimulated men are more willing to accept unfair offers which students see as very useful if they are trying to get out of paying their share of a bill.
    The focus is always on the economics though and while the topics are engaging along the way, the students do develop some very useful knowledge.

SLC: How does your blog, Dollars and Sex tie into your teaching?
MA: Originally the blog was hosted on the Dalhousie blogging platform and was intended to give students a different perspective on the same material that we cover in class. For me, the blog created an opportunity to express my opinions and to expand on the material in a way that is difficult in a large class room where I want to encourage students to form their own opinions rather than to impose my own.
    While the blog was initially intended to compliment the class, a year ago it was picked up by Big Think and over that time it has grown away from the material of the class. I post twice a week so expanding beyond the class material was inevitable. But, beyond scope, the nature of the blog has changed and become about my personal experience. That is something I never could do within a purely education setting.

SLC: Your course is the most popular economics elective at your university. Based on its popularity with your students, might there ever be an online version of the course offered to people who don’t go to Dalhousie? Or a book?
MA: That’s the most common question I get from my blog readers: when are you going to offer an online version of the course? Sadly the answer is probably never, at least not at Dalhousie. The economics department here offers no online courses and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I would be thrilled if another university picked up on it though and asked me to offer an online course.
    But the happy news is that the book version of Dollars and Sex is being published by Harper Collins in Canada and will be available in the fall of 2012. It will be quite different from the blog and I think that readers who are looking for a little more will be pleased.

SLC: Your blog features very diverse content—including studies on the links between penis size and economic growth, faking orgasms, promiscuity and the apparent correlation between free porn and rape. Clearly there’s a lot to say in relation to sex and economics. Do you think this is an area of study that has a lot of growth potential?
MA: Yes, it’s an area that’s steadily gaining greater attention. Economists never believed we were constrained to only talking about interest rates and stock prices. In fact, there are some areas of Sex and Love, like marriage, that have been part of economic research since Nobel prizing winning economist Gary Becker published his famous Treatise on the Family in 1991.
    Part of the current interest has come from economists who are also interested in biology, particularly evolutionary biology. Others are fascinated by the sea of data that has been created by the internet enabling us to answer questions today that we never even imagined asking 20 years ago. Whether or not economists will ever see this as a serious field of research remains to be seen, but I would be very surprised if we didn’t see an Economics of Sex and Love journal in the not too distant future. I can only imagine what that would be called. One of my colleagues in the field has suggested “Orgasmetrics.” I think that a nice ring to it.

SLC: Some would argue that linking sex, love and economics is quite cynical. What would you say to such critics?
MA: Cynical? Not at all. The problem with that perception is that it is based on the premise that economics is only interested in how profit and money determine people’s behavior but that really isn’t the case. Very little of the material in my class or on my blog has to do with money as a motivator for personal decisions. It is more about disentangling those decisions to see how they are made.
    For example, economics can tell us how much more free time a woman who is married with children might have, on average, compared to a likewise identical woman with children who is not married (answer: 34 minutes a day). Or why what we consider ‘normal’ teen sexuality has changed over time as a function of economic influences. Or why men are less likely to fake orgasms than women. I personally would never argue that all choices regarding our sexuality are financially motivated. Some of them are, particularly when it comes to the explicit markets for sex. Others are not, though they can be better understood through the lens of an economist.

SLC: You’re on record as saying, “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, sex and love has nothing to do with economics,’ and it really only takes me about five minutes to convince them that that’s not true.” Care to take a stab at convincing our more doubtful readers that economics is behind their sex/relationship choices?
Sure. Imagine you’re single and you’re looking for a mate or even just a sexual partner. Perhaps you’re searching online and as you sit in front of your computer screen you make decisions about what your perfect match is. Maybe you want to find someone who is tall or someone who has the same education level as you do. Or perhaps the person’s age is important to you, or whether or not they own a home. Maybe you care about their religion or their race. Or all you care about is physical beauty and how often the person goes to the gym.
Regardless of the decisions you make as you sort through the pages of potential lovers these are economic decisions. Economics doesn’t presume that in the pursuit of love we are all looking for the person with the highest income. It presumes that in the pursuit of love we make decisions and often face trade-offs; if that ‘perfect’ person is not out there then maybe we find that education isn’t so important after all or maybe our lover will be a little older than we had initially presumed. After all, economics is the study of how we make decisions in the face of scarcity.
    I do know this, while we might all want to believe that love is independent of these factors, especially education and income, the reality is that if we observe married couples we find that people are often matched with people who are just like them: similar income; similar education; similar height; similar race; similar appearance and so on. That says to me that these economic factors do enter into our decision making.

SLC: A recent Newsweek article called ”The John Next Door” states that “there is a growing demand for porn and prostitution, and that experts believe the digital age has spawned an enormous increase in sexual exploitation.” First of all, do you think that there is actually an increased demand for porn/prostitution currently, or is it just that we now have more resources to track consumption? If so, is there an economic explanation you could offer up for this?
MA: I do think that sex work is on the increase and the economic reason for why that would be the case is the same reason we have better resources to track consumption: the Internet. The internet has opened up a world of possibilities for women and men who wish to sell sex without either standing on the “stroll”, as they say, or working with an agent/ pimp. In an economic model any change that reduces the barriers to entering a market should increase the size and number of participants in that market.
    The Internet has reduced the cost to entry by reducing the risk of violence (giving sex workers a better ability to screen their clients); providing greater privacy for those who want to protect their reputation; and reducing the risk of arrest and/or police exploitation. It might have also increased the demand for market sex by men who would be unwilling to buy sex on the street, but have particular sexual preferences that are difficult to meet outside of the market. Increased demand usually translates into higher prices and a higher price combined with lower costs is a recipe for increased participation in the sex trades for sellers.
    One more thought on this topic. Sex work may be on the rise, but the share of men participating as buyers on the market is far below what it was 70 years ago. Back when Kinsey was preparing his famous report he found that 70% of men had used the services of a sex worker at least once in their lifetime. The latest figure I have seen for this same measure is 18%. The digital era may have made it easier to be a sex worker, but it has also made it easier to find non-market sex which, combined with a greater societal acceptance for pre-marital sex, is reducing the necessity—if I can call it that—of buying sex on the market.

SLC: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about sex, love and economics since you started teaching the course?
MA: The most surprising thing I have learned is that increased access to porn might be responsible for reducing rape rates. I have been over that evidence time and time again and despite my best efforts—perhaps I should say despite my prior beliefs—I have a hard time finding fault with the author’s analysis. Another thing I found surprising is how sky-rocketing incarceration rates in the US are helping to significantly reduce teen pregnancy. These two hypotheses (along with some of the evidence that access to abortion is increasing teen pregnancy) come clearly under my heading of “Things I Probably Wish Weren’t True but Apparently Are.” But that is the problem with being informed; sometimes we have to accept difficult truths.