Contraception and Distortion of a Market

Timothy Reichert had a very interesting analysis in the May issue of First Things applying economic and social science principles to the effect of the Pill on American relationships. (Unfortunately, the magazine appears to be having long-term technical difficulties with its firewall, so even a subscription might not enable access.) Here’s the premise with which he begins:

What are the social processes that should be logically included under the rubric of contraception? First and foremost, contraception divides what was once a single mating “market,” wherein men and women paired in marriage, into two separate markets — a market for sexual relationships that most people now frequent during the early phase of their adult lifetimes (I will refer to this as the “sex market”), and a market for marital relationships that is inhabited during the later phases (I will refer to this as the “marriage market”).

Challenging the unmitigated blessing of birth control has been a secular apostasy for most of my adult life, but that’s just another indication of the recklessness with which our society pursues immediate gratification without consideration of consequences. Even clearly positive developments — such as the end of racial segregation and the beginning of women’s liberation — can have negative consequences that are exacerbated by the way in which a change of practice comes about and is sustained. It behooves us, then, to be frank about those consequences as something distinct from the emotional cry against recrudescence.
In the case of contraception, writes Reichert:

The result is easy to see. From the perspective of women, the sex market is one in which they have more bargaining power than men. They are the scarce commodity in this market and can command higher “prices” than men while inhabiting it.
But the picture is very different once these same women make the switch to the marriage market. The relative scarcity of marriageable men means that the competition among women for marriageable men is far fiercer than that faced by prior generations of women. Over time, this means that the “deals they cut” become worse for them and better for men.

Reichert doesn’t take the obvious tangent of observing that women — especially young women — have been responding to this new dynamic by behaving increasingly like men in the sex market. Indeed, it’s not a new point to suggest that the loosening of young women’s inhibitions is overall to the benefit of men — young and old. Indeed, if letches of old had sought to design a system that played to their lusts, they couldn’t have done much better than the path that we’re currently on.
Reichert goes on to explore the effects of the split of the “mating market” on various aspects of life and relationships, and consistently finds that the changes are ultimately to the detriment of women — and the children to whom women are naturally more deeply bonded. The details are too extensive to summarize, here, but a passage that Reichert quotes from a 2009 article by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers offers the upshot:

… measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups in industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging — one with higher subjective well-being for men.

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swazool
swazool
11 years ago

Contraception is not about “just another indication of the recklessness with which our society pursues immediate gratification without consideration of consequences.” It is about women being able to control when they want to give birth. This has far reaching implications, far beyond sexual gratification, it effects women who might want to pursue career goals, or married women who want to stop unwanted 3rd or forth children they can’t afford.

Robert Balliot
11 years ago

Men want to control women’s bodies. It starts early and is instinctual. So, the goal here is to create an empirical analysis to defend instinctual, survival behavior. It helps to wrap it in religion. And, it helps to wrap it in pseudo-scientific reasoning.
The argument is not designed to test why the hypothesis that ‘Men should control women’s bodies’ might not be just in a society that *reasons* that all are created equal. It simply looks at how the ends justify the means.

Dan
Dan
11 years ago

How is new technology a “distortion” of a market? Most economic models of markets have technology built in to them as a variable or variables.

BobN
BobN
11 years ago

I don’t see a strong point here, or sufficient explanation of any causal link between contraception by itself and unhappiness or lower status of women. Perhaps it is in the original First Things article?
I don’t think that contraception itself is the problem. I do think that the promotion of casual sex as a primary goal in life (including its promotion to young children by the “health education” front of the Left’s educational indoctrination forces) and the general coarsening of social norms and moral standards as promoted by the mass media are much bigger causes of unhappiness for both men and women in American society today.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Swazool,
I didn’t say sexual gratification; I said gratification. That can include all of the positive ends that gratify us as a society (e.g., greater opportunity for women). Too often, we seek to declare changes made. Where something traditional has an undesirable result, we rip the whole thing out of the ground without considering whether there was a balance being struck.

Dan
Dan
11 years ago

I don’t know about that. I think not having three kids by the time I got out of school has worked out pretty favorably for me. A girl in my high school class did things the old fashioned way and is now a mother of three who works at a local Stop and Shop (along with significant government aid). I suppose for the 10% or so of young adults who can, voluntarily or involuntarily, plausibly commit to total abstinence until marriage it works out alright.
A market distortion is an economics term that is usually used to describe external forces, such as government intervention. It was just a bit strange for me to hear it used describing effect of technology, which is a part of the market itself. A very “progressive” concept.

BobN
BobN
11 years ago

Justin, I don’t think of those things as consequences of contraception. I think of them more as allied social forces, partly driven by a political agenda, that combine to compound the issue into a serious societal problem.
Consumerism and sex-obsession have done much damage to the American culture over the past forty years.

Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

Justin, it seems as if your method is just starting with a conclusion and then making your reading and understanding match it!
First of all, to even opine that women are less happy than men or less happy than 50 years is a stretch which assumes that data sets of 1/2 century ago are the same as today. Impossible!
Of course, there are vast numbers of studies which dispute even that opinion anyway. For instance, another recent study said women are happier than men, and commented :
“women tended to become happier as they got older once they no longer had to worry about looking after their families.”
and:
“”Women are affected negatively by caring for someone else, or if they are not in employment, but if they see their children and family more they are positively affected,”
OK, so women are happier when they have less children and a job!
Some of the “unhappiness” is assumed to be because of the vast rise in SINGLE MOTHERS! Hmmm……single mothers? Maybe because they DIDN’T use birth control?
As usual, the actual truth is probably closer to the opposite of your conclusion. Most women, like men, are happier when they have time to pursue their own education, life and other activities IN ADDITION to raising a family if they so desire.

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