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.