The Economy of Sex

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First off, I’d like to open this blog post by saying that this is not a post about prostitution. Though from an economic standpoint, the principles I’ll be discussing can technically be applied to the sex industry, so prostitution will probably come up at some point.

What I’d like to discuss is the economic considerations that relate to sex in your novels. No, this doesn’t just mean that “sex sells” and writing a novel with lots of sex in it will make you money. While erotica can be a bestselling category, the economics of book sales aren’t what I’m talking about. Instead, I’m talking about how sex can be understood by using economic theory to analyze human behavior, and how this can relate to the actions your characters take in your novel.

One of the basics of economic theory states that businesses are in the market to maximize their profits, and consumers are in the market to maximize their happiness. There are a lot of complicated variables that get factored in to those basics (and you’d need an economics major, not a writer, to go into full detail about them), but the general idea is pretty simple. A business will make a decision based on the bottom line. A consumer will make a decision based on their own personal needs and desires.

To use a simple example of how this works in practice, consider a company that is thinking of raising its prices. The company knows that by raising their prices, they will lose some customers. But if the remaining customers are willing to pay the higher price, they’ll still do it. If too many customers leave, it won’t be worth it. How many customers leave depends on whether they think they will be more satisfied with a different product, perhaps for a lower price. For example, let’s say you have 100 customers a day paying $10 for your product, earning you $1000. If you raise the price to $11 and lose five customers, you still have 95 customers and you earn $1045. If you lose ten customers, on the other hand, you only have 90 left and you make $990. A company will choose the option that leads to the most money, or else change their prices back if it turns out to be a mistake.

So what the hell does this have to do with sex in your novels? Well, economic theory can also be used to describe individual human behavior. Before we get to the sexy parts, take an example of how economics can explain theft. Have you ever wondered why newspaper vending machines aren’t built like soda machines? When you buy a newspaper, you can open the machine and, if you wanted, take as many papers out as you like. You can clean the whole machine out. But what would be the benefit? As a consumer, you’re trying to maximize your happiness. Reading the same day’s news a second time won’t make you any happier, and you’ll never make a worthwhile amount of money trying to sell those papers to people in the street. Cleaning out a soda machine, however, can increase your happiness more, since you can save the extra sodas for later. That’s why soda machines only drop one soda out at a time, instead of letting you open the door and help yourself.

So, why do people decide to have sex? Well, because it makes them happy, of course. And like the newspaper, people might get tired of the same old news every day, but they’ll always be interested in something new and exciting.

On a basic level, this can explain why characters in your novel might decide to cheat on their spouse. They’re tired of the same old thing and want something new. But the economy of sex is a bit more complex than that, and if you’re planning on writing an affair into your story, there are some other variables to consider.

One is risk versus reward. For a company like the one mentioned above, the risk is losing money (if you lose too many customers and your profits drop) and the reward is earning more money (if you only lose a few customers and profits increase). For consumers, the risk is usually the possibility that you’ve wasted your money on an inferior product, while the reward is the happiness that product brings you.

What is the risk versus reward in having an affair? Well, the reward, of course, is sex. Though that reward can be greater if you’re with someone you desire greatly or have strong romantic feelings toward. So the reward might be higher, say, for someone cheating on his wife with a woman he’s fallen in love with, and lower for someone cheating on his wife with a prostitute (see, I told you prostitutes would probably come up). The risk, however, might be lower with the prostitute (who isn’t likely to tell the man’s wife), but be much higher with another woman (especially if she’s a friend of the wife). So the cheating man in this case might need to weigh the risk of getting caught against how much he desires the woman. If the risk of getting caught (and ruining his marriage, losing his family, and being publicly humiliated) are too great, he might decide to break off the affair.

Another variable to consider is supply and demand. Generally, if supply of a product is high, it’s seen as less valuable, but if supply is low, the value increases. Demand is the opposite–if demand is high, the value increases, but if demand is low, the value decreases.

To continue with the example of the cheating spouse in a novel, if the supply of sex is low (in other words, his wife hasn’t been sleeping with him as much as he wants), then he will be more likely to cheat in order to get what he wants. If the demand is high (because he has a lot of desires) he’ll also be more likely to cheat. But if the demand is low (because he has a low sex drive) and the supply is high (because his wife frequently sleeps with him) then cheating isn’t as likely.

Let’s apply all of these theories to a specific novel and see how they work out. I recently read The Bridges of Madison County, and while I didn’t consider it a well-written book, it serves as a good example here. In the book, the character Francesca Johnson cheats on her husband and has a short, four-day affair with a traveling photographer, Robert Kincaid. I’d like to break down the variables of their affair based on the economy of sex as I’ve described above.

Does the affair increase Francesca’s happiness? Absolutely. The risk of getting caught is low, because Francesca’s family is out of town and she lives on an isolated road. As long as she is careful, she’s able to avoid much chance of her neighbors finding out there’s another man at her house. The reward is high (Robert gives her multiple orgasms for  the first time in her life). The demand is also high, since she has an uncontrollable desire for Robert and falls madly in love with him. And the previous supply was low, since it’s mentioned in the book that Francesca’s husband is rarely interested in sex anymore. All of the variables are in place to make Francesca’s decision to cheat make perfect sense, from an economic point of view.

Next let’s consider the ending of the book. Francesca wants to run away with Robert, and almost does so. But in the end, she decides against it. Why? Supply, demand, risk, and reward can explain this as well. The supply would obviously be high if she runs off with him, but the demand isn’t high enough for her to leave her home and her family. The reward would be great since she loves Robert and knows he could make her happy, but the risk would be too high. She’d lose her husband, her children, her home, her friends, everything. In the end, those risks outweigh the reward of being with Robert.

There are a lot of other ways the economy of sex can influence your characters’ decisions. The risks of sex can include things like STDs, pregnancy, the chance of emotional rejection by a partner, or the chance of public disdain if your friends or family disapprove. The rewards can include not just the physical pleasure, but also the emotional bonding and fulfillment.

Supply and demand can be seen in more than just the terms of “Does the character want sex?” and “Can the character get sex?” Let’s say your character has two men in her life, one of whom is eager to be with her, the other is resistant. The supply could be high with the first man, but the demand higher with the second. Or if you consider a character who is saving themselves for marriage, the supply might be low while the demand is very high. This can lead to greater temptation and greater risk that the character will decide to take the risk in order to get what they want, even if they might regret it later.

There’s lots of other variables that can be added into these, but this is a pretty good starting point. If you’re writing a novel that includes sex, you might want to consider some of the questions raised here. What does the character risk? What is the reward? How do supply and demand influence their decisions? It might give you a new perspective on how to understand your character and what they do.


One thought on “The Economy of Sex”

  1. People cheat because 1: to have their ego stroked, to know they’re still wanted and got game… 2: because they know they have the power in their relationship and there will be no consequences, they use their cheating as show of their power over the other… 3: escapism, because they know they’re powerless in the relationship their in and so can’t leave for whatever reason, their cheating gives them an escape and a secret ounce of power…

    Cheating is never about the other person… it’s about making themselves feel good for various reasons… cheating is never about real love or happiness… people who are unhappy get out of a relationship to give them the chance to be happy… if they’re willing to cheat then it’s a selfish act no matter how you look at it…

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