December 16, 2005


The Economy of Desire (STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT, 12/11/05, NY Times Magazine)

In recent decades, we have witnessed the most exorbitant new price associated with sex: the H.I.V. virus. Because AIDS is potentially deadly and because it can be spread relatively easily by sex between two men, the onset of AIDS in the early 1980's caused a significant increase in the price of gay sex. Andrew Francis, a graduate student in economics at the University of Chicago, has tried to affix a dollar figure to this change. [...]

Francis, in a draft paper titled "The Economics of Sexuality," tries to go well beyond dollar figures. He puts forth an empirical argument that may fundamentally challenge how people think about sex.

As with any number of behaviors that social scientists try to measure, sex is a tricky subject. But Francis discovered a data set that offered some intriguing possibilities. The National Health and Social Life Survey, sponsored by the U.S. government and a handful of foundations, asked almost 3,500 people a rather astonishing variety of questions about sex: the different sexual acts received and performed and with whom and when; questions about sexual preference and identity; whether they knew anyone with AIDS. As with any self-reported data, there was the chance that the survey wasn't reliable, but it had been designed to ensure anonymity and generate honest replies.

The survey was conducted in 1992, when the disease was much less treatable than it is today. Francis first looked to see if there was a positive correlation between having a friend with AIDS and expressing a preference for homosexual sex. As he expected, there was. "After all, people pick their friends," he says, "and homosexuals are more likely to have other homosexuals as friends."

But you don't get to pick your family. So Francis next looked for a correlation between having a relative with AIDS and expressing a homosexual preference. This time, for men, the correlation was negative. This didn't seem to make sense. Many scientists believe that a person's sexual orientation is determined before birth, a function of genetic fate. If anything, people in the same family should be more likely to share the same orientation. "Then I realized, Oh, my God, they were scared of AIDS," Francis says.

Francis zeroed in on this subset of about 150 survey respondents who had a relative with AIDS. Because the survey compiled these respondents' sexual histories as well as their current answers about sex, it allowed Francis to measure, albeit crudely, how their lives may have changed as a result of having seen up close the costly horrors of AIDS.

Here's what he found: Not a single man in the survey who had a relative with AIDS said he had had sex with a man in the previous five years; not a single man in that group declared himself to be attracted to men or to consider himself homosexual. Women in that group also shunned sex with men. For them, rates of recent sex with women and of declaring homosexual identity and attraction were more than twice as high as those who did not have a relative with AIDS.

Because the sample size was so small - simple chance suggests that no more than a handful of men in a group that size would be attracted to men - it is hard to reach definitive conclusions from the survey data. (Obviously, not every single man changes his sexual behavior or identity when a relative contracts AIDS.) But taken as a whole, the numbers in Francis's study suggest that there may be a causal effect here - that having a relative with AIDS may change not just sexual behavior but also self-reported identity and desire.

In other words, sexual preference, while perhaps largely predetermined, may also be subject to the forces more typically associated with economics than biology.

Which is why we should retain social pressure that disincentivizes it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 16, 2005 3:40 PM

I predict zero follow-up stories from the NYT on this utterly stunning chunk of discomforting data.

Posted by: Palmcroft at December 16, 2005 4:44 PM


Let's be fair: if human behavior really is a product of moral choice, if we're not just bits of material driven hither and yon by impersonal natural forces beyond our control, if the left got that one wrong too, then what do they have to show for the last couple centuries? You can't expect them to trumpet it.

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2005 5:25 PM

It sounds like from the article that proximity to the consequenses is a powerful enough disincentive.

Posted by: Brandon at December 16, 2005 6:24 PM

So we sacrifice a few gays so that the rest of us stay scared straight? I'll take social pressure, thanks.

Posted by: Timothy at December 16, 2005 6:56 PM

no one sacrificed the gays, they walked into the fire on their own.

Posted by: toe of doom at December 16, 2005 7:33 PM

I don't read Sullivan anymore - I suspect he'll view this as homophobic.

'toe' - is that Dr. Doom? Or just doom in general?

Posted by: ratbert at December 16, 2005 7:36 PM

I'm in the doom for love - sorry, but the dyslexia is kickin' in again.

Posted by: obc at December 16, 2005 7:56 PM

Nice full doom out last night. One of the few clear nights we've had here in this part of the Wolverine State this December.

Posted by: Dave W at December 16, 2005 8:40 PM

i'm lysdexic too

Posted by: toe at December 16, 2005 9:14 PM