The evolution of marriage

Mark Oppenheimer has a semi-profile of Dan Savage, semi-critique of modern marriage in the NYTimes Magazine this weekend. Savages suggests that as we begin to expand the definition of marriage to include gay couples (as NY did last week and RI sort of did yesterday), we might also want to decrease our expectations around fidelity.

Interesting quote:

“In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women ‘the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,’ we extended to men the confines women had always endured. ‘And it’s been a disaster for marriage.’ ”

Savage argues that before feminist movements sought marriage equality, men ran around with concubines and mistresses and it was mostly accepted. While this is a rather sweeping generalization, it is interesting to think about what would have happened if marriage had become more egalitarian in the sense that women were allowed to pall around, as opposed to men now being held to higher standards.

My interest in the subject is less on the benefits of nonmonogamy, and more on how a culture of “working through” cheating would affect divorce rates and children.

A number of papers in economics have recently tried to tease out the effect of divorce on children, but the trend, as Savage suggests, is towards advocating stability over monogamy. It’s not that he’s saying nonmonogamy for all, necessarily, just “the cultural expectation should be if there’s infidelity, the marriage is more important than fidelity.” When most of these papers talk about stability, they often refer to the mother having more than one partner or the father moving in and out of the picture multiple times, but the divorce brings a lot of trauma regardless of whether the parents ever remarry. The negative affects appear to be amplified when you add in new boyfriends and step-parents.

My research, however, shows that some of the negative effects may be in place whether or not the couple ever divorces. A lot of the economic reasoning behind the findings suggests that people are forward-looking and adjust their behavior (particularly investment in children) in anticipation of divorce. So, if we create a culture whereby sticking it out is the norm, we essentially raise the costs of divorce by increasing public admonition or shunning by peers or some other means. We could think about retreating from no-fault and unilateral divorce laws, but let’s say we don’t want to return to those dark ages, either.

We raise the costs of divorce and if we succeed, we keep more marriages intact. But if negative effects are in place before, or even in the absence of, divorce, and can be attributed to something other than anticipation of divorce, then we don’t really solve the problem of hurting kids. We maintain stability, in some sense, as a parent or parent’s lover isn’t walking in and out constantly, but kids aren’t stupid. Especially older children will likely notice something is amiss, behavior will change and we’ll still likely see negative effects. Will they be measureable? Will they be significant enough to observe? Perhaps not on average, but I don’t think asking parents to stay together, unhappy, solves the problem.

The other large problem with raising the costs of divorce is differentiating between socially acceptable causes for divorce and not socially acceptable causes. If we say that one-night stands should be overlooked, what about a weekend fling? Or a two-week fling? Or a month-long tete-a-tete? Where do we draw the line? Savage realizes the Schwarzeneggers, for instance, were doomed, but what’s in the middle? And the intersection of cheating and intimate partner violence is much larger than I think Savage realizes. Infidelity is often a tool of abuse and while a culture that overlooks a fling might seem a big leap from a culture that overlooks a slap or controlling money or a broken arm, I think we’re far enough down that road already.

To his credit, Savage advocates each couple figuring the process out for themselves. Monogamy, he says, still works for some couples even if it doesn’t work for all. Keeping it together for the kids may seem like a noble goal, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all goal, and the associated negative externalities could be large.

Sex for money is about more than the sex or the money

With Canada looking to decriminalize prostitution, and Sweden touting the success of its increased penalties for pimping and trafficking (the link’s a bit old now), it only makes sense, as economists, to ask why people would engage in transactional sex at all.

Psychologists and anthropologists, I’m sure, have plenty of their own answers. Economists, surely, could come up with a theory of prostitution (if they haven’t, I should get on that). Without too much effort, most people could name the most likely characteristics of women in the sex trade–low self-esteem, from families with a history of abuse, low educational attainment, etc. But there is also reason to ask why women would stay in the sex trade, which is actually a very different question than why do women enter the sex trade. At least one recent paper has explored the relationships between purveyors and consumers of transactional sex. They found, interestingly, that complex relationships form between the two parties, even to the point of providing extra income in times when sex workers couldn’t work or were experiencing a negative “shock”–i.e. illness, death of a family member or an STD outbreak.

The authors of the paper, which comes out of Busia, Kenya, a community rife with development economists testing their theories, found that transfers, or gifts of money, from regular customers increase by 67-71% on days around when a sex worker reported illness and 124% on days around death of friend or relative. In some sense, these regular customers are providing a form of insurance against negative shocks, or events that prevent them from working. The customers are still not providing full insurance for these shocks, meaning though they’re essentially gifting money to their favorite sex worker in order to make the burden of not working or of the extra expense less burdensome, they’re not making up a whole day’s pay, or covering the entire cost of a funeral.

But the question of whether sex workers are fully insured by their relationships with regular customers is less important than whether they are covering themselves better than they would be covered in other professions. Full insurance in poor communities and developing countries is unlikely to come by anyway, so it makes more sense to compare different insurance mechanisms. Here, economics actually does a pretty good job. We are good at comparing two situations in which only one small part of the equation is different (or rather, when we can assume that only one important part is different–if the other different bits are unimportant to the story, we don’t care that they are different, we assume that they do not affect our outcomes). So long as the average amount of the gift is more than the average amount of the transfer she would get had she not been in the sex trade, there is an incentive to enter or remain in the sex trade (the authors here don’t distinguish much between entering and remaining, though I think that’s an important topic for another day). The authors also show this difference to be quite large. Even if a transfer covers only 19% of the cost of a funeral–the average amount reported by the sex workers–that’s far more than zero. On the margin, at least, the incentive seems significant enough to induce women to enter the sex trade as the only arrangement with full insurance, or perhaps just more insurance, is likely marriage.