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The economics of sex: A whole new take on supply and demand

A Canadian professor has attracted international attention by turning the dismal science into something sexy.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | AUG 07 2013
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Illustration by Rami Niemi.

In 2008, economics professor Marina Adshade launched an undergraduate course at Dalhousie University entitled “Economics of Sex and Love,” which invited students to look at sexual relationships through an economist’s lens. There was no course textbook, as little writing had been done on the subject matter, requiring Dr. Adshade to pull together disparate papers and studies into a course reader.

The course was an immediate hit with students and generated international media attention. That success prompted her to launch a blog called Dollars and Sex, which was quickly picked up by the online forum Big Think in the U.S. and became one of that site’s best-read series, attracting over three-quarters of a million unique visitors.

And what better way to the finish the troika of success than with a book? Dr. Adshade did just that this past spring with the launch of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love (HarperCollins). Picking up on themes in her course and blog, the book – according to its dust jacket – “converts economic theory into a sexy science by applying the principles of market forces to matters of love and libido.”

Dr. Adshade easily admits that sex sells, but stresses that all the research covered in the course, blog and book comes from peer-reviewed academic studies. Using economic principles, she explains such things as why short men have younger wives, why rich teenagers are less promiscuous than poorer ones, and how marital sorting reinforces class divides. “Almost every option, every decision and every outcome in matters of sex and love is better understood by thinking within an economic framework,” she says in the book.

Dr. Adshade, who has a PhD from Queen’s University, writes regularly for various newspapers and magazines and has made numerous appearances on TV, radio, online and in print. She now teaches at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia. She spoke recently with University Affairs about her work.

University Affairs: Economics has been called the dismal science – humans behaving rationally to maximize efficiencies and all that – while sex is all passion and irrationality. These are not at first blush two things you’d think of linking together.

Dr. Adshade: It’s true that economists assume that people behave rationally, that they respond to prices and wages and so forth. But, within that is the idea that people have preferences. When you talk about passion and love and romance, those things are really just people’s preferences for their mates. We know this because when we collect data and look at the ways people match with each other, it’s not just a random matching over things we don’t understand. People actually match very closely over things like income, education levels, religious beliefs, political beliefs. So there is a rationality to dating as well as marriage, and those are the kinds of things I like to focus on.

UA: How did you get interested in this area?

Dr. Adshade: The original idea was purely pedagogical. We had a lot of students taking our first-year economics course and then never coming back to take another class in the department. Enrolment was falling. So I proposed we introduce a second-year class to get students to come back and perhaps reconsider economics. It would be a meaningful way for students to understand economics, because they’d be able to apply it to their own lives. And the fact is it was a hugely fun class.

UA: What happened when the course was launched?

Dr. Adshade: The very first thing that happened was a journalist from the U.K. emailed and said he’d love to write an article about it. That was surprising. And that was followed by articles in Russia, Japan – all over the world. And it was a big local story, too. I thought it was good for the university. It showed that we were interested in creating a stimulating learning environment. However, I just found out that they’ve pulled that course off of the curriculum [at Dalhousie], which is really quite sad.

UA: And how did the blog come about?

Dr. Adshade: The original purpose for the blog was really just for my students. It was originally housed on the Dalhousie blog service, but only stayed there for two weeks before it was picked up by Big Think. I went from having 25 page views in total in the first two weeks, to a week later having one day in which 17,000 people read the blog. It was really quite a remarkable experience.

UA: What has your experience been as a blogger?

Dr. Adshade: Nobody should ever go into writing a blog lightly. As I tell people, writing a blog is like having a child – a very demanding child – that never grows up. I’m now writing for Psychology Today. My plan is to post once a week, but their expectation is once every two weeks. Big Think was three times a week, which was just not sustainable.

UA: What do you think accounts for this interest from people about how economics influences sex and love?

Dr. Adshade: I think for a lot of people it was just an entirely new perspective. We live in an era in which it’s impossible to talk about sexuality and relationships without perspectives becoming completely mired in politics and moral beliefs. The nice thing about economics is that we focus on things that are measurable and have predictable relationships based on theory. That allows us to strip away the morality and the politics to talk about what is. I think that’s refreshing for people.

UA: Were you surprised by some of the research as you went through it?

Dr. Adshade: I’m perpetually surprised. I continue to be surprised by the things that I learn. I think a lot of results that we get when we look at economics tend to be counterintuitive.

UA: Can you give me an example of one of the important economic factors affecting sex and relationships?

Dr. Adshade: The biggest thing driving decision-making right now is education, especially the imbalance in enrolment in university between women and men. I think currently there are 135 women for every 100 men on campuses across the country. And it doesn’t just affect relationships on campus but throughout their lives. For example, long gone are the days when a woman who goes to university can anticipate that later on she’ll marry a man who has the same or more education than herself. There are a lot of women who just don’t have that option because there’s such a shortage of university-educated men. It really shapes our relationships. It shapes the marriage market, it determines how long people stay single before they marry, it determines how late in life they have their children. Looking forward, it’s really the trend to watch.

UA: And now you have your book. What’s your hope for that?

Dr. Adshade: If nothing else, if my book is a little bit of PR for economics, I’ll be happy. I hope it makes more people say, wow, economics is really applicable to daily life.

UA: Why did you move to UBC?

Dr. Adshade: I wanted to be near my family – both my siblings are in Vancouver. And I love the school of economics at UBC. It is full of wonderful, creative people. Several papers that I cite in the book are from research being done by UBC economists.

UA: What’s next for you? Will you remain the go-to person on the economics of sex?

Dr. Adshade: That remains to be seen. More and more people are replicating what I started four years ago. I can foresee a day when many large universities will offer a course like this. I enjoy writing, but my passion is public speaking. Moving forward, that’s what I’d like to focus on: doing large university lectures, speaking to student bodies about this. That would be really fun to do. And it is very well suited to large audiences. Also, I’m actually speaking with UBC about the possibility of having Economics of Sex and Love transformed into a MOOC (massive open online course). I think it’d be perfect for that format. It’s a course lots of people will take just because they’re curious.

UA: Any final thoughts?

Dr. Adshade: I think the thing that kind of gets lost with this topic is the academic rigour that’s behind it. It’s not just me sitting around speculating about how fun it would be to apply supply-and-demand diagrams to love and relationships. It is fully supported by research that is done by hard-working economists at universities around the world who take their discipline very seriously.

The financial rewards of sexy professors

Using data from [the Rate My Professors] website, Canadian economists Anindya Sen and Frances Woolley find that male professors who are hot are financially rewarded, while female professors who are hot are not.

Woolley and Sen consider the productivity and hotness ratings of economics professors in Ontario and find that male professors who are rated as “hot” on the website are paid more than those who are not. Interestingly, this hotness premium only appears once men are beyond the middle of their career; there is no hotness wage premium for young male professors. This suggests that this “beauty” premium is not paid for what we traditionally think of as hotness, but rather other qualities like confidence, assertiveness and creativity.

Female professors, regardless of where they are in their career, are paid no more or less for being attractive – apparently students don’t rate their 50-year-old female professors as “hot” because she is confident or assertive.

Academics is a profession in which physical appearance matters little and exuding sexuality, particularly for a woman, can actually undermine a career. Female professors often have to strive to find a balance between looking presentable and not looking like too much effort has been made on their appearance.

Research by social psychologists Stefanie Johnson, Kenneth Podratz, Robert Dipboye and Ellie Gibbons backs up this assertion. They find that attractive women are considered unsuitable employees in occupations that are considered masculine and in which appearance is unimportant. The study finds no negative effect for men; attractive men are always perceived to more suitable for jobs, including the ones that are considered to be feminine.

Excerpted from Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love, by Marina Adshade.

PUBLISHED BY
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. neil whitehouse / August 7, 2013 at 11:44

    This is very interesting – but is it economics? Education is a ‘big factor’ for example, but I do not think this is economics; I simply note the over-reaching of a discipline, that many include myself, believe is an emperor with no clothes.

  2. Mare / August 7, 2013 at 12:08

    Of course it’s economics! In home economics it’s called family resource management…mystifying human relations just let’s the entertainment and the consumer industry more generally milk th family and people in relationships of thir own power…

  3. Reuben Kaufman / August 7, 2013 at 12:55

    Interesting article on what sounds like a fascinating course …. until you get to the part on Rate My Professors….

    I have no issues with that site, even though my standing there is somewhere between awful and abysmal (and undoubtedly I deserve it!). But can someone actually use the sham of a dataset there on hotness to evaluate anything objectively? Perhaps Anindya Sen and Frances Woolley (or someone else) can explain why they think their analysis is academically sound.

  4. Dr. RTFM / August 18, 2013 at 11:42

    I am surprised that there is no discussion in this article of the cost of divorce on the economics of sex and marriage. OK, I guess I’m not surprised; I’m more disappointed.