Chastity Pollutes? NY Times Website Hosts Idea That Social Conservatism Causes AIDS
On Sunday, New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt reviewed the new book "More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics" by Steven Landsburg, a regular contributor to the liberal site Slate.com. Leonhardt panned the book as too cute and too far afield from the "dismal science" of economics, but the Times book editors gave the Landsburg thesis an excerpt on the Times website. According to Landsburg, people who are chaste and monogamous (who practice "extreme sexual conservatism") cause the spread of AIDS through the "sin of self-restraint." The excerpt begins:
It's true: AIDS is nature's awful retribution for our tolerance of immoderate and socially irresponsible sexual behavior. The epidemic is the price of our permissive attitudes toward monogamy, chastity, and other forms of extreme sexual conservatism. You've read elsewhere about the sin of promiscuity. Let me tell you about the sin of self-restraint.
Consider Martin, a charming and generally prudent young man with a limited sexual history, who has been gently flirting with his coworker Joan. As last week's office party approached, both Joan and Martin silently and separately entertained the prospect that they just might be going home together. Unfortunately, Fate, through its agents at the Centers for Disease Control, intervened. The morning of the party, Martin happened to notice one of those CDC-sponsored subway ads touting the virtues of abstinence. Chastened, he decided to stay home. In Martin's absence, Joan hooked up with the equally charming but considerably less prudent Maxwell - and Joan got AIDS.
When the cautious Martin withdraws from the mating game, he makes it easier for the reckless Maxwell to prey on the hapless Joan. If those subway ads are more effective against Martin than against Maxwell, they are a threat to Joan's safety. This is especially so when they displace Calvin Klein ads, which might have put Martin in a more socially beneficent mood.
Economics aside, this does not morally compute. Would the Times book editors pluck out of obscurity a tome that argued that people who don’t drive cause global warming? Pacifists cause wars? Vegetarians cause the mass slaughter of chickens? But there, on the Times website, Landsburg is unloading purple prose: "If multiple partnerships save lives, then monogamy can be deadly." His language grew even more colorful, comparing chastity to pollution:
Martin's chastity is a form of pollution -- chastity pollutes the sexual environment by reducing the fraction of relatively safe partners in the dating pool. Factory owners pollute too much because they have to breathe only a fraction of their own pollution; Martin stays home alone too much because he bears only a fraction of the consequences.
Leonhardt is right on the broad point that it’s clumsy for economists who want to apply their theories to every facet of life, as if market principles could explain the mysteries of every human action. I’d add the intangibles like emotion, and religious faith. Consider the dry academic approach of this Landsburg passage:
If you are a monomaniac whose goal is to minimize the prevalence of AIDS, then you should encourage Martin to have more sex. But if you are a sensible person whose goal is to maximize the difference between the benefits of sex and the costs of AIDS - then you should encourage Martin to have even more sex.
To an economist, it's crystal clear why people with limited sexual pasts choose to supply too little sex in the present: their services are underpriced. If sexual conservatives could effectively advertise their histories, HIV-conscious suitors would compete to lavish them with attention. But that doesn't happen, because conservatives are hard to identify. Insufficiently rewarded for relaxing their standards, they relax their standards insufficiently.
But the exchange of sexual pleasure isn’t a mere economic transaction, like buying a Mac or a Big Mac. For example, if Martin and Joan have sex, and Martin never talks to Joan again, was it a "socially beneficent" act? Landsburg’s simple-minded thesis that more sex is almost always good also ignores the less than "socially beneficent" facts like abortions, sexually transmitted diseases, pornography, and prostitution, not to mention the emotional wreckage that one-night stands or serial adultery can cause.
Landsburg clearly has no variable for religion, a major factor in the spread of that "immoderate and socially irresponsible" trend of monogamy and chastity. He has not pondered that for religious people, armed with a sincere aspiration to avoiding the eternal consequences of sin, there is no convincing argument for casual dabbling in "safe" sin or "socially beneficent" sin. The notion of a "sin of self-restraint" turns religion upside down – which is actually a fairly common acrobatic practice in the pages of the New York Times.