Shortage of sex

2nd July, 2005

Dear Economist,

I believe that there is an inexplicable shortage of sex. Given that studies show that women and men enjoy it more than most other activities, and given its intrinsically low cost, it appears that even a crude approximation of a utility-maximising person would probably spend much more time having sex than most. Do you know of any economic discussion of this?

— Michael Vassar, New York

Dear Michael,

It is true that there is something puzzling about the lack of sex in the world. Everybody says they enjoy sex, you can do it fairly safely for the price of a condom, and all you need is somebody of the appropriate gender and sexual preference. How difficult can it be?

Economics professor and blogger Tyler Cowen has offered an embarrassment of possible explanations. In the spirit of perfect competition between economic pundits I suggest that you need fewer answers.

We need just two complementary theories, one to explain the all- night-long sex that couples aren’t having as much of as they should; and the other to explain the casual sex that strangers should be having with each other, and aren’t.

For couples, it’s surely a case of diminishing returns. Just because the average utility of sex is high, doesn’t mean that the marginal utility of more sex is also high.

I enjoy sex but I am no longer a teenager and, to be blunt, it takes me days to reload.

For strangers, the risk of rejection, violence or social condemnation seems very high. In groups where these risks are lower (gay men, students, hippies) my theory predicts that more sex should be going on.

There is a simpler explanation, though: everybody is having constant, guilt-free sex. They just haven’t told the economists.

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