Contraception as a Prisoner’s Dilemma

A reader named Dennis Schenkel in Martin, Tenn., writes in with an interesting commentary about an article that intersects with a lot of things we’ve written about:

First, I know I’m partisan. I’m a Catholic priest. I’m a moralist. I’m biased. That having been said, I just read an article [from 2010] … describing how better contraceptives have successfully split the previous (before 1960) “mating market” into two markets consisting of the “sex market” and the “marriage market,” the author goes on to describe how this sets up a classic “prisoner’s dilemma” for women and gives men a huge advantage in both markets. The article appears in First Things, which is a religion/philosophy/culture/arts journal inhabited mostly by orthodox Catholic and Protestant Christians. But the article’s author does his best to speak exclusively in the language of the social sciences, without moralizing.


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  1. Barry says:

    This paper is heavily biased, as should really be expected, and relies on a number of unfounded and unproven premises to base its claims on. It is also predicated on ignoring non-hetrosexual couples.

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  2. Greetings says:

    You lost me at “ethical inferiority of artificial contraception.”

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  3. Daniel says:

    The biggest and most glaring flaw is the assumption on which the whole article hinges on. That contraception split the market into a “sex market” and a “marriage market”. Isn’t prostitution known as the “oldest profession”? The sex market existed long before contraception. Contraception may have lowered the barrier for entry, but sex without commitment has been in demand since the first sexual reproduction.

    Maybe some of those statistics can be attributed to the introduction of choice in marriage and the trend of people waiting longer to make major life changes (careers start later, marriages later, etc). This is more attributable to longer lifespans than any changes in birth control.

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    • Douglas says:

      I agree that if one can’t see a difference between the prostitution market of yesteryear and the sex market of today, one will never understand Reichert’s reasoning. I’m not sure that is a fault of Reichert.

      I also find it highly doubtful that men and women delaying marriage or careers has anything to do with increased life spans.

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    • Kiru says:

      That was actually dealt with in the article quite effectively.

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  4. Jacob E says:

    I have yet to see a “sexual economic” model that accounts for the fact that women can and do enjoy sex for it’s own sake, or that men might desire marriage and families.

    I also see a lot of assumptions written into the article, such as contraception increasing the demand for abortion (it’s been shown to reduce abortion rates) and that contraception increases infidelity. The premise itself is based on the idea that all women are better off with children and families, and that men seek to avoid the same. Sexual and relationship “utility” is much more complicated than that.

    Despite the economic voice in the article, it still has a strong bias towards what the author assumes is correct moral behavior, and also assumes that men and women have different, conflicting reasons for sexual behavior.

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    • Douglas says:

      I find it curious that so many people say contraception decreases demand for abortion as if that fact were self-evident. In societies that view children as commodities or as unacceptable hindrances to their goals in life, yes it can and often does. However, that isn’t always the case. For instance, Spain increased there contraceptive use from 47% to 80% from 1997-2007. Over the same decade, Spain’s abortion rate doubled (

      Decoupling procreation from copulation has profound effects on how society views pregnancy and children. These effects are rarely understood or even acknowledged. It is certainly not self-evident that contraception decreases abortion. Certain social factors must already be in place for that to happen.

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      • James says:

        Of course the doubling may have had something to do with the fact that abortion was only legal in certain limited circumstances prior to 2010:

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      • Jacob E says:

        Thank you for giving me a chance to back up my claim. Yes, social factors are responsible here, such as acceptance of sexual education, availability of contraception, attitudes towards sex and sexuality. If people don’t find sexuality acceptable, they won’t allow for sex education or contraception use. (As a note, for my own bias, I identify as pro-choice and sex-positive.)

        I’ll also point out that the conclusion of the study stated, “The factors responsible for the increased rate of elective abortion need further investigation.”

        But, to back up my claim that contraception reduces abortion (and I admit that you are probably correct, that it varies dependent on other factors as well), here are some studies and news articles.

        Also taken from PubMed, a study about changing attitudes and increased contraception use in the Netherlands resulting in a decrease in abortion (among other things). This does help imply your point that the connection between the two could be an effect of social factors in regions.

        A study by the Guttmacher Institute concluding that correct use of contraception can reduce pregnancy and abortion. It claims that “as many as 51,000 abortions were averted by use of emergency contraceptive pills in 2000.”

        Many other studies and articles refer back to the Guttmacher Institute, including the WHO, so it seems to be the best primary source for such information. Yes, I am aware that Guttmacher is a reproductive health research institute. And interestingly, the CDC takes a very non-partisan approach to the subject, avoiding all but the most tenuous of public health policy suggestions regarding abortion.

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      • Douglas says:

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      • James says:

        “Pointing to a change in law that happened well after the study concluded has no bearing on the study results.”

        It does, if you think about it. The fact that it finally was made legal shortly after the end of the study period would seem to imply that there was a growing social acceptance during the period. This leads to the hypothesis that it became progressively easier and more acceptable to obtain abortions under the limited conditions of the previous law.

        So we don’t have increased contraceptive use leading to increased abortions, we have changing social conditions leading to an increase in both.

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      • Jaime says:

        Using Spain as an example of abortion rates for that time period despite contraception is a travesty to statistics. The fact has been mentioned here that Spain, at this time was still undergoing a very considerable social transition. You cannot forget that up until ’75 we had a fascist dictator backed by the catholic church that used that “friendship” to push into law most of what was in the bible. Spain had the catholic equivalent of Sharia law. As a light-hearted example that none-the-less exemplifies well the extent that catholicism was forced upon Spanish society, I’ll mention you could not even name your child a name that was not found in the Christian religious books. Contraceptions were contraband items that you could and WOULD be arrested and thrown in jail (with the implications this has during a military violent dictatorship) and abortion was as much of a reason for the same punishment or worse.

        Again, this lasted officially, until the early 70’s. What your data suggests, is that the generation that grew up after the dictatorship, happened to be more liberal than their repressed-by-law previous generations and thus made more use of those means available to them, both contraception and abortion.

        So yeah, please don’t misinform people about the realities of my country. There are very very serious social considerations to take into account here and you have made no effort to include them. And always do numbers justice and remember that correlation does not equal causation… particularly when no effort is made to look at other possible effects.

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      • Jacob E says:

        Here’s another article, published recently. The abstract indicates the success in low-cost or free contraceptives, and the news articles talk about the findings relating to the reduction in abortion.

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    • Lawrence says:

      “Specifically, from the bifurcation of the mating market into separate sex and marriage markets come several self-reinforcing processes. Foremost among these is that contraception inevitably leads to more divorce.”

      This is another example of the ludicrous and poorly supported claims in the article. Since 1960 or so, availability of contraception and availability of (no-fault) divorce have both increased dramatically; that doesn’t come close to implying causality, nor are there any statistics suggesting that it’s the same people taking advantage of both.

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    • jar says:

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  5. Quinton says:

    I think he deserves a clap on the back for doing an admirable job of couching his argument in the language of academic social sciences. That said, ultimately he relies on some flawed logical jumps to reach his predetermined conclusions.

    One example:
    “Women today rarely specialize in the home, or in the family, but, rather, in marketable labor. By specializing in exactly the same thing, both men and women have eroded the gains from trade that potentially exist in marriage. That is, the principle of comparative advantage no longer applies, or at least does not apply with the same force as in the past. This, in turn, means that men and women become, quite simply, less interesting to one another. Sameness begets ennui, which begets divorce.”

    This is a fairly straightforward claim, that because women now choose to take jobs, they no longer specialize in home production (i.e play wife), this makes marriage less valuable since there’s less specialization (This is Gary Becker’s hypothesis for the marriage premium. Not really a settled reason but set that aside for now). That’s all fine enough. His leap comes when he claims that because women have jobs they’re less interesting to men because they’re more like them. I’m pretty young and not really into nostalgia but I don’t think there was a glorious time when husbands came home interested in the cooking and cleaning that happened that day.

    He wanted to make the claim that women entering the workforce leads to more divorce. I think that’s probably true but not because of the convoluted mess above but because it’s really tough to leave a marriage when you’re financially dependent on the other person. Women taking jobs leads to greater financial independence which leads to greater divorce.

    Maybe women are worse off being divorced and with a job than trapped in a marriage, that’s a pretty tough social science question, but there’s no need to pretend its because husbands and wives are suddenly less interested in one another (btw, you know he isn’t that confident in the claim when using phrases like “quite simply” and his evidence is a single divorce resulting from boredom)

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    • Quinton says:

      Also, I didn’t mention that this treats all women and men the same, which is on its face absurd but needs to be said. That cause some logical flaws as well, especially when making claims on behalf of all society

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    • Mike D. says:

      I think you’re misinterpreting what he means by “men and women [becoming] … less interesting to one another.” He’s not using it to mean more boring, I think he means less desirable. The idea is as a man who works and earns a living, a woman who doesn’t run my household and rear my children exclusively is less desirable than one who does.

      I also don’t think that this interpretation makes his argument any better.

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    • jar says:

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  6. Tommy Schouw says:

    Personally he lost me when he tried arguing that contraception leads to abortion…

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  7. Josh says:

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    • James says:

      There’s also the assumption that all men (and women) actually want to reproduce.

      Re the greater age of men in the marriage+reproduction market, it would be interesting to know where the balance is between the better average economic status of older fathers, and the small odds of passing on such age-linked conditions.

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    • Michael Peters says:

      While that article is interesting it’s not even close to what you’re saying. Men can still reproduce late in their lifetimes because their bodies don’t go through menopause. Now you could argue that their reproduction results aren’t as good later in life, but again according to the article the risk isn’t that large. The last quote says ” You have to understand that the vast majority of these mutations have no consequences, and that there are tons of guys in their 50s who have healthy children.”

      Again, not even close to actual menopause.

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    • Nikki says:

      Last I checked, offspring resulted from sex, not from marriage, so one doesn’t need to move anywhere from the sex market in order to reproduce.

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  8. John C says:

    What I think this article misses is that once men or women enter the marriage market and find their mate, they’re no longer in the pool of available mates (requires the assumption that partners will be true to each other, which in itself may be a stretch – however a partner that isn’t true is in some ways maybe still in the sex market?). So really comparing the numbers requires that you only consider those men or women who have entered the marriage market and have not found a mate. Perhaps the average age of men switching markets has increased, while the age of women is not as high. If you assume that in general the same percentage of men and women desire to ever be in the marriage market as before, then there would not be a different relative population of men and women in the marriage market.

    Also, in the previous mating market, there were likely far more women getting pregnant by men who weren’t ready to be in the marriage market and in turn were poor mates. Now, the marriage market is more heavily inhabited by men who desire to be good fathers.

    I will agree that usually it is women who pay for most forms of chemical contraception, and therefore they do bear that burden more heavily than do men.

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    • JF says:

      Definitely agree that part of what this means is simply that the “marriage market” is populated with older men.

      He also fails to account for the fact that women might, once past the childbearing / childrearing years, leave the “marriage market” for the sex market, further equalizing the numbers.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      When the market starts off at both genders getting married at age 20, and transitions to women getting married at age 25 but men getting married at age 35, then for a decade or two, you have a dysequilibrium of exactly the sort he describes.

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      • John C says:

        Agreed – valid point, though based on your numbers it’s a decade, not two.

        If contraceptive use ever declines as the author is proposing, then it’ll be good times for women and hard times for men and we can write a column about how important it is to bring back contraceptives so men can be treated fairly.

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      • James says:

        Isn’t this “both getting married at 20″ starting point an artifact of selection, though? From my reading, it certainly seems that the historical norm was for women to marry men older than themselves, while men delayed marriage until they had attained a measure of financial security.

        So you should see an opposite disequilibrium in the years prior to the start of that data (perhaps an artifact of young male mortality in the World Wars?) with the current age difference being a return to more-or-less normal.

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