What Can Economists Tell Us About Teenage Sexual Mores?

We’re just finishing up a new episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, which will likely be released tomorrow. It asks a simple speculative question: what would the world look like if economists were in charge?

One point of the episode is that economists — academic economists in particular — are generally free from the political and moral boundaries that restrict most people, and are therefore able to offer analysis or recommendations that politicians, e.g., wouldn’t go near with a ten-foot pole.

That point came to mind this morning as I was looking over a recent working paper by Jesus Fernandez-Villaverde, Jeremy Greenwood, and Nezih Guner. It’s called “From Shame to Game in One Hundred Years: An Economic Model of the Rise in Premarital Sex and its De-Stigmatization” (summary here; PDF here).

From the abstract:

Societies socialize children about many things, including sex. Socialization is costly. It uses scarce resources, such as time and effort. Parents weigh the marginal gains from socialization against its costs. Those at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale indoctrinate their daughters less than others about the perils of premarital sex, because the latter will lose less from an out-of-wedlock birth. Modern contraceptives have profoundly affected the calculus for instilling sexual mores, leading to a de-stigmatization of sex. As contraception has become more effective there is less need for parents, churches and states to inculcate sexual mores. Technology affects culture.

There is something worth unpacking in just about every sentence there. Also worth reading is the authors’ take, empirical and otherwise, on the sexual revolution:

In 1900, only 6% of U.S. women would have engaged in premarital sex by age 19. Now, 75% have experienced this. Public acceptance of this practice reacted with delay. Only 15% of women in 1968 had a permissive attitude toward premarital sex. At the time, though, about 40% of 19-year-old females had experienced it. The number with a permissive attitude had jumped to 45% by 1983, a time when 73% of 19-year-olds were sexually experienced. Thus, societal attitudes lagged practice. Beyond the evolution and acceptance of sexual behavior over time, there are relevant cross-sectional differences across females. In the U.S., the odds of a girl having premarital sex decline with [Ed.: increased] family income. So, for instance, in the bottom decile, 70% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have experienced it, versus 47% in the top one. Similarly, 68% of adolescent girls whose family income lies in the upper quartile would feel “very upset” if they got pregnant, versus 46% of those whose family income is in the lower quartile.

In SuperFreakonomics, we relate a parallel statistic concerning men and the sexual revolution:

At least 20 percent of American men born between 1933 and 1942 had their first sexual intercourse with a prostitute. Now imagine that same young man twenty years later. The shift in sexual mores has given him a much greater supply of unpaid sex. In his generation, only 5 percent of men lose their virginity to a prostitute.

Are we starting to understand why the U.S. doesn’t elect more economists to high office?


I understand that sex is somewhat important, but it is a small aspect of human life. Why are we so preoccupied with what people do in their bedrooms? The stuff that is happening is not new. These thing have been going on since before Christ. We are so moralistic when it comes to other people it's ridiculous. Sex shouldn't be stigmatized because it's what people do and enjoy. It's nothing to be ashamed of. All I care about is putting away the perverts, and those who choose to be sexually active should ALWAYS protect themselves. And as far as the statistics go, interpret them how you want. They will never be accurate because of double standards and other economic factors to consider.


You've provided an artifical step-ladder for those ready to make a relative value judgement by basing your statistics off the 19yo female virgin in the year 1900.

What might the percentage have been in say, 32 a.d. ?? Or pretty much any point prior to the high-water mark of the Victorian era?


It seems that perhaps we should consider electing economists to high office, because they reliably tell the ugly truth.


"generally free from the political and moral boundaries that restrict most people"

Now amorality is something to *brag* about?


A great quote in the paper: "Over time the odds of becoming pregnant (the failure rate) from premarital sex have declined, due to the facts that contraception has improved, and more teens are using some method."

I vote pregnant teens should receive a t-shirt: "I failed at premarital sex"


@ Gues: I don't think that being free from the usual moral boundaries necessarily mean that someone is amoral. Perhaps Dubner is (rightfully) assuming that most people are way too moralizing for their own good.


"Are we starting to understand why the U.S. doesn't elect more economists to high office?"

Not really. Other than as punishment for making sex boring.

I suspect the real reason is offered by the words of Harry Truman in seach of a one-armed economist so that he could not say "but on the other hand..."

The Dismal Science may be popular as Freakonomics, but it is not how most people to want to have their lives externally governed. We have computers to do that.


So with the point being economists "are therefore able to offer analysis or recommendations that politicians, e.g., wouldn't go near with a ten-foot pole"

What are the policy recomendations from this analysis?


@Gues #4: "Now amorality is something to *brag* about?"

Considering all the harm that traditional "morality", which is generally based on illogical and bigoted views held by the ultrareligious (whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or whatever), has brought, the answer to your question is YES.

And in any case, morality of the atheistic is great for helping to codify one's rules of personal conduct, but it tends to be a very, very bad influence on policy decisions--which should instead be based on pragmatic analyses.


What's creepy about this isn't the facts it reports, but the way in which it frames men as the sole "consumers" of sex and women as passively consumed sexual objects/commodities.

Believe it or not, women enjoy sex, too. Why no mention of the greater supply of willing male partners who don't expect women to enter into an indentured servitude contract in exchange for sex?


Oh, and can we stop talking about "pre-marital" sex, as if sex within marriage is the standard against which all other sex should be measured?


I wanna know how we can stop the "uglies" from breedin'


> Are we starting to understand why the U.S. doesn't elect more economists to high office?

Because they don't like annoying facts?


I agree with M.B.: "What are the policy recomendations from this analysis?"

It seems like a big leap to go from from an analysis of changing attitudes to saying economists could give better policy recommendations.

Not to say they couldn't, but I don't see the connection here.

Kevin H

I would vote for you.


If economists were "in charge," they would cease to be economists.


"One point of the episode is that economists - academic economists in particular - are generally free from the political and moral boundaries that restrict most people..."

Is this necessarily a good thing? I understand that political and moral boundaries can be restrictive, but sometimes this is for good reason! What if we found it was economically advantageous to eat or kill poor people? What if it was good economic theory to reintroduce slavery? Would we really look at our moral boundaries as a restriction?


I really struggle to see the point of this post. First off, this analysis doesn't really tell us anything. The idea that attitudes lag behind practice is pretty faulty. You are comparing the actions of 19-year-old women to the attitudes of women of all ages. To really see if attitudes lag behind practice, you would need to see if the percentage of 19-year-olds (or any given age cohort) having sex is greater than the attitudes of that same age cohort about the permissibility of sex. Otherwise, you are comparing apples and oranges, looking at what one generation thinks of the actions of another generation. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

Also, are we sure that the premise that an out-of-wedlock baby is less costly to people from lower SES is accurate? Women with higher SES have more supports in place if they become pregnant out-of-wedlock, including increased access to abortions. A woman from a lower SES is more likely to have her schooling or career interrupted by a pregnancy than those with higher SES. This is a grave cost. Just because a family would be "more upset" does not mean that there is greater cost, unless you are attempting to measure the social costs, which are inherently unmeasurable. There is also inherent bias: we look at poor women of color as irresponsible when they become pregnant out of wedlock. We view right white women very differently. Even if the surrounding circumstances are the same, we are more likely to attribute negative characteristics to poor single mothers than wealthy. Look no further than the Palin girl to see how this plays out.


Felicia MD

I seem to remember that Daniel Boorstin, in "The Americans," quoted that at one time, 30% of marriages contracted in colonial Virginia were with an already-pregnant woman.

gevin shaw

Economics is not the only measure of worth. It is useful to know the cost of something, but just because something costs doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. And if money could be made off it, someone would likely already be doing it.

The (perceived) absolute of empiricism seduces us with a definitive answer to complicated questions and too often suppresses rather than contributes to the conversation. It is indeed helpful to look amorally and apolitically at a question; it is neither possible nor good to act that way.

And economist, too, have their agendas. Keynes and Friedman, Rawls and Nozick, each had a priori beliefs. How should we measure a man is a moral view; what the government's role should be is a political belief.