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.



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.


Homosexual couples don't need to worry that much about contraception.


You lost me at "ethical inferiority of artificial contraception."


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.

Jacob E

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.


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)



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

Tommy Schouw

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


This is also one of the central points of his piece: "Men can reproduce at very late stages in their life cycle. This means that men do not face the same time pressure that women do to move out of the sex market and into the marriage market."

Of course we now know that this is not true:


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.

John C

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.



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.

Neil (SM)

Only problem is the whole article falls apart when you ditch the incorrect assumption that women only ever want marriage and not just sex.

But it's obvious why a Catholic priest would not know about that.

Don in Fort Worth

The fundamental question is not whether these dynamics exist; they undoubtedly do even if they don't dominate the system.

Maybe women just are not collecting enough in the sex market today to fund their time in the marriage market....but that could change once a total-cost/present-value sensibility sets in. Then, when that price is high enough, guys will see the marriage market as a better value.

And the men will be lead, believe me: no matter how fancy the wording is, women regulate conduct. Street punks wouldn't sell dope and drive-by their enemies if they knew that approving, receptive women did not exist (BUT: apparently they do....abundantly so).

The more confusing ritual is the the game of chicken that women play with their ova and marriageable men, both perishable. The marriage market isn't very liquid: it takes about five years, not nine months, to evaluate character and meet family and pick a home and get the trips to Paris out of one's system and then make a baby, so women should be exiting the sex market at the end of their twenties, not the end of their thirties, and when they learn this and apply a little game theory to the risk and rewards associated with letting a good guy get away at 27, this nonsense will come to an end.....

condoms or no.



Um.. What about women who go on trysts for the sake of reproduction.. Aren't like 15% of all births from women who cuckold their spouses?

They use contraception with their primary (stable/nester) mate, and "forget" when copulating with a extra-marital relationship (hunter/breeder).

Then they pass off the genetically superior spawn as a legitimate child to the Cuckold "father".

Doesn't this advantage women?

Jacob E

Do you have sources for these claims?


Contraceptives also allow married women to space and limit their pregnancies. Quick - how many pregnancies would an average, healthy woman have before menopause if she married in her early 20s? How would that affect her power in her marriage, in the workplace, and so on? The article ignores these effects.

They allow women, married or unmarried, to entirely opt out of pregnancy if they so choose. The article quietly assumes this is to the advantage of men, in some mysterious way. Part of the reason my generation married later than my mother's is that we had greater career and educational options. Contraception helps not derailing these unintentionally. Then add the greater social acceptability of cohabitation - the article doesn't even start from evidence that people partnered up later, only that they married later. Even for an article discussing marriage as a market, it's pretty poor.


Eric M. Jones.


Would you have published as readily biased studies from some other weird religion?

Catholicism's brand has taken a severe slide of course. But nobody's religious conviction should be of interest on this blog, except insofar as it displays their wildly irrational side. Hell, in the 1960's we used to buy orange sunshine to see God. Me and Steve Jobs.