Sexy time
July 9, 2007 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Have More Sex! I'll get less AIDS! University of Rochester professor, Slate columnist and pop-economist du jour Steven Landsburg argues in his newest book, More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics, that those among us who take few sexual partners would better serve the greater good by being more promiscuous. So, who's chaste, condom-equipped and free tonight?
posted by jckll (46 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Reminds me of the Seinfeld episode when Elaine convinces Jerry that they have to have sex to SAVE the friendship.
posted by jmccw at 12:09 PM on July 9, 2007

I'm not sure about this fucking advice.
posted by nofundy at 12:17 PM on July 9, 2007

It doesn't sound like the advice of someone I'd want managing my money, that's for sure.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:23 PM on July 9, 2007

The more realistic economic model: The moment you drive that car off the lot it loses 15% of its value ... and it's only downhill from there.
posted by ogre at 12:30 PM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I read the first chapter of this book in the bookstore last night. It was very funny and provocative, and he had some excellent points. I'm not enough of an economist to evaluate the strength of his arguments, but it made good and amusing sense to a layperson. The focused seemed to be on the idea that behavior that is intuitively 'logical' or 'rational' to the human mind is often not the most effective choice from a purely scientific point of view.
posted by Miko at 12:30 PM on July 9, 2007

9 pages of this crap? Does he actually crunch the numbers on this, or is he just spouting nonsense. A lot of economists think up some general rules and then just take them as gospel.

It's really annoying.

In other fields do you see people spouting "I just thought of this, and I'm an economist, so it must be true!"
posted by delmoi at 12:32 PM on July 9, 2007

There's a reason it's called the dismal science.
posted by Malor at 12:33 PM on July 9, 2007

(er, that should be "in no other fields...")
posted by delmoi at 12:34 PM on July 9, 2007

Oh, and his 'the uninfected should sleep around!' argument is completely stupid; it decreases risk over the short term, yes, but over the long term it results in a great many more cases of disease transmission.

Economics != epidemiology.
posted by Malor at 12:35 PM on July 9, 2007

delmoi: In no other fields do you see people spouting "I just thought of this .. so it must be true!"

Except metafilter.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 12:35 PM on July 9, 2007

I work in public health epidemiology.

Just as you wouldn't ask me to balance your chequebook or explain the macroeconomic ramifications of the rise of the Canadian dollar versus the yen, you shouldn't trust an economist's take on the effect of sexual partner number on HIV transmission.
posted by docgonzo at 12:35 PM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

This works if you assume...

#1: ...that all persons who want to have sex will have sex so long as a partner is available, no matter who that partner is;

#2: ...that all persons who are not able (no willing partner) or not willing to have sex will continue to feel that way even if the pool of partners shrinks, grows or changes members.

In short, it doesn't work in the real world, and as an explanation of how economics works, it's terrible for that very reason.
posted by davejay at 12:46 PM on July 9, 2007

This line is funny when taken out of context: "...the spread of AIDS in England could plausibly be retarded".
posted by punkfloyd at 12:52 PM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

The whole article is based on this assumption that people have sex for pleasure (and not out of economic necessity), and that these people are all decently educated members of the Western Industrialized middle class.

Which is not where the epidemic is hottest.

Is Martin going to travel to Africa to "purify" the sexual stream there? Or maybe Martin could just go to the nearest poor area of his city, where infection rates tend to be higher, and "purify" their stream?

Lots and lots of people in Africa are - or would like to be - sexually conservative. I wonder if the author has maybe taken a look at the economic and social realities of being female in, oh, South Africa.

The author is an idiot.
posted by rtha at 12:54 PM on July 9, 2007

Ah. I see the new trend in economics, post Freakonomics, is to say something outrageous to get people's attention and then try to back it up with numbers.

/didn't think Freakonomics warranted the attention it got either
posted by Zinger at 12:55 PM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't agree you have to assume #1. The argument is more that there is incomplete information with regard to the sexual health of potential partners, i.e. you cannot tell as a potential consumer if the good is flawed or defective. Without complete information, a consumer can't make rational choices.
posted by jckll at 12:56 PM on July 9, 2007

In short, it doesn't work in the real world, and as an explanation of how economics works, it's terrible for that very reason.

On the contrary, I'd say "it doesn't work in the real world" is an excellent explaination of how economics works.
posted by scottreynen at 1:02 PM on July 9, 2007 [7 favorites]

Lead paint causes crime ? More sex means less AIDs !? *head melts*
posted by nola at 1:02 PM on July 9, 2007

Comedy gold
posted by caddis at 1:03 PM on July 9, 2007

Even if it were true, what the hell is in it for me? More sex partners, sure, but that isn't a "benefit" I've had an interest in for well over a decade now. Why should I expose my precious bodily fluids to y'all's nasty stupid promiscuity, merely to increase the availability of clean partners in the sexual economy? I mean, I'm all for curing AIDS and fighting it's spread, but I think there's a lot more territory in the whole "teaching people not to be idiots" and "giving out clean needles even if certain dumbasses disapprove" department before we get into "improving the partner supply for horndogs" territory. This brings new meaning to the phrase "I don't give a fuck."
posted by nanojath at 1:15 PM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

this reminds me of something i read... something about how physicists (the 'astro' sort specifically) feel qualified to pontificate on the possibility of life existing in other environments outside of earth - but would absolutely brick their tweeds if they caught a biologist talking about black holes.
posted by nihlton at 1:19 PM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

In the Maxwell/Martin/Joan example Joan could very viably already have had a disease. However, Martin being the kind of person who was cautious enough to respond to the sign, is probably more likely to be the kind of person that would use protection, or show restraint if not available, or choose less satisfying but less risky sexual activity even if both Martin and Maxwell thought they were disease free.

So in a sense I think the results would fit the premise though for a slight variant of the reason. Unfortunately, this assumes that Maxwell and Martin's chances of finding a sexual partner as an irresponsible vs responsible person are equal which I severely doubt.

Yes, this too applies to first world citizens. Places bordering or engaged in civil wars, theocracies, etc...have much more systemic problems causing their epidemics and I imagine we were supposed to understand that in reading the article, unless I missed some comments contradictory to it.
posted by kigpig at 1:43 PM on July 9, 2007

I'm finding it a difficult to get past the first few paragraphs of that mass o' wankery. If he's building his argument based on this idea, "When the cautious Martin withdraws from the mating game, he makes it easier for the reckless Maxwell to prey on the hapless Joan," then he obviously has no fucking clue about the social contexts of most cases of HIV transmission.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:46 PM on July 9, 2007

The paper should read "if you tweak the parameters on my simulated model, I can get things that are better than reality".
posted by GuyZero at 1:46 PM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

Papers like these in behavioral economics are almost never intended to be policy suggestions, and their authors will usually tell you as much. Generally, as here, they are based on unrealistic assumptions and are meant simply to spark discussion or to encourage the reevaluation of whatever the current mode of thinking is. It's a peculiar discipline, but lots of fun to read and think about.
posted by kosem at 1:55 PM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I read it not as a serious claim that promiscuity ultimately leads to less sexually transmitted disease rather I saw it as sort of an intellectual game. He outlines the rules of the game and then he plays it. Of course there's not going to be a bounty on used condoms. This is an intellectual exercise.

Economics has become a system for attempting to address problems quantitively in terms of incentives and costs. I think for all the talk 'of economists should stick to dealing with interest rates' and so forth it misses the point. With this parlor games I don't Lansburg so much evangelising promiscuity while turning a blind eye to its consequences. He is playing a parlor game the topic of which is interesting to a great deal of people and using the sort of rube goldberg device thinking that economics cultivates to arrive at interesting answers.

If social sciences other than economics didn't use the tools of economics and econometrics they would be poorer and worse and wrong more often.
posted by I Foody at 2:01 PM on July 9, 2007

If social sciences other than economics didn't use the tools of economics and econometrics they would be poorer and worse and wrong more often.

Counterpoint: Economics is as much a religion as a science and articles like this illustrate exactly how it's full of crap.
posted by delmoi at 2:09 PM on July 9, 2007

That's not a counterpoint.

This book, and the field of behavioral economics/rational choice theory is extremely limited in scope. It says, quite reasonably: "You have not considered this perspective. Think about it this way and see where it gets you." The author of this book is deliberately provocative, but he's not telling people to go out and fuck a bunch of random strangers to prevent the spread of AIDS. This and the Freakonomics kids are the recent publicity blitz of something useful and specific that has been happening for a very long time.
posted by kosem at 2:28 PM on July 9, 2007

I'm surprised at all the hate. The article was thoroughly entertaining.
posted by Slothrup at 2:31 PM on July 9, 2007

So Steve Landsburg has a RealDoll?
posted by Smart Dalek at 2:45 PM on July 9, 2007

The AIDS argument is completely irresponsible. If more people enter the group that is having unprotected sex with multiple partners, that increases the odds that they will become infected. More sex = more opportunity for the virus to spread because, as noted above, people don't know who is infected and who isn't.

It is an especially irresponsible argument because when people are *most* infectious is immediately after they have gotten infected-- when they almost certainly don't know they have the virus. Get a few more such people into a pool of people having unprotected sex with multiple partners and you will increase infection rates.

What this doesn't seem to get is that once you are infected, you stay that way, so adding more people into the "at risk" population cannot be protective in the long run.
posted by Maias at 3:02 PM on July 9, 2007

Although the way he framed the premise was extremely annoying, the basic idea, that diseases are largely spread by a few individual "hubs" rather than equally by the population back and forth, is pretty well documented. The spread of AIDS among the gay population in the early 80s was even largely attributed to one man, though the theory is contested... still, the notion that reducing the super-humpers' numbers would be good for public health is not crazy.

However, the notion that getting martin into the game would do that is not logical in itself, as A doesn't necessarily equal B. It is not clear Joan would take martin instead of maxwell, or that martin would have any interest in joan. Who fucks who can't just be considered a case of who is available - no doubt there are some who would claim that to be the case, but in reality even they have boundaries & preferences.
posted by mdn at 3:05 PM on July 9, 2007

I'm not surprised at the hate, for all that the article was indeed entertaining.

There are many who are dubious about economics in general as a discipline. Partial and therefore inaccurate models are constantly used to justify actual policy, often, though not always, in such an entirely ahuman way that sometimes one might even be forgiven for thinking that there may exist some economists who really do believe that money is more important than people. The kind of arrogance which led Landsburg to reply to a dissenting doctor at the end of the NYT piece, suggesting that people are most successful when they stick to the things they're good at, as part of his defence of an article attempting to take an economist's view of a particular problem in the existing field of epidemiology, is jawdroppingly barefaced.

It clearly does not occur to Landsburg that such articles may be giving the game away about the extent to which economics has any insight into economics let alone HIV, on which basis this is arguably the most subversive thing I have so far read in the New York Times.
posted by motty at 3:14 PM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't know why anyone is analyzing this article. I'm printing it out right now and heading for the bar.
posted by effwerd at 3:24 PM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

Nihlton - astrobiology is a well-established field, and the people who work in it have generally studied evolutionary biology and a wide variety of other biological sciences. Many astronomers are quite well-qualified to talk about the possibility of life on other planets, whereas most biologists have not made enough of a study of physics to discuss black holes at a professional level.
posted by kyrademon at 3:25 PM on July 9, 2007

I’d like to brick someone’s tweed. That’d be sweeeet.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:35 PM on July 9, 2007

When sexual conservatives relax their standards, benefits spill over onto their neighbors.


/okay, I've got nothing but snarks, I liked the article and it is provocative, but all I can come up with is this crap.
posted by effwerd at 3:45 PM on July 9, 2007

I think the idea, from game theory, makes enough sense that it would be worth tossing in as a strategy into a simulation and see what comes out.

Granted, it would be a bear to crunch the numbers on for, say, the USA, trying to figure in things like latency, long-term nonprogressors, comorbidity with herpes, bug-chasers and gift-givers, the imp of the perverse, transfusions, the timeline of introduction of various new drugs and cocktails, prison, profiles of people's sexual activity and frequency, condom costs, local needle exchanges, guys on the down-low, and so forth, but I think the time has come to sink some cash into a serious simulation designed to first back-predict some things we already know about the spread of HIV, then as a way to test strategies as suggested.

It would sure beat "abstinence education will of course work!"
posted by adipocere at 3:57 PM on July 9, 2007

Why would anyone take sex advice from an economist? I don't take financial advice from hoboes.
posted by potch at 4:16 PM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

In other fields do you see people spouting "I just thought of this, and I'm an economist, so it must be true!"

Climate science.
posted by dirigibleman at 5:27 PM on July 9, 2007

Well it may work for some to have more sex and get less AIDS - In the past 30 years Agnes has had unprotected sex with up to 2,000 infected men. Yet she and a small number of her fellow sex workers are still free from Aids, but it doesn't have anything to do with this model.
posted by tellurian at 6:35 PM on July 9, 2007

This is just great! I am going to use this to convince my wife for a three-some.
posted by swissfrank at 7:42 PM on July 9, 2007

It's so funny to read the comments of everyone who takes this little parlor game seriously. You've been had.
posted by caddis at 7:47 PM on July 9, 2007

Metafilter: doesn't work in the real world
posted by lukemeister at 8:44 PM on July 9, 2007

Taking the long view, is it not plausible that if more people have more unprotected sex that the total number of human deaths caused by AIDS over its lifetime will be minimized, because genetic resistance to it will be found and selected for more quickly?

(This fact would of course not in any way benefit the generation(s) of people deciding to have more unprotected sex, only their descendants)

Or is it more likely that if AIDS is kept under control long enough it will evolve into a less virulent form that is less likely to kill its host?
posted by lastobelus at 10:52 PM on July 9, 2007

Seems to me that the main issue raised by this article (and the book) is about marketing/consumer preference.

The title "More Sex Is Safer Sex" is obviously incorrect, and so are some of the author's written-to-be-quoted assertions on the topic.

What if the title was changed to be accurate, e.g. "Somewhat More Sex by Certain Types of People Might on Average Make Sex Safer in a Community, Subject to Some Assumptions"?

Would anyone be reading the article (and the book)? Would we be discussing it?

If celebrity author-economists like Landsburg wanted to perform a public service, they could spend some of their brain-power on figuring out how to encourage consumer interest in things substantive rather than things sensational...
posted by gbognar at 5:29 AM on July 10, 2007

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