Sunday, September 14, 2008

Freakonomics Quorum

I was asked to participated in a Freakonomics Quorum on Sex, and since I don't know when to say no, I agreed.  For editorial reasons they cut most of my links, in particular links to the supporting data.  I've reproduced it below with the links in tack.

How differently do Americans perceive sex now than they did 30 years ago? (For brevity's sake, it's best to discuss one or two ways.)

The best data on American’s perceptions of sex come from the General Social Survey. Assuming Americans don’t suffer from extraordinary cognitive dissonance we would also expect their perceptions of sex to change with their behavior. Sexual behavior since the introduction and legalization of the female contraceptive pill in the 1960s, has changed dramatically from what was once an act that risked pregnancy to an act which could be accomplished with a risk of pregnancy approaching zero. Importantly it was a technology controlled by woman, rather than by men as was the case of previously available condoms. The primary result of this technological change was the sexual revolution, which started a very slow cultural shift towards a general acceptance of premarital sex.
For the most part I think a majority of Americans have come to embrace sex as an intimate act primarily for the pleasure of the participants, instead of an act with the primary or even secondary purpose of creating a child.  This has led to several other changes in society.  No longer is premarital sex as shunned as it once was – unless your mother is the Republican VP nominee who has promoted abstinence education - because no longer is it as likely to result in pregnancy. And if sex isn’t about creating life, but solely about creating pleasure and intimacy between consenting adults, then homosexual sex - for some people – can achieve that desired end.  It is one reason why homosexual relations are gradually becoming socially accepted by many Americans.   
There are of course pockets of Americans - generally religious - who still view the primary function of sex as procreation, a view the Catholic Church surprisingly continues to promote forty years after the encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” Contrary to the views of many practicing Catholics sex according to the church should “be open to the creation of life”, which I interpret to mean there should be a positive risk of pregnancy unaltered by mechanical or chemical means.  Actually the Church’s preferences are asymmetric in that they are only concerned with preventing the lowering of the probability of pregnancy because if they were concerned about raising it the encyclical would have also banned the consumption of alcohol, a chemical known to increase the risk of pregnancy.   
How do you predict perceptions will change 30 years from now?

The one caveat to previous question might be the general decline in birth rates around the globe.  Falling fertility rates have put strains on social insurance and retirement systems that rely upon the pyramid scheme of population growth.  Italy has talked about subsidizing sex for procreation purposes.  Who knows one day we may view sex as an act of patriotism as we may be asked to literally do IT for our country.
As in the case of the pill, new technologies are probably most likely to facilitate future shifting social perceptions of sex.  I think many Americans perceive a dramatic drop off in sexual activity among the elderly, but I think innovations like Viagra will force us to rethink that stereotype.  In fact there is already evidence that the little blue pill has led to a dramatic rise in STDS among older Americans. Senior living situations are likely the next battle ground against STDs. I’m not implying senior living environments have become bastions of sex, akin to college coed dorms, but none the less the technology has allowed for increase in sexual activity, and with it the transmission of disease.
I also think other social biases will change with time. The internet has been a boon for people with sexual fetishes, allowing them to connect with others who share their interests.  In turn it has lead people who were previously unaware of the fetishes to learn more about them.  And as with most cultural changes in perceptions, slowly over time and with more exposure to them the repulsion many people feel will diminish.

How should we as a society be looking at/treating sex? (your opinion)

I think we should view it as the loving, intimate, fun, and pleasurable connection between consenting adults. As such it should not be regulated by the state.  Failing that utopian dream, the government should at least let women (and men) in Alabama buy and enjoy their sex toys.

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