For anyone interested in sex and economics, China is fascinating. It takes in 30% of the worldwide pornography revenue,* and prostitution income makes up 8% of its massive GDP**. I’ve just spent two (wonderful) months in China, and while sex and economics had nothing to do with my trip, I was left with one surprising observation: I wondered if the Chinese really ought to have more sex.
In the night clubs in China it seems that for every ten men there is roughly one, extremely popular, woman. Social norms prevent otherwise willing women from going to bars, leaving the gender ratio there extremely skewed toward men. This reminded me of Steven Landsburg’s controversial economic theory More Sex is Safe Sex.*** According to Landsburg, if in a sex scene you have only one willing woman per every 10 men, and, if one person in that market contracts an STI, well guess what… everyone else is going to get it too because they are all having sex with the same women. Increase the number of women having sex, though, and, according to the theory, the risk of contracting an STI decreases because each woman is having sex with fewer men. Follow through on this logic and it seems that in more promiscuous societies, sex should be a less risky business: more sex is safe sex.
So is there some policy advice for China here? Can changing the social norms that prevent women from going to bars reduce STI rates? I think not. There is one fatal flaw in the more-sex-is-safe-sex theory: despite its name, the theory doesn’t assume more sex at all. In fact, it only assumes more participants on the scene holding the total number of ‘transactions’ constant. Only a fool would believe that increasing the number of willing partners wouldn’t increase the total amount of sex.
More sex is not necessarily safe sex, it is just more sex.
There is one active market that made me think that China does not, in fact, need more sex. In North America, we all know where convenience stores display the gum and chocolate bars; in the most tempting spot by the check-out. In China forget about being tempted by a pack of Juicy Fruit, that space is used to display a wide variety of condoms, lotions and powders all explicitly labeled with illustrated instructions.
Like I said, fascinating.
**The Industrial Vagina: The political economy of the global sex trade by Sheila Jeffreys (2009)
***More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics by Steven E. Landsburg (2007)