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Sex and Reason.

In this ambitious book, Judge Richard Posner presents an economic theory of sexuality that attempts to explain both the practice of sex and its regulation. Given the pressure on our legal system to address sexual issues raised by the AIDS epidemic, homosexual rights, sexual harassment in the workplace and public funding of erotic art, among others, this work is very timely. Because of the author's stature and his seminal work in law and economics, it is likely to be very influential.

Posner's approach is to conduct his analysis of sex as though it were a morally neutral subject. For example, the public regulation of food or traffic safety, unlike sexual activity, are issues of public concern but are not subjects normally "charged with moral significance." Its economic impact can be examined with scientific detachment. The author proposes to examine sexual activity and its regulation by applying the same economic model of rational behavior typically reserved for more traditional market and non-market activities. Some may wonder how sex can be viewed as rational. While the sex drive itself is viewed as a biological factor that is given, the decision to engage in particular sex acts are thought to be a matter of rational choice where individuals respond to incentives.

This book has two major themes. First, that variation in sexual practice across societies and over time can be explained by a small number of variables. The primary variables are urbanization, income, the sex ratio (the ratio of males to available females), scientific advances in the control of fertility, and above all, the changing occupational role of women. Posner uses these variables to explain society's behavior and attitudes about subjects as diverse as abortion, illegitimacy, homosexual behavior, prostitution, polygamy, infanticide, rape and pornography.

A key factor in Posner's analysis in explaining the evolution of sexual morality from ancient Greece to the modern era, along with the changing occupational role of women, is the trend to companionate marriage. This dominate form of marriage in the west today can be explained as one in which,

. . . the husband and wife are best friends, social and emotional intimates, close companions. The older form of marriage, noncompanionate marriage, is marriage in which the husband provides the wife with occasional insemination and financial support in exchange for her pledge of sexual fidelity, but there is no expectation of an intimate bond.

Unfortunately, a society in which women have improved job opportunities is also one that leads to a declining private value of marriage and hence greater instability. Marriages produce fewer children and wives specialize less in housework. The women's greater independence reduces her willingness to work at improving a bad marriage. The husband receives less value from this type of marriage and therefore is less willing to preserve it.

The book's second major theme is that economics can be used to analyze the regulation of sexual activity. Despite the work of Gary Becker and others in studying non-market behavior, the economic literature on sex is somewhat limited. Most of the research on this topic comes from other disciplines. In what is mostly a theoretical discussion, Posner applies the useful economic concepts of search cost, substitution and complementarily, signaling and externalities, among others, to explain sexual behavior and its regulation. Given the problem of collecting data, readers may be disappointed but should not be surprised at the absence of empirical research. Nevertheless, the author makes a compelling intellectual case for a diminished government role:

The case for forbidding abortion in the early months of pregnancy, for criminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults, for banning homosexuals from teaching jobs, for flatly forbidding them to have custody of children, for discouraging contraception and premarital sex, for seeking to alter die birth rate in the United States (in either direction), for refusing to enforce contracts of surrogate motherhood, for regulating adoption as strictly as we do, for trying to stamp out prostitution, and for banning pornography by recognized artists is unpersuasive on the basis of present knowledge.

Although these conclusions are consistent with his stated preference for "classical liberalism," Posner's analysis is not entirely Laissez-faire. He sees a public role for preventing sexual abuse of children and for disseminating contraceptives and advise to teenagers.

There is much in this book that is likely to be controversial. For example, Posner suggests that homosexuals are likely to be more neurotic and homosexual relationships less stable. Even if true, this alone does not justify the prohibition of same sex marriages. With little evidence to offer, he implies that when sex laws cannot be explained as an attempt to deal with externalities or promote efficiency they may be designed to redistribute wealth to some interest group. Posner sometimes demonstrates the inherent limitation of using utilitarian analysis on such issues as the control of pregnancy. Perhaps the question of what restrictions if any should be placed on a woman's right to an abortion does not lend itself to cost-benefit analysis and should be left to philosophers and theologians to ponder.

Nevertheless, this book contains a vast multidisciplinary literature on sex which Posner brilliantly summarizes and makes accessible to the reader. He successfully uses economics as a linchpin to pull together the diverse literature and promote a more tolerant and rational set of policies toward sexuality. Given his standing as a scholar and judge, he may well succeed at his stated purpose to,

. . . dispel some of the clouds of ignorance, prejudice, shame, and hypocrisy that befog the public discussion of sex in America generally and in the American legal system in particular.

Ralph Sandler Spring Hill College
COPYRIGHT 1994 Southern Economic Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Sandler, Ralph
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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