What Does the Recession Mean for Our Sex Lives?
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This story originally appeared at Salon.
Our enduring recession is going to make men cheat more, if you believe the conclusions of a new study making the rounds this week. Omri Gillath, a social psychology professor at the University of Kansas, found that after exposing men to visuals meant to make them contemplate their own mortality, they were more responsive to sexual imagery. By superimposing mating strategies from our days on the savannah onto modern times, he concludes that as the economy continues to give us “signs that we have lower chances of survival,” we can expect men to be more inclined to stray. It’s a short-term mating strategy, Gillath says, that optimizes a man’s chance of successfully passing on his genes.
The study serves as a reminder not only of how overreaching evolutionary psychology can be, but also how many contradictory economic-related predictions have been made in recent years about our sexual behavior. It started in 2008 with reports that the popularity of sex-related items had gone up. At the start of the recession, sales of lubricants grew by 32 percent, Durex condoms reported 6 percent growth and sex toy retailer Babeland announced a 25 percent increase in business. Sex-related services also got a boost: Dating sites like Match.com reported a rise in traffic and hookup services like Manhunt saw membership boom. This caused business blogger Penelope Trunk to conclude, “So the deeper the recession, the more sex people are having.”
The popular explanation of “why” was that sex is a cheap form of entertainment, an easy way to feel good — so all of its related stocks were rising as actual stocks crashed. Often enough, these explanations came from such unbiased sources as the P.R. teams behind condom brands. Jim Daniels, V.P. of marketing at the firm handling Trojan’s account, explained, “We’re seeing people looking for means to reconnect with their partner and invest in relationships,” he said. “In some cases, people may have more time on their hands if they’re not working.” There were other analyses, though, that sounded less like a well-crafted sales pitch and more like a public health message. Slate’s William Saletan suggested that condoms were rising in popularity because they were an affordable way of “controlling the family payroll” — because when money is tight who wants more mouths to feed?
Also in abundance were unscientific cultural observations about the allegedly raging national libido. Gawker published a list of five types of recession sex, noting, “Remember the spate of hookups and reunited lovers post-9/11? This is a little like that. When the going gets desperate … the desperate turn to the Craigslist casual encounters.” The ever-reliable Maxim cheered, “If you’re looking for the upside of the economic downturn, here it is: Women are horny as hell.” Somewhat more grounded, Forbes reported, “Layoffs, furloughs and shrinking 401(k)s may not seem like natural aphrodisiacs, but according to experts in relationships and sex, the depressed financial picture is leading some couples — and singles — to better appreciate each other.”
Aw, cute, right? Except, at the same time that all of this was being reported, other outlets forwarded a different narrative — that the recession was a mood-killer. In 2008, the New York Post claimed, “Men’s libidos have gone the way of the Dow as struggles with economy-related stress, depression and anxiety are at an all-time high, experts say.” (The experts, as it turned out, were unnamed sources and local marriage therapists who were probably happy for some free publicity.) Similarly, just last week, a Dr. Drew-endorsed sexpert, Simone Bienne, confidently wrote that now “men don’t want it as much,” without citing any actual evidence, and explained that stress and an inability to provide financially makes them “lose their mojo.”