If your Facebook friend, who has been married for 20 years, changes her status to “Interested in men and women,” does that mean she is a swinger? More interestingly, what does it mean for society when swinging has become so de-stigmatized that swingers don’t feel the need to hide? One economist says the answer is this: it means more swinging, more radical sex for swingers and an economic bite out of the prostitution market.
In brief, here is the economic argument for the effects of the de-stigmatization of swinging. Imagine there are two pools of people. In one pool are people who are swingers–essentially couples who together are exploring their sexuality with the participation of others. In the other pool are non-swingers, or perhaps we should call them “potential swingers.” There are costs to becoming a swinger that prevent potential swingers moving into the swingers’ pool. These include the risk that the experience will be disappointing or destructive to the marriage or the risk of disease or of public humiliation.
Over time some of these costs have fallen. For example, the growth in internet activity makes it easier to find like-minded couples, reducing the risk of being caught and publicly humiliated. As the cost falls, two things start to happen. The first is that more people move from the potential swinger pool into the swinger pool. The second is that couples in the swinger pool move from what the author calls “softer” sex acts (for example having sex with each other on a bed in which another couple is doing the same) to “harder” sex acts (for example involving a single man who has sex with the wife or the husband or both).
As potential swingers move into the swinger pool, the social stigma of swinging declines–we have seen a similar argument to this before onDollars and Sex when we talked about how the birth control pill increased out-of-wedlock pregnancy–creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
As swingers engage in harder sex acts this draws single men into the activity at a greater rate, which is what makes the story more interesting.
Clubs that organize swinging events have a perverse economic incentive (pun intended) to allow as many single men into the club as possible because single men pay a higher entrance fee than do couples. Single men and couples, on the other hand, prefer fewer single men in the club. This creates a balancing act between making couples happy and maximizing club profits. But as long as couples don’t want these men in the clubs, the price of admission for them will be high, since spaces will be restricted. If the number of spaces increases though, because couples want them there, the price should fall.
For single men, singles clubs are a substitute for prostitution. And as anyone who has taken an intro-economics class knows, if two goods are substitutes and the price of one good or service falls, then demand for that good increases relative to the other good.
So to recap: Internet access increases swinging and increases the demand for single men who wish to participate in swinger clubs. This decreases the price of entrance for single men to swingers’ clubs and these men substitute away from prostitute use and the share of the economic pie that swinger clubs takes increases at the expense of lower demand for prostitutes.
To me there is one piece missing from this analysis: where are all the single women in these clubs? How much would I pay, for example, if I wanted to join one? Are there just no single women who want to go, or are their numbers so small as to be irrelevant? Or is it simply that wives are less willing to see their husbands have sex with single women than they are with other married women? Maybe one of my readers will have the answer.
* D’Orlando, Fabio (2010). “Swinger Economics.” The Journal of Socio-Economics 39 pp. 295–305.