Recent Tweets

The Economics of Slut Shaming

July 2013

Can slut shaming be explained in an economic model? A recent article by Andrea Cassillo in The Ümlaut argues that it can; and I agree. The article raises many good points. But it seems to me that an economic explanation for slut-shaming that is entirely dependent on the assumption that women are, by nature, less sexual than men is (with all due respect) entirely the wrong way to approach the economic story.

In fact, I would argue for the opposite effect: The true economic model that explains slut-shaming is one in which the historic economic environment perpetuated the idea that women are inherently virtuous. It is that perspective, passed down through the generations, that has contributed to the modern slut-shaming culture – not the failure of modern women to uphold a hypothetical oligopoly in which women collectively withhold sex in an effort to extract more resources from men.

I am not an anthropologist, but to the best of my knowledge, if you go far enough back in human history you will find that we were all sluts at one point in time; not only did we shamelessly shake our asses in the direction of any willing male, but we were even willing to pay to get a little extra action.

I’ve said it before; the sexual freedom of the 1970s was nothing compared to the primal horde – this observation is tough to explain if you want to argue that it is in our nature for women to require compensation for sex.

That party only lasted for so long. By about 4,000 years ago we were settled down into monogamous marriages and growing our own food using tools, like the plough.

The invention of the plough encouraged the strict division of labor between men and women because the technology takes advantage of upper body strength and gives men the comparative advantage in the production of food.

Why does this matter for slut-shaming today?

Well, first of all there is good evidence (published by Harvard economist Nathan Nunn) that societies that traditionally used the plough came to see women as inferior and, as a result, developed social norms that restricted the behavior of women – social norms (and restrictions) that persist until today.

On the other hand, societies that did not use the plough developed a more equalitarian view of men and women with fewer restrictions and greater liberties on female behavior.

Even beyond this effect, I would argue that the structure of the agrarian economy created an incentive for women to signal a lack of interest in sex as a means to attract the most productive husbands – those husbands that could provide enough food for their families – not as a way of extracting resources through sex, but in order to ensure their survival through marriage.

The division of labor in early agriculture meant that it was difficult for men to tell if the children born to their wives were biologically their own since men and women were separated during the day. Men, generally, like to know that the children they are feeding are their own and so, to deal with their inability to supervise their wives, they sought out women who they believed would not cheat. And women were willing to cooperate (by signaling a lack of interest in sex), because without marriage they would be left in poverty; a lifetime of poverty is a high price to pay for casual sex before marriage.

The modern perception that men and women are fundamentally different in their natural desire for sex is the result of a historic (and now irrelevant) economic system that created incentives for women to behave as if they were virtuous – in fact, demanded it.

If you doubt that culture is driving the perception that sex is more important to men than women, consider this: Among the anthropological records of 93 pre-industrial societies collected in the nineteenth century (and compiled in the 1960s by Peter Murdock and Douglas White), only 17 societies had the belief that men’s sexual urges are stronger than women. Seventy-one believed that men and women had equally strong sex drives and, remarkably, five believed that women had stronger sex drives than men.

We have societally internalized the notion that it is abnormal for women to desire sex and, as result, women who act on their biological impulses are treated as sexual deviants – women are shamed for behaving in a way that society believes is contrary to our nature.

What does this story predict for the future now that women are frequently the main breadwinners in their marriages? On one hand, the modern economic environment has reduced the willingness of women to cooperate with demands for virtuosity (isn’t that what the slut walk movement is all about?) and, on the other, it has created an incentive for men to be more virtuous – or at least signal to prospective wives that they have the ability to be faithful within their marriages.

Of course I might be wrong and men will join together to withhold sex in order to extract resources from women – I don’t think I will hold my breath on that one, however.


Murdock, George Peter and Douglas R. White. (1969). “Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.” Ethnology. 9:329-369. (The data itself is available here )

Alesina, Alberto, Paola Giuliano and Nathan Nunn (2013) “On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 28, No. 2, May 2013, pp. 469-530.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *