Annie Lowery has an oh so typically Slate piece up on the site about the economics of teen dating. The article is about a recent paper from Duke researchers that found myths of teen dating were true: the researchers “found one classic economic tenet driving the byzantine high-school dating market: Scarcity determines value. Among freshman boys, what’s rare, and therefore valuable, are freshman girls willing to have a relationship and, even better, willing to have sex. Among senior girls, what’s valuable and scarce are boys willing to have a relationship without having sex.” Following in a long and noble scientific tradition, Slate is happy to publish uncomplicated stereotypes as long as they have numbers to back them up. But this article and study are more problematic than the average fare from even William Saletan; nowhere in either the study or the article do the authors mention rape.
In her excellent piece “The Boyfriend Myth,” Sady Doyle dispelled any notion that monogamous relationships are any good for young women by and large:
“According to a 2005 survey on teen dating abuse, 13 percent of girls who have been in relationships—girls, that is to say, who have had boyfriends—report being ‘physically hurt or hit.’ A startling one in four said that their boyfriends had pressured them to have sex they didn’t want. Twenty-six percent reported recurring, and severe, verbal abuse in their relationships. And then, there’s this, from a no less august source than the U.S. Department of Justice: ‘Young women between the ages of 16 and 24 in dating relationships experience the highest rate of domestic violence and sexual assault.’ The highest. What was that about Boyfriend Stories again?”
Here’s the narrative that Lowery sketches out: high school men want to have sex but don’t want relationships, the women want the opposite, a scarcity market determines their negotiation and the compromise of these interests. The assumption that everyone in this situation is an autonomous and rational economic actor pursuing different (and gendered) interests is dangerous. Lowery writes, “Though high-school girls don’t really want to have sex, many more of them end up doing so in order to ‘match’ with a high-school boy.” In economic discourse, we make these bargains to maximize our gains while minimizing our losses, and scarcity may make the trade for a relationship a good deal. The problems here are numerous; even leaving aside for a moment the writer’s blasé reaction to the conclusion that market coercion is the basis for a lot of teen sex, the words “rape” and “consent” appear nowhere in either the report or the article.
Among those girls who don’t want to have sex but do, what percentage of it was consensual? We know it’s greater than zero, would that fact damage the article’s cutesy appeal? What kind of world makes young women sacrifice in order to put themselves in situations where they’re more vulnerable to abuse and rape? This kind of micro-economic analysis can’t answer these questions, and so ignores them completely. Lowery pities the “legions of lonely 14-year-old boys,” but never mentions the 14-year old girls who are too afraid to tell their 18-year old boyfriends “no.” The sterility of economic language fails the violence of this situation. Here’s how the Austrian novelist and Nobel Laureate Elfreide Jelinek describes the same economic relationship in Women as Lovers: “brigitte has a body to offer. apart from brigitte’s body many other bodies are flooding the market at the same time. the only thing that positively stands by brigitte on this path, is the cosmetics industry. and the textile industry. brigitte has breasts, thighs, hips and a snatch. others have that too, sometimes even of a better quality.” Clothes and makeup improve a brigitte’s market position. So do starvation and submitting to her boyfriend’s violent desire. The market of bodies is not some natural equilibrium, it’s brutal and exploitative.
Without an analysis of the systems of power in which these interactions take place, without any attention to consent and violence, this article presents a disturbingly retrograde picture of high school relationships, where girls are expected to transactionally “give it up” to their boyfriends and no one concerns themselves too much with whether she went even so far as to say “yes.” An article like Doyle’s that actually interrogated the premises of the way we think about teenagers’ wants probably wouldn’t get as many hits as a cheerful validation of misogynist playground economics, but it might actually do young women and men some good.