By Siddharth Gundapaneni
Public perception of varying sexual behaviors has rapidly changed during the last century. Premarital sex no longer faces the societal stigmas it once did, pornography is more acceptable than ever, and support for prostitution is also reaching highs. Why are these changes occurring? Has society gone sex-crazed? Have people begun to just care less about what others do in the bedroom? While some of these propositions may be true, they are hardly responsible for the momentous societal shifts we are witnessing.
Between 1943 and 1999 support for premarital sexual intercourse increased leaps and bounds, from 40% to 79% among young men, and 12% to 73% among young women. While the percent change of young men supporting premarital intercourse is large, it pales in comparison to the sharp increase in support for the act among young women. This indicates that during the span polled, something had a significant impact on the sexual behavior, or at least perception of such behavior, on women.
That “something” can be explained by some fundamentals taught in economics. Choices are driven by incentives and deterrents. Thus, due to societal and technological advancements over time, the potential cost of engaging in sexual intercourse has been considerably reduced. To start, contraceptives have been made more readily available. Following passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially referred to as Obamacare, contraceptive costs were mandated to be covered by qualifying employers and health insurers. In college campuses spanning the nation, and even in many high schools, contraceptives are provided at no monetary cost—often in public restrooms. Easier access to contraceptives means that fewer unwanted children will be conceived, and the chance of sexually transmitted diseases being spread also drops. This considerably lowers the cost of engaging in sexual intercourse, as people will almost always be more likely to engage in an activity if there are limited detriments.
Moreover, the rise in access to contraceptives was not by chance. This was a direct result of more women joining the workforce. In a 2011 Pew Research study, it was found that about 7.5% more women (compared to men) file taxes as the Head of Household, indicating the financial independence many women exercise in modern society. Because of this, the cost of childbirth increases greatly. If a woman who was the sole breadwinner in the household were to have a child, she would be giving up her income to raise the child, which likely isn’t feasible. The alternative would be childcare, which is not something many people can afford, especially when considering low-income families are more likely to have more children, thus even higher child care costs. This is why many women have taken more and more precautions against childbirth over the years, and why advocacy for readily-available contraceptives has steadily risen.
Additionally, decreasing rates of sexual violence have reduced the risks involved with engaging in sex. From 1980 to 2003, there has been an 85 percent decline in the rate of rape. And since 90% of all adult rape victims are female, it would make further sense why more women would be less fearful of sexual activities.
This same financial independence that many women have had in recent decades has also deterred some from marriage. At one point, women needed to get married in order to have any societal power. But now that many women do not need the financial support of a man, they are more likely to put off marriage for extended periods of time. This, along with the marriage rate reaching an all-time low, has likely sparked more sexual activity among unmarried women, moreso than one may have originally expected. An unmarried woman is more likely to have multiple sexual partners than a married woman (if not, I pity the husband), thus less women getting married should contribute to more women engaging sexual activities.
Furthermore, the discovery of new cures and medicines for treating sexually transmitted diseases such as syphillis, came about succeeding the discovery of penicillin, serving as yet another mitigating effect on a deterrent. And through improved medical care, increased access and quality of abortions have also decreased some potential negative outcomes of sex.
While the ramifications of these trends may not be favorable to many, it’s important to recognize that each individual is entitled to making decisions best for themselves, and shouldn’t have to be subjected to the judgment of others. For decades, many women felt shame walking through a pharmacy in order to purchase contraceptives, so social trends like this are beneficial for the well-being of over half of our society.