Research Video: From shame to game in 100 years

Teaching young people about sexual behavior is a challenge that parents, state and religious institutions have faced throughout history. But how does society determine what is acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to sex?

Prof. Nezih Guner (ICREA-UAB and Barcelona GSE) has written a paper called "From shame to game in one hundred years: an economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its destigmatization" (with J. Fernandez-Villaverde and J. Greenwood). In this paper, Prof. Guner examines the ways that the changing technological landscape has influenced changing social attitudes toward premarital sex.

"The last one hundred years have witnessed a revolution in sexual behavior," Prof. Guner explained from his office at the Barcelona GSE's Bellaterra campus (UAB). "At the beginning of the 20th century, only 6% of women in the United States said they would have engaged in premarital sex by the age of 19, compared to 75% today. Our research tries to provide an answer for why these attitudes may have changed, as with better contraceptives, the social consequences for engaging in premarital sex have diminished dramatically during the same time period." 

Modern contraceptives have profoundly affected the calculus for transmitting sexual mores, leading to a destigmatization of sex.

"Modern contraceptives have profoundly affected the calculus for transmitting sexual mores, leading to a destigmatization of sex," Prof. Guner "As contraception has become more effective, there is less need for parents, churches and states to teach and emphasize sexual mores. Our research presents a mechanism where socialization, by parents and institutions such as the church or state, is determined by the technological environment that people live in.

"We can look at the decision to engage in premarital sex as a cost-benefit analysis," Prof. Guner continued. "The joy of the sexual experience must be weighed against the cost – the possibility of an out-of-wedlock birth that could impact a young woman’s prospects in terms of education, career, or marriage in the future."

As contraceptives have improved, the possibility of an out-of-wedlock birth has decreased, and as a result, parental concern over out-of-wedlock births has diminished as well. Thus parents spend less effort indoctrinating their children against premarital sex, and the stigma that young people may feel about premarital sex decreases as well.

State and religious institutions have an economic interest in discouraging "indecent" acts, which they have done in the past through fines, public whippings, and jail terms.

Prof. Guner pointed out that state and religious institutions often bear the cost of out-of-wedlock births by providing some form of charity to unwed mothers. Because of this they also have an economic interest in discouraging premarital sex. Before the advent of effective contraceptive methods, so-called “indecent” acts could be punished by fines, public whippings, and jail terms. 

The paper's authors see a direct correlation between the easing of social stigma attached to premarital sex and the improved effectiveness of products that prevent the act's potentially expensive consequences.

"It’s not an accident that these draconian punishments have been largely abandoned in societies where improved contraceptive technologies are available," Prof. Guner asserted. "When the social and moral consequences of premarital sex diminish, we see over time that attitudes about sexual behavior relax as well."


Prof. Nezih Guner (ICREA-UAB and Barcelona GSE) and his co-authors use macroeconomics to explain modern society's relaxed attitudes toward premarital sex.


Watch the video (03:15)


Related Content

Freakonomics blog post from The New York Times on Prof. Guner's research

Empirical Macroeconomics [pdf], Syllabus for Prof. Guner's course

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