Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Twenty-Six: Transactions

I have been thinking about the idea of the economy of sex. There are writers who disapprove of the whole concept of "sexual economics", since they assume that looking at sex as a transaction with all the attendant microeconomic ideas of utility maximisation devalues female agency. And there are male writers of the less appealing "pick-up artist" and "men's rights activist" kind who seem to reduce sex to exactly an exchange of cash or its equivalents and who lament that "hot is the female rich" and are angered by their own belief that any attractive woman can have sex pretty much at will.

I do think microeconomics can be applied to sex. There are concepts there that make clear sense--- choice under uncertainty, transaction costs, and utility maximisation. Transaction costs here does not mean the direct cost of buying sex. But going out to meet a partner has its own costs in terms of resources that could be expended elsewhere. If you go out to meet a partner, or if you devote your time and attention to a lover and a love affair, there are costs. You don't have unlimited time, if nothing else. You've chosen to do this thing rather than another, to be with one person on a given night rather than another. The time you spend at a club or a party is time you don't have to be at a film or at home. The money you spent on subway fare or on drinks or on an outfit is money you don't have to spend elsewhere.  That's the "dismal science" part of economics, after all: every choice closes off other choices, every choice has its costs, even if they're only in terms of other choices foregone.  And everyone looks to maximise utility, yes--- even though "utility" can't be strictly defined by material things.

That does take me back to Marcel Mauss and the "The Gift" and the idea of symbolic exchange and reciprocity.  I remain a bit perplexed at the writers who dislike the idea of taking any kind of anthropological view of what happens in mating rituals.

And it takes me back to my own memories of dating when I was young.

Dating in those days and in that place was a highly ritualised activity. One called to ask a girl out--- never later than Wednesday for a Saturday night. And so much of the night was choreographed. I remember the way a girl always sat demurely against the passenger door as you left her parents' driveway and then, as you turned off her street, slid over next to you. In a bench seat car, you put your arm around her; in a car with bucket seats, you put a hand on her thigh. And of course there were clear steps for how far one was supposed to go sexually on a given date. Yes, it gave little scope to female agency, and it gave little scope to negotiation. I'll acknowledge that. There was this much to be said for the ritual, though: it did eliminate anxiety and uncertainty. Like any good system, it relieved one from having to worry, to think about what step to take (or not take) next. The system itself carried one along. There's a lot to be said for that, for reducing uncertainty and anxiety. There's a lot to be said for system, for not having to worry about the next step.

In that time and place, dating was very formalised, with clear rules. It contained and constrained sexuality, but it also offered a framework to both parties. The rules were clear enough, and there was an expectation on both sides that going out on a date was a mating ritual, that there would be some kind of physical contact. I know the arguments about the harshness and unfairness of some of those rules, and I don't dispute that. I have always appreciated the formalised nature of those nights, though. I liked the ritual aspect. The ritual kept one from feeling judged quite as much as might have happened in less formal circumstances. There is an argument that European ways, where groups of kids go out and get to know one another and pair off from the group, are better. More honest, less pressured, and more likely to allow two people to get to know one another. Still, though, I remember feeling somehow safe in those days. If a girl elected to go out with you, you'd been given a signal that you had some sexual value, even if only as someone to kiss in a parked car or at a film. Yes, as the boy, I was expected to pay for film tickets or dinner, but it never felt like I was buying the right to make out with a girl. There was a transaction, yes, but it was more ritual. The girl and I went through our formal steps, and we both enjoyed something physical. I really couldn't have imagined pushing through what the accepted limits for each date were. The system may not have given anyone a chance to establish what's now called "intimacy", but it allowed for physical contact and it gave mating and its travails a structure, a framework. You did things by the numbers, and both parties knew the rules. Am I saying that what I liked is that one didn't have to think about what one was doing? That's possible, and it's always one of the things that make rituals and systems appealing.

I'm not at all sure that dating like that exists any longer in the States, even in the region where I grew up. But I still have that love for formalised sex, for ritualised seduction and affairs. Those are transactions, but not in the monetary sense. But they are set up as interactive moves, as exchanges of symbols and symbolic actions.  I like them for exactly that. I like the formality and the sense of narrative arc.

I may have gotten away from talking about either the economics of sex or Marcel Mauss. But let's discuss this--- the idea of seduction and flirting as a set of formal, ritual, symbolic exchanges. Tell me your thoughts, if you're reading this.

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