Monday, April 10, 2017

The Sex Effect, by Ross Benes

Similar to the way the authors of Freakonomics offer insights into life by looking at the world through an economic lens, Ross Benes looks through the lens of sex.  In The Sex Effect: Baring Our Complicated Relationship with Sex, Benes examines the relationships of sex with culture, economics, politics, religion, and life.  He writes that "many of the ideas our society holds to be self-evident about monogamy, affairs, divorce, rape, porn, abstinence, STDs, contraception, fertility rates, and reproductive technologies are often far from empirical truth."  In ten topical chapters, Benes draws from a wide array of sources to get to the truth and clarify misconceptions.  His writing is entertaining and informative.

Depending on your feelings and beliefs about sex and sexuality, you may not be comfortable with Benes's conclusions.  He does like to be a provocateur.  For example, he argues that monogamy was introduced for political and martial reasons; religious preferences toward monogamy are cultural responses.  He makes an interesting point, but Christians and Jews, who tend to think of monogamy as God's plan from the dawn of time, might want to add something to the argument.

Some other interesting conclusions he draws:
  • We shouldn't give presidents grief about their sexual liaisons; they are powerful men, and men with the disposition to be in a powerful role want/need/deserve outlets for their desires.  
  • The policy of prohibiting homosexuals from serving in the armed forces had the unintended consequences of solidifying gay identity, creating gay-friendly areas in port cities like San Francisco, and introducing young people to the concept of homosexuality.
  • Struggling urban centers like Detroit should look to the success of other cities' gay neighborhoods and actively recruit homosexuals to move in and lead urban renewal.
  • We may not want to admit it, but as porn has proliferated, rape has declined.  ("For every ten-percentage-point increase in Internet access, reported rape declined 7.3 percent.")
The most powerful chapter, in my estimation, dealt with the AIDS epidemic in Africa.  As you might have gathered, Benes does not harbor puritanical views about sex.  The tone of most of the book is "anything goes."  But in the AIDS chapter, he points out that biomedical solutions--condoms and drugs--have either worsened or at least not improved AIDS rates.  What solution does he recommend?  The tried and tested "ABC" method: Abstain, Be faithful, or use a Condom (in that order).  Education campaigns with this model were by far less expensive and more effective at reducing AIDS rates in African countries.  But when the U.S. groups came in, backed by pharmaceutical firms and condom manufacturers, the ABC campaigns were jettisoned.  So profit motives and ideology ("The condom coalition condemns anyone advocating for anything resembling a sexual restriction.") trumped what actually worked better, costing lives in the fight against AIDS. 

Benes's arguments are thoughtful and thought-provoking.  He leans toward a pragmatic sexual ethic.  Actually, he might balk at my even referring to a sexual ethic.  Benes's concern is what impact sexual behaviors have, what economic ties sexuality invokes, and what policy decisions impact sexual behavior and vice versa.  He's more of an observer than an ethicist.  He definitely gets some conversations started.

(On a technical note, I read The Sex Effect on my Kindle.  Benes uses tons of footnotes and endnotes, many of them quite lengthy.  Most are informative and/or entertaining, but the flow of the text on the Kindle was disrupted terribly.  I hope the publisher has fixed this for the final version.  One word: hyperlink.)

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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