What does the recession mean for sex?

As a new report predicts a rise in infidelity, we take a look at contradictory economy-related sexual predictions

Published October 23, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)

      (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-821584p1.html'>FRANCIS JIMENEZ</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(FRANCIS JIMENEZ via Shutterstock)

Our enduring recession is going to make men cheat more, if you believe the conclusions of a new study making the rounds this week. Omri Gillath, a social psychology professor at the University of Kansas, found that after exposing men to visuals meant to make them contemplate their own mortality, they were more responsive to sexual imagery. By superimposing mating strategies from our days on the savannah onto modern times, he concludes that as the economy continues to give us "signs that we have lower chances of survival," we can expect men to be more inclined to stray. It's a short-term mating strategy, Gillath says, that optimizes a man's chance of successfully passing on his genes.

The study serves as a reminder not only of how overreaching evolutionary psychology can be, but also how many contradictory economic-related predictions have been made in recent years about our sexual behavior. It started in 2008 with reports that the popularity of sex-related items had gone up. At the start of the recession, sales of lubricants grew by 32 percent, Durex condoms reported 6 percent growth and sex toy retailer Babeland announced a 25 percent increase in business. Sex-related services also got a boost: Dating sites like Match.com reported a rise in traffic and hookup services like Manhunt saw membership boom. This caused business blogger Penelope Trunk to conclude, "So the deeper the recession, the more sex people are having."

The popular explanation of "why" was that sex is a cheap form of entertainment, an easy way to feel good -- so all of its related stocks were rising as actual stocks crashed. Often enough, these explanations came from such unbiased sources as the P.R. teams behind condom brands. Jim Daniels, V.P. of marketing at the firm handling Trojan's account, explained, "We're seeing people looking for means to reconnect with their partner and invest in relationships," he said. "In some cases, people may have more time on their hands if they're not working." There were other analyses, though, that sounded less like a well-crafted sales pitch and more like a public health message. Slate's William Saletan suggested that condoms were rising in popularity because they were an affordable way of "controlling the family payroll" -- because when money is tight who wants more mouths to feed?

Also in abundance were unscientific cultural observations about the allegedly raging national libido. Gawker published a list of five types of recession sex, noting, "Remember the spate of hookups and reunited lovers post-9/11? This is a little like that. When the going gets desperate ... the desperate turn to the Craigslist casual encounters." The ever-reliable Maxim cheered, "If you're looking for the upside of the economic downturn, here it is: Women are horny as hell." Somewhat more grounded, Forbes reported, "Layoffs, furloughs and shrinking 401(k)s may not seem like natural aphrodisiacs, but according to experts in relationships and sex, the depressed financial picture is leading some couples -- and singles -- to better appreciate each other."

Aw, cute, right? Except, at the same time that all of this was being reported, other outlets forwarded a different narrative -- that the recession was a mood-killer. In 2008, the New York Post claimed, "Men's libidos have gone the way of the Dow as struggles with economy-related stress, depression and anxiety are at an all-time high, experts say." (The experts, as it turned out, were unnamed sources and local marriage therapists who were probably happy for some free publicity.) Similarly, just last week, a Dr. Drew-endorsed sexpert, Simone Bienne, confidently wrote that now "men don't want it as much," without citing any actual evidence, and explained that stress and an inability to provide financially makes them "lose their mojo."

Marginally more fact-based, Reuters reported, "The global economic crisis is taking a toll on older Americans' sex lives," based on the results of an AARP survey. But the survey spanned from 2004 to 2009 and didn't isolate the recession as a cause, so the link is tenuous. A 2009 Daily Beast survey asked people to predict how much sex they would have in the coming year -- a dubious research approach, for sure -- and found that "only 13 percent" expected to have more sex. As though these polar opposite story lines weren't confusing enough, there was yet another: Consumer Reports found in 2009 that 79 percent of respondents said their sex lives had not been impacted by the recession, period.

So, you're probably wondering, which is it: Are people getting it on more or less frequently? Are men cheating more often? The truth is that we just don't know. We don't have reliable evidence that considers a long-term view of the sale of things like lube, condoms and sex toys or an in-depth survey of people's self-reports over time of the amount of action they're getting. Also, it's difficult to pin down overall infidelity statistics, let alone compare such data from before and during the recession. What we do have are press releases that tout the popularity of certain sexy brands -- which maybe you should buy, because everyone else is! -- and half-baked speculation that stokes inflamed anxieties about intimacy and emotional security. What's clear is that even while losing jobs, plunging into debt and watching stocks plummet, we still use sex as a barometer of health and happiness.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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