The Economics Of Sex, Or, The Law Of Diminishing Marginal Utility (The Establishment)

I wish there had been something like “The Establishment” when I was young. Of course, there wasn’t an Internet in the sense that we have internet today, but still. Denece Mohammad has written a great article (January 12, 2016) that brings Economics into sexual territory. It got me thinking about what I have observed in people I have met and the stories they have told. The illustrations are by Barbara Moura.


I have always liked economics. I’ve always been drawn to the way in which its concepts could be applied anywhere. Economics as a social science, “aims to describe the factors that determine the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services.” In practice however, its theories can and have been applied throughout each sector of society.

Even in our everyday lives, we make choices based on laws of behavior that most of us are probably unaware of. Everything is governed by economic theory in one way or the other.

The law of diminishing marginal utility states that, (with all things held constant), as a person consumes more of a product, there is a decline in the additional satisfaction a person derives from consuming one additional unit of production (or marginal utility). Continual consumption will at some point result in negative incremental satisfaction. The most typical example used to demonstrate this law is the concept of an all-you-can-eat buffet, wherein the more plates you eat, the less satisfied you become by the meal, until you eventually make yourself sick.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of marginal utility lately.

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Looking back, there is a good chance I romanticize the night that started things off. There was a party, mostly a group of us sitting around playing cards, drinking whatever we had brought, and a lot of smoking. There was some baked weed concoction passing around. We laid in bed and traded some drunken small talk, cuddling led to kisses and kisses led to sex. And that was it.

The next time I saw him, we went for drinks and fucked in the backseat of his car on the way home. We talked about making the sex exclusive that night. As is the way of commitment phobic 22 year-olds, we assured each other that we would not catch feelings. Things fizzled two months later when his presumed ex (to be fair, my presumption) visited and we agreed it was best he not see me for a while.

I must have cried a lot in this period. Or was just righteously mad. I can’t remember which it was, or the combination that carried me over months of loneliness. Other things that happened in this period: buying my first car on my own; being steadily belittled at the most meaningless of jobs; drinking, a lot; falling into a hole of depression and anxiety I hadn’t realized I had started digging.

When he did reach out I was sure that it was him (or something like him) that I needed to make things better.


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There were apologies and notes of me deserving more and him wanting to be more. There were his promises of trying to give all that I wanted, but slowly. And my promises of not wanting much. There were dates, and sex in beds, and introductions to friends. Slowly I started feeling important or at least wanting to feel important. I broke my promise first and asked for too much too soon. We decided it was best we stay friends.

I learnt about the benefits of break up sex that afternoon.

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I had previously spent a long portion of my life lying to the people around me, and most of all, myself. Sometimes, it’s easy to slip back into the lying—like slipping on that old, worn hoodie that’s seen better days—lying that had become second nature at one point will always feel like a second skin. The best and worst parts of getting closer to people is them recognizing the lies you tell before you recognize them in yourself.

At this point in my life I was struggling with the lie I wanted desperately to believe: that I was not in love, and that I was okay with the casual nature of our relationship. We went back and forth between sleeping together and being friends, or close approximations of these.

Utility is completely subjective. In logic-driven fields of study like economics, the subjective nature of satisfaction never made much sense to me. Utility can only increase for an individual if that person considers his state of affairs improved. That said, utility is pretty difficult to measure as well. In fact, outside of theoretical discussion, utility cannot be measured among different people; it can only be said to be higher or lower from the viewpoint of an individual.

There was a moment a couple days ago: I looked in the mirror at work, adjusted my glasses and realized I didn’t quite recognize the person looking back at me. I knew it was me, but something about me looked older, more mature, a little hardened. My cheeks were slimmer, but not the slimness of my teenage years when the milk was still fresh in my face. My posture was straighter, my stance more deliberate, less casual. Can utility be subjective even to yourself?

Can your past-self derive greater satisfaction from a situation than your current-self? It would certainly seem so.


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There were no more conversations about our status at this point. We had wound up sleeping together one day and didn’t stop. There were sleep overs now, and birthday celebrations. There were introductions to parents, family breakfasts, and Valentine’s Day dinners. There were days and weekends spent in bed.

There were also anxiety attacks and accusations. There were tantrums thrown and in one particularly embarrassing night over 12 phone calls made one after the other, and none answered. There was social media stalking and interrogations of friends. In the lowest moment, I was hunched over his phone while he slept, succumbing to reading his messages instead of leaving his house. The night we broke up he told me he loved me. He told me he could marry me. He cried against my stomach as he hugged me tight. ………………………

The rest of this article may be read at The Establishment

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