Our worries are on the rise, and so is illicit sex
Can the economy really be blamed for the rise in adultery and use of prostitutes, considers Carol Hunt
AND the award for our favourite scientific report — at least among the men in our lives — has to go to Omri Gillath of Kansas University, whose study (to be published in next month's Journal of Experimental Social Psychology) found that "men seek more sexual partners when times are tough, as today's economic outlook increases their chance of being unfaithful as they resort to age-old strategies to pass on their genes".
Here we go, yet another socalled “scientific study” explaining why men are not biologically disposed — to paraphrase Twink — to “zip up their mickey”, despite the fact that they should be consumed with worry about their financial situation, or, increasingly, because of it.
Yes, it gave us all a few minutes of rolling-eyed amusement, but you have to ask: is there any point at all to these expensive, time-consuming studies? Do they actually add to human knowledge, or are they just a bit of an ego trip for the professor involved — in this case the young Mr Gillath? Gillath's study is based, in part, on the established “life history theory” which helps to explain low birth rates in richer countries and the lower age of first sexual encounters in poorer neighbourhoods.
He explained: “When the environment is secure and you have enough food and things are working out, people are more likely to invest in their existing kids and stay with their current partner. “But if the environment is dangerous and your chances of survival are lower, then people adopt short-term strategies which allow then to reproduce more.”
If we leave the issue of infidelity aside for a moment, Gillath's theories may explain the astonishing rise in Irish birth rates recently. Figures show that 73,996 babies were born in 2008 — the most in any year since 1980. The last time Ireland experienced so many newborns was in 1892, according to the Central Statistics Office. Did our libidos instinctively see the disaster that was Lehman's and our bank bailout coming? Possibly.
But what about the supposed “increase in sexual partners”? Is there any validity in Gillath's hypothesis that infidelity increases during times of scarcity? Do we have any empirical evidence that would support his findings? Well, yes, actually, we do. But perhaps not quite for the reasons that Gillath supposes, although they may be connected. In his research, Gillath placed people in situations and had them think about their own death, a condition that relates to low survivability conditions.
Afterward, he showed the people images, both sexual and non-sexual. He measured their heart rates to indicate their level of arousal and noted that men's rates of arousal increased after thinking about their own death. Now, in most situations, neither men nor women accede to their basest desires or instincts concerning their sex drive. Thanks be to God.
Otherwise we'd have sexual atrocities the like of which are committed during wars or times of great upheaval, when our learned, rational, civilised selves can become dominated by primal urges. But though Irish men may not be out raping and pillaging because the recession has brought them face to face with their own mortality, some of them are reacting to the anguish, stress, loss of finance and status that the downturn has brought, by engaging in more sexual activity — much of which is extra-martial and, in an increasing amount of cases, involves prostitutes.
How do we know this? In 2009 Ruhama, an agency that supports women affected by prostitution, reported a 20 per cent increase in referrals and a further 4 per cent last year. And as reported in a special investigation by the Irish Examiner last month, though Dublin still leads the way in incidents of street-side prostitution, across Ireland pimps are feeding increased demand in private residences. Five years ago, there was one brothel- keeping offence for every million people outside Dublin.
Last year there were 20. So, that's a clear indication that the use of prostitutes has increased, with all that implies about male attitudes to relationships and the use of women for sex. Regarding relationship breakdowns, the UK relationship advice service, Relate, reports having seen a demand for its services increase significantly in the recent past.
Financial stress is causing many relationships to shatter, with an increase in adultery emerging as a coping strategy for couples who are wedded together because negative equity means they can't sell their home and move on — they are forced to stay together. This is probably the main reason why the rate of divorce has decreased in Ireland. And for those who sever their relationships and make a clean start, the penalty can be financial distress for life.
Last year Waterford postgraduate Roisin O'Shea (who won the ‘Making an Impact' competition organised by the Irish Independent in partnership with the Higher Education Authority) presented research which indicated that a pattern was emerging as a result of the dramatic changes in the economy of couples seeking to separate or divorce. Her research revealed that most couples with young children, wanting to split, have negative equity of up to €100,000.00 (and rising) on their homes and personal debts of up to €30,000 each.
The Family Court judges are being asked to apportion the debt rather than the assets, according to Roisin. Many couples are putting divorce off because they can't afford it. In some cases this may work to the family's advantage as the couple has no choice but to work out their differences. Often, however, it is a disaster leading to misery, depression and sometimes mental and physical abuse.
As for the increase in the numbers of extra-marital relationships: it is extremely difficult to initiate intimacy when you're at odds with your partner. Doubly so if you feel that your relationship is at an end and yet you can't separate. So it's unsurprising that the solution for some is a nice little affair — or, for an increasing number of men, a visit to the local brothel. Today's Irish men may not be taking on additional partners in the bedroom because they want to “pass on their genes” — at least not consciously — but because financial stress is destroying their relationships. And, thanks to the negative equity situation, couples are prevented from calling it quits and moving on, instead having to play a game of maintaining the relationship outwardly while looking for love or sex elsewhere.
Perhaps this is what Bill Clinton meant when he said that the Irish mortgage crisis was by far the biggest problem facing the country. After all, economics and extra-marital affairs are his speciality.
Clinton would probably agree with Professor Gillath about men seeking out “more sexual partners when times are rough”, because, once again, it's the economy, stupid.