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The Economics Of Sex, Or The Law Of Diminishing Marginal Utility

Illustrations by Barbara Moura

Everything is governed by economic theory in one way or the other.

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 in regards to sex. And love.

Marginal Satisfaction: 8

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.

Marginal Satisfaction: 10
Total Satisfaction:18

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.

Marginal Satisfaction: 6
Total Satisfaction: 24

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.

Marginal Satisfaction: 5
Total Satisfaction: 29

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.

When I drove off, my glasses were frosted with tears, my windshield from night dew. I scraped my car against the sidewalk in front of his neighbor’s house and drove to work the next morning with a flat tyre I knew nothing about.

Sometimes, when faced with all you’ve asked for, you realize that its worth is severely diminished. An alternate definition: “the rise in the supply of a good leads to a decline in the marginal utility of the unit.”

Marginal Satisfaction:1
Total Satisfaction: 30

A birthday wish turned into sex that just continued for what felt like months, but was more like a sequence of days. We broke up, had sex, and broke up again. We didn’t speak for months. Until we did, and had sex the first time we saw each other.

I found myself emphatically telling him that I would not beg him to love me, that I would not beg him to be with me, and then begging him to do both. I think we must’ve hated each other then.

Or at least he hated me. I never stopped loving him.

Marginal Satisfaction: 0
Total Satisfaction: 30

I heard he had a girlfriend a week or two after we last slept together and I fell apart. I deleted all his social media accounts, his phone number (from my phone, not my brain), and avoided places I knew he frequented. I stayed home at the times I knew he enjoyed being out best. We didn’t speak for well over a year (with the exception of misguided birthday wishes).

When I finally did see him, it managed to be exciting, awkward and painful all at once. Twice we exchanged hellos and air kisses; his girlfriend stood awkwardly behind, never introduced. The third time, I hid in the crowd and willed myself not to cry in the middle of a party. I willed myself directly on top of a cooler, and danced like I was 18 again. I willed myself very, very drunk.

Peak satisfaction meant my limit. I had consumed all that I could have. Had swallowed all that my stomach would allow. This was all there could be without the very real possibility of making myself sick.


Marginal Satisfaction: Negative
Total Satisfaction: Unknown/Unrealistic

We were pretending to be friends. Friends who laid in bed side by side watching Project Runway. Friends who spoke about the gym, and the changes we saw in each other’s bodies.

Friends who cuddled. Friends who felt each other up. Friends who gave each other head. Friends who fucked.

We talked after about youthful mistakes and indiscretions. We talked “never agains” and avoiding temptation. We spoke about his intention to end things and the roadblocks preventing him from doing it. We didn’t talk about anything after that. We messaged each other when we felt like having sex, but each pretending that we wanted to see our friend.

There was something buoyant about this. My ego completely inflated and held me afloat. But as we’ve learned with anything, there is a come down, and the feeling of satisfaction continues to dwindle. My ego, fragile as I know she is, deflated again once the time we spent together devolved from evenings spent watching tv and cuddles and talking, to tv and sex, to watching him wrap up a video game and sex, to just an hour in the middle of the night, sneaking in and out the back door of his house.

A final explanation: “as more and more quantity of a commodity is consumed, the intensity of desire decreases and also the utility derived from the additional unit.”