15 May

Economics and Sex: The Naked Truth

Posted By polity_admin_user

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In March 2018, in the British coastal resort of Brighton, a female Cambridge economist went on a secret mission. She left her dingy hotel room, took the lift downstairs to the conference suite and walked into the gala reception of the Royal Economic Society annual conference (a gathering of some 500 economists).

What is odd about that?

Well, perhaps the fact that she did so wearing nothing but shoes, gloves, a necklace – and, of course, a smile.

What could possibly provoke Victoria Bateman, a respected Cambridge academic, to walk naked into a major academic conference with 600 attendees? And why does she think that it’s the senior academics present – and not her – who should be embarrassed?

She didn’t choose to appear naked at such an event because it was unseasonably warm (it certainly wasn’t), nor due to a lack of suitable outfits in her wardrobe, but because economics has a sex problem. If economists were going to stand up and listen, she knew it would require something more than a short conference speech of the kind she was scheduled to deliver the following day.

Her aim was simple: to punch feminism into the centre of economics.

In almost every area of study, economics overlooks sex, gender and women’s freedom – including the vital importance of women’s freedom over their bodies: a point difficult to ignore when one of your leading speakers bares all while sipping champagne and nibbling at the cheese straws.

Throughout history, and still today, women’s inability to control their fertility has condemned them and their families to a life of misery and poverty. Yet when explaining the birth of modern day prosperity in the West, economists emphasise either the state or the market, ignoring the vital role played by women’s freedom, including their ability to take charge of their fertility. Rather than being seen as a driver of Western riches, women’s freedom is seen as a mere by-product. Only by appreciating the way in which economic prosperity is rooted in women’s freedom can we properly understand the obstacles to growth in many poorer parts of the world today. And, whether it’s restrictions on women’s ability to work and travel, or practices such as female genital mutilation, women’s lack of freedom cannot be tackled until we confront taboos surrounding women’s bodies.

Women’s bodies are also being ignored when it comes to another pressing issue facing economists: rising inequality. And women’s freedom is not only relevant for prosperity and inequality, it also has a bearing on perhaps the greatest challenge we face in the modern world: the depletion of our environment.

In her new book, Victoria argues that this wilful exclusion of the female body is hypocritical, intellectually elitist and unfair: a world in which economists neglect women’s bodies is poorer, less equitable and less environmentally-friendly. Rather than sidelining women’s freedom, economists should be placing women’s freedom centre stage.

Robert Solow, Nobel prize winner for his work on the causes of prosperity, allegedly said that ‘everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of the paper.’ This is precisely why economics is failing. What economics needs is not the X factor. It is the sex factor. It is time for us all to take women’s bodies seriously – to see them as something other than trashy, sinful and shameful, and to challenge not only the social but also economic taboos that surround them. This is why Victoria bared her all at a recent conference, and why she has subsequently written “The Sex Factor”. Now is not the time to ignore the female body; it is the time to accept it.

Victoria Bateman is a fellow and lecturer in Economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. She has led calls for a sexual revolution in economics as well as conducting various high profile ‘naked protests’ to highlight the marginalization of women’s bodies in public life.

Order the paperback of The Sex Factor with 30% discount using code PY120 on our website. Code valid until 30 June 2019.