Evolutionary Psychology

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Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

Perverse Consequences

Published 4 February, 2013

I’m not sure why, but I sort of love perverse consequences. The example I like to use is the story that they tell to tourists taking a tour of The Rocks part of Sydney, Australia. Around 1900, Sydney was fighting the plague, and it was known that the disease was spread by rodents. So, in an effort to reduce the number of rodents – and thus the spread of the plague – a bounty was offered for the lifeless bodies of the responsible critters. Providing financial incentives is a good, if not perfect, way for governments to alter people’s behavior, but in this case, the policy fueled people’s imaginations for ways to produce as many rodent carcasses as they could. It wasn’t long before people started breeding rats.

There are any number of such stories. For instance, back in 1999, Santa Monica enacted a law designed to redress what was seen as an unfair practice, banks charging non-customers to use their ATMs. I’ve never really understood why this practice was seen as unfair, but it was, and the municipality solved this problem by passing a law prohibiting banks from imposing this charge. As soon as the law went into effect, banks simply stopped letting non-customers use their machines. So, banks lost some revenue and Santa Monicans had to drive an extra few blocks to withdraw cash.

My home state of Pennsylvania has a lot of rules about who may and may not sell alcohol, many of which can be traced back to the American puritanical desire to ensure that other people don’t have too much fun. Once consequence of these rules is that organizations that want to have alcohol at their events, for instance, can find it hard to arrange a system of alcohol sales that conforms to state laws, so instead they simply host an open bar – allowed because no money is changing hands –  which in turn incentivizes people to drink more than they would if they had to pay for drinks. The consequences of open bars include people getting more drunk than they otherwise would and my nephew William.

Of  more global significance, China’s one child policy, which somehow leads to approximately one and a half children per woman, has important demographic effects. A number of people have pointed out that the policy has led to an imbalanced sex ratio, with many more males than females, and some have worried about what all these extra men might mean in the medium term. Recently the Economist pointed out two additional effects: first, a demographic shift of fewer working age people participating in the Chinese economy as the one-child-policy-generation works through their working years and, second, a demand for male-child-snatching in China, as families without male offspring find ways to circumvent the government policy.

Returning to southern California and the lighter side, the citizens of Los Angeles recently passed “Measure B,” which requires that performers in pornographic films wear condoms, an idea not driven by the puritanical desire to ensure other people don’t have too much fun, but rather as a means to reduce the spread of sexually-transmitted infections, a testimony to how deeply the people of California care about the health and welfare of its performing artists in the pornography industry. Readers may be excused for taking a moment to dap any tears welling up in their eyes before continuing. (Also note that some pornographic film makers have filed a suit in county court, claiming that the law violates first amendment freedom of speech.)

Aren’t the performers concerned enough about their own health and welfare to wear condoms without prodding from the state? They probably are, but their decisions are tipped by the fact that consumers of pornography like their performances condom-free, preferring an unencumbered look at the male performer’s penis. Because consumers of pornography don’t like to consume condom-cluttered porn, performers have a dilemma: wear a condom, which reduces the risk of infection but brings less money, or perform without, effectively earning a premium for the increased risk.

Well, they used to face that dilemma. Now they face a different dilemma because unsheathed-penis performances are greyed out. News stories coming out of SoCal indicate pretty clearly what, predictably, is going to happen: Larry Flynt and other porn producers are going to pack up and take their naked penises elsewhere. There are, to be sure, some advantages they’ll be sacrificing by leaving the Los Angeles area – the presence of the non-port entertainment industry ensures a good supply of makeup artists, lighting techs, and writers to pen the scintillating dialog consumers expect from their porn – “Hi pizza delivery guy, I can’t pay for the pizza, but maybe my roommate Candy and I can work something out with you…” – but such advantages are mobile, and ultimately appropriate talent can be found or will move elsewhere.

All of which raises the interesting question. While it’s not hard to understand why men enjoy watching reproductively valuable women perform various sexual acts, why do men prefer an unobstructed view of other men’s penises?


  • discoveredjoys

    My hypothesis is sperm competition… in a troop of earlier humans (or earlier primates) any male that is aroused by the sight of another male and female mating might get a chance to mate with the same female (who by ‘observation’ is ‘available’) and if the second male’s sperm out competed his rival’s then his genes would be passed on. It is possible that the sight of an erect penis alone could be sufficient as a trigger.

    Whizz forward to modern times, the picture of an erect penis is enough to trigger arousal, in some men, which of itself is a rewarding feeling, even if it doesn’t lead to copulation. A rubber coated penis perhaps  fails to produce the visual trigger which leads to arousal, or results in a reduced level of arousal.

    Or it could be something else. 

  • Josh

    If I’m interpreting it correctly, the sperm competition hypothesis would predict that men, but not women, would experience less enjoyment/arousal from watching (as Rob puts it) “unobstructed” views of other men’s penises. Is there any evidence to suggest that men are more bothered by condomed pornography than women women? Or is there something I’m missing that would suggest that there would not be a sex difference (e.g., an argument that women are also benefiting from multiple unsheathed penises)?

    Another question: would the adult performers (and, presumably, pornography consumers) also object to other mandated wardrobe requirements, like a mandatory scarf in all scenes, a mandatory top hat, or mandatory socks? 

  • http://gnoughts.blogspot.com/ Vlad The Impatient

    So was the actual *intended* consequence to rid LA of the porn industry while at the same time creating an appearance good people of California were only concerned about the actors’ welfare? 


  • JaziZilber

    it goes with the finding that people experience via seeing.

    Thus seeing someone screw with a condom is reduced in fun, as is doing it with a condom (Norbert Schwartz has some sophisticated name for it, which i forgot)

  • DJGlass

    This cracked me up. But raises a good question. Perhaps the condom reminds the viewer, consciously or unconsciously, about sexually transmitted diseases. Being reminded about AIDS or gonorrhea while watching pornography may be a bit of a shrinker. Having said that, if the industry simply put a gray censor-bar over the penis, and even if it were theoretically possible to do this perfectly without obscuring ANY of the female, I would predict it’d STILL be a liability to the industry. And this is puzzling. Maybe seeing the actual penis is more evocative of real sex than seeing a gray bar being inserted into a female…if you think about it, the whole reason masturbation exists/works is because it fools the physiology into thinking the person is actually engaging in sex. Seeing penises at work, even if one is supposedly not sexually attracted to them, may create psychological associations with sex and arousal.

  • http://popsych.org/ Jesse Marczyk

    It seems like my last comment disappeared into the void of the internet somewhere, so here’s a recreation:

    I think a related question to yours would be: why do people seem to enjoy porn where the actors appear to be enjoying themselves, rather than porn where actors put on their best poker face?

    That said, if it’s not hard to understand why men enjoy watching women perform sexual acts, why would it be so hard to understand why men would not enjoy their view of those sexual acts being obscured?

  • TimothyBates

    Unforeseen consequences is what makes me more conservative than I imagine myself to be. But why is it “not hard to understand why men enjoy watching (pictures) of reproductively valuable women perform various sexual acts (with other men)”? reproductive value -10, survival value -10 🙂

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/NGK226MARR7UKAXBE7DBV6IF2Y Clara

    …maybe Signaling Theory can provide insight into the question…a penis may be one component of a behavioral display communicating information from a Signaler [the sheathed or un-sheathed penis-bearer] to a Receiver [in this case, a male observing a sheathed or un-sheathed penis]. Observing an unsheathed penis provides more information to the Receiver than a sheathed penis. Such information may permit comparison [e.g., for purposes of status or assessment] and subsequent decisions to respond or not to respond behaviorally…either to the Signaler or to an eavesdropper or other third-party [e.g., a potential mate or competitor]. None of this need be based on consious and aware processes but may depend, for example, on processes of “matching” or “Greenbeards”.

    Blog: http://vertebratesocialbehavior.blogspot.com
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=556223472 Jerry D Bell

    It might be more like watching the difference between a simulated activity and the real thing. For instance watching Collegiate Wrestling versus WWF If you enjoy wrestling you prefer the real thing, instead of the scripted business of WWF. I remember watching the progression of R-rated films to X-rated (back in the late sixties early seventies) and trying to see if the sex was simulated or real. I lost interest in close observation of films once I got in the game-as it was.

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