Saturday, April 01, 2006

Bargaining in the Boudoir

Basic bargaining theory predicts that the division of the gains from trade in an agreement is a function of the parties’ threat points, meaning their best outside options. The more desirable is your best outside option, the more you can command in the bargaining process. This is most obvious in business relationships; for instance, your firm’s parts supplier can command a higher price if he has other viable buyers, or if a getting a new supplier would require your firm to incur significant search costs.

And the same principle applies in intimate relationships, as Dan Savage’s latest column aptly demonstrates. Two letter writers find themselves caught in relationships of convenience, wherein they are being used by someone else for sex. Yet Dan’s advice to them differs substantially. To the 17-year-old straight girl whose sex partner has no interest in a more serious relationship, Dan simply advises her to take it or leave it:
Now that you know he's been using you, JASG, you have a choice to make. You can go back to loathing the prick, and that's probably what most people would advise you to do. But if you're digging the amazing sex, and you can accept that nothing more will ever come of this relationship, hey, why not use him right back?
But to the gay college boy whose sexually confused roommate goes out partying with his straight friends, then returns and crawls into bed for a round of drunken gay sex, Dan advises a renegotiation of terms:
Assert yourself. You have more power in your situation than JASG has in hers, SMDLC. While it would be relatively easy for JASG's boy to go find himself another girl, your roommate can't find another guy without taking some baby steps out of the closet. So make up your mind about what you really want, SMDLC, and what you're willing to settle for, and then confront your roommate. I doubt he's ready for a relationship, but at the very least you should be able to leverage a little more compassion, tenderness, and sweet talk out of him.
The key difference between the two situations is threat points. JASG’s straight boyfriend’s next best option is just finding another girl, while SMDLC’s roomie’s next best option is taking the risk of outing himself before he’s ready. Dan’s advice displays an intuitive grasp of the theory of bargaining.

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