Are Wives Prostitutes?


The Purchase of Intimacy

by Viviana A. Zelizer

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2005, 356 pp. $29.95 Hardcover


Reviewed by Barbara R. Bergmann


 “[W]ives and whores are–if not exactly like Coke and Pepsi–something akin to champagne and beer. The same sort of thing.” This latest expression of that naughtily provocative idea comes from a recent online edition of the business magazine Forbes, summarizing an article published by two female economists in a leading professional journal. Economists, of course, have a bias toward analyzing activities of all kinds as though they were just business deals: wives exchange sex for room, board, and other goodies. There is, of course, a diametrically opposed view of what goes on within a married household, namely that everything done there–sex, housework, caregiving, the planning and funding of the family budget–is done for love alone. The household and the business world are strictly “separate spheres.” Exchange, payment, and the cold rationality that dominates the business world should have no place in the household.

 The Purchase of Intimacy, by Viviana A. Zelizer, a sociology professor at Princeton, maintains that neither of these views describes the situation correctly. Zelizer points out that household relations do inevitably involve economic transactions, so the “separate spheres” view is an incomplete account of what goes on there. Housewives don’t ordinarily think of having sex with their husbands or performing housework as activities that they are paid for with access to their husbands’ paychecks. But they certainly know that were the sex and housework to cease the household would most likely break up, and access to that money would also cease. There is, therefore, a sense in which an exchange is going on of sexual access and housework for money, or for what money buys.

 Yet the view that intimate relations within a household are “nothing but” economic exchanges is not correct either. Marriage is in truth very different from prostitution, because it is a long-term relationship, because love or at least affection are frequently involved, because children are being raised, and because the law says so. What goes on in a marriage is not well-described by the kind of analysis economists use when they attempt to explain behavior in the money economy. The claim by some economists that it can be described that way is merely an example of their foolishly imperialistic attitude toward the other social and behavioral sciences.

 The nature of the economic exchanges in relations involving sex are usually kept inexplicit, which encourages a false “separate spheres” view. One reason for avoiding explicit acknowledgment of exchanges is precisely to shield the relationship from the deadly stigma of prostitution. Zelizer shows this in her discussion of relations between unmarried couples. At the beginning of the twentieth century, working-class young women earned very low wages and had to contribute to their families’ income. They had nothing left over for clothes or entertainment, and could get these things only as “treats” from boyfriends. Sexual relations were fairly free among these couples. But they took great care to make sure that the “treats” were not in cash, and were timed so as not to appear to be a reward for a particular sexual act. These couples were thus distinguishing between their kind of relationship and the one a prostitute might have with a repeat client. Zelizer makes the general point that people in intimate relationships use the name given to a relationship, and the type and timing of payments, to distinguish their exchange transactions from other, inappropriate ones.


While some money-dealings among people in intimate relationships are necessary and therefore inevitable, some are best avoided. Doing business with a family member or a close friend carries the risk of souring a valuable relationship if the business does not go smoothly. As Shakespeare says, “[L]oan oft loses both itself and friend.” Also best avoided is the intrusion of intimacy into certain business or professional relationships. Sex with your psychiatrist, gynecologist, divorce lawyer, or thesis adviser is generally not a good idea. Sexual liaisons with colleagues in the workplace may confer unfair advantage in the competition for advancement and create resentment—“She slept her way to the top.” A workplace where sexual relations are common is fertile ground for sexual harassment.

 Zelizer seems friendly to the contention that money wages ought to be paid for a wife’s housework, remarking, “Feminists may well be right to claim that equal pay for housework and outside wage work would benefit women as much as equal wages within commercial firms would.” Yet Zelizer of all people should understand that the housewife, while without a formal wage, is not without recompense. The Wages for Housework campaign is not endorsed by all who profess to be feminists and, in truth, makes little sense. The housewife’s money wage would have to come from the husband or from the taxpayers. If it came from the husband, the money would have to finance pretty much the same purchases as it does in the absence of the wage. So it would have no economic effect on the wife’s situation. If it came from the taxpayers, then single people and two-earner couples would be subsidizing the living standard of housewife-maintaining couples. Since the advance in women’s status over the last fifty years has resulted mainly from the decline in the number of housewives, this is hardly a policy feminists should endorse. Equal pay in the workplace, on the other hand, is a vital goal still far from realization.

 Many of the examples Zelizer gives of the way exchanges among intimates are interpreted are based on lawsuits, which occur when couples or households break up or change composition. When an engagement is broken, a court may be asked to decide who gets the diamond ring. Typically, the judge awards it to the man, even if it was he who broke off the engagement. The ring is viewed as a “conditional” gift, which can be revoked by the giver if the condition of the gift, namely the marriage, fails to take place.

 Someone who has given an elderly person years of care may be left out of the latter’s will, which has been redrawn to benefit some third person, perhaps newly arrived on the scene. Then a court may be asked to decide how much, if anything, should be awarded to the caregiver. If the caregiver was a family member, he or she is likely to get nothing, with the judge following a “separate spheres” theory that pay for caring labor within the family is inappropriate. But a non-family member is likely to get an award in such a case. Zelizer remarks that the theories used by judges in deciding such cases tend to lag behind social changes and may also have an anti-female bias.


 One result of the “separate spheres” way of thinking, which is extremely harmful to the cause of women’s equality, is the widespread belief that it is a bad thing to buy from strangers services a family member could do. It is taken for granted that the quality of purchased child care and elder care cannot be as good as that provided by family members, almost invariably female. If the quality is in fact lower, that may be the result of the bottom-tier pay the market sets for the people delivering this kind of care. The low pay offered may derive from the belief that anybody can do such work well enough. After all, any woman in the world is assumed to be qualified to provide good care for her child or parent.

 Many economic transactions within households and between couples in the past were occasioned by the fact that most women had little or no direct access to money. Now that most unmarried women and a high proportion of wives hold jobs, and women’s wages have risen relative to men’s, there is less need for men to pass money or goods to women. Perhaps as a result, the big share of the housework still done by job-holding wives is increasingly felt to be unjust. The custom of males “treating” their girlfriends is still with us, but appears to be waning. The sexual revolution, which to some extent removed the stigma from sex for unmarried women, has increased the supply of sex available to men, and thus presumably lowered the “payment” needed to obtain it. One of those payments was the promise of marriage, and the decline in marriage that we have been witnessing may well be the result.

  The book does not say what further exploration might be undertaken in these matters, and what, if any, policy changes ought to result from its insights. Except for the anecdotes, it is not an easy or pleasurable read. But The Purchase of Intimacy explores a sexy and interesting topic, and it is good to have these economic exchanges between couples brought to our attention.




Barbara R. Bergmann is distinguished professor emerita of economics at American University in Washington, DC. She recently published a new edition of The Economic Emergence of Women.. She is working on a book entitled The Decline of Marriage and What to Do About It..


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