September 17, 2012

More sexual partners among those who knew a murder victim

The original "Aha!" moment that started me off on the program of how we respond to a rising or falling-crime environment was the close fit between falling crime and falling sexuality (and vice versa, of course). After linking as many disparate phenomena together as possible, it looked like more of them could be explained as reactions to a rising or falling crime rate, rather than something else being the fundamental driver, such as competition over mates.

Freudian psychobabble is just one of many bogus theories that have sexuality laying underneath all of the other social, cultural, economic, psychological, and political changes. I haven't seen others pan out either, e.g. the idea that a more male-biased sex ratio would lead to greater violence as more males compete for access to fewer females.

The threat of violence, physical security, knowing people who've got your back -- that's the basic stuff that really matters. Even Maslow's dubious hierarchy got that part right.

As for the mechanism behind rising crime rates and its broader effects, the main one I proposed was a shortening of the time horizon. When the forecast says rising violence, then you should discount the future more -- get off your butt and do whatever you need to do, just in case tomorrow never comes. Life takes on a faster pace and people are more ambitious or driven. If, however, the forecast says falling violence, then the future's looking ever safer, so don't worry -- put off today what can almost certainly be done tomorrow. Life becomes more vegetative and people become more comfortable with mediocrity.

Getting more vs. less reproduction done in a given length of time is just a special case of this idea.

What distinguishes my idea from the others (that sex, etc., is behind it all) is that people don't need to experience violence themselves. They probably hear about it through word-of-mouth, as well as through communications media if the society is literate. That's good enough to tell what the forecast is. Indeed it's better than trying to base the forecast on your personal experiences, since you're just one person, and the news you hear is aggregating over whole regions or countries. The theories that make violence an effect posit a direct personal link -- the more you compete for mates, the more likely you are to use violence to get your way, or to run into a competitor who treats you violently.

My view is related to Terror Management Theory, a very rich body of psych research that shows the effects (or non-effects) of priming people to think about their own mortality. These researchers' interpretation is more humanistic, about how man seeks reassurance of permanence in the face of his awareness of his own frail nature. I buy that in the cases that touch more on religion, patriotism, art, etc. But for cases like reproduction, I think it's more of a pragmatic thing -- no time to procrastinate!

As with my view, the theory here doesn't require people to have a personal run-in with their own or someone else's death. Just thinking about it, and letting it sink in, is enough.

So, do even indirect experiences with violence and murder have an effect on our dating and mating behavior? Near the most recent peak in the murder rate, the General Social Survey asked people if they knew anyone who'd been killed in the past year. This would provide a prime about violence and death that they didn't experience first-hand. Also, it gives the person a decent idea of the trend in the crime rate. Most people won't know a single recent murder victim (even near the height of the crime wave, only 10% of respondents did). The murder of someone you know must tell you that it's becoming common enough that it's closing in on your social network -- not just something that goes on in some rotten ghetto.

The GSS also asks how many sex partners you had in the last year. Obviously other things affect that, so I controlled for age, sex, education, and race (white vs. non-white). I also controlled for whether you'd ever been hit or punched, and whether you'd ever been shot at or had a gun pointed at you. These last two variables allow us to control for the overall danger or rambunctiousness in a person's life, whereas the "know a murder victim" variable tells us more about what broader social picture the person has seen, beyond first-hand events.

In a multiple regression, the strongest predictors of number of sex partners are age and sex, with younger people and males having more partners -- not interesting. Then comes race, with non-whites having more partners, again nothing new there. Just below that, though, is how many recent murder victims you know -- the more of them you know, the more partners you had in the past year. Education and personal gun violence are not significant predictors. Having ever been punched could be, depending on how you correct for large number of hypotheses being tested. It's as the theory predicts: those who've been hit have more partners.

So personal experience with violence matters less than what you pick up about it from your broader social ties. And remember that it's not simply that some people live in more risky areas, have more rambunctious lifestyles, etc. -- even after controlling for all that, the strongest non-demographic predictor is how many murder victims you know. Having that experience pushes your behavior in a faster direction, apart from however fast or slow it is due to your age, race, sex, and personal encounters with violence.

How strong is this effect? Here is a graph that shows number of partners in the past year, where red is 0, blue is 1, and green is 2 through 100+. The left bar shows people who didn't know any murder victims of the past year, and the right bar those who knew at least 1. Red is 0 partners, blue is 1, and green is 2+.

The respondents are only those aged 18 to 39, to control for the main predictor. They are also those who've been punched before, to show that it happens even among the rambunctious. Further restricting the graph to whites, college-educated, etc., does not change the pattern and only reduces the sample size, so I left it open to all races and education levels. The pattern is a little more pronounced among males than among females, but not that much, so I left it open to both sexes too.

Those who knew a recent murder victim were far less likely to have been celibate in the past year -- 2% vs. 9%. They're also a bit less likely to have had only 1 partner in the past year -- 54% vs. 65%. And they're far more likely to have had 2+ partners in the past year -- 44% vs. 27%.

We've controlled for all kinds of possible confounding variables that would link knowing murder victims and having more sex partners, and still that relationship holds. Getting a vivid sense that the threat of violence may be closing in on your social circle makes you speed up your plans.

Is that good or bad? Well, ignoring all pointless hypothetical thinking, and looking directly at real life from the past 60 years, it's clear that America and the West generally was not on the brink of the apocalypse during the 1980s and early '90s, even if it felt that way at the time. Maybe teenagers started earlier and had a few more partners in a given length of time, but they weren't like Gypsies or anything. The country was not overwhelmed by births to teenagers.

However, the trend toward vegetation and procrastination of the past 20 years, the Slacker Era, are appauling. It's far worse for something perfectly good to go to waste, like 20-something playing video games while living at home, or boys and girls pushing back courtship until college or later, missing the opportunity to fully develop emotionally and socially during adolescence. The level of procrastination that we currently see is way worse than the downside of the fast-paced life of the Go-Go Eighties. At least they got shit done.

And in the case of young people, what they put off today cannot be returned to later on down the line. If you just put off dating for a year, no big deal. But put off social interaction too long, and the developmental window has already closed. It's like a woman who puts off conception until after law school, then realizes she's infertile. Development and maturation wants to stick to a pretty tight schedule, so that's where the culture of procrastination really screws up the society.

GSS variables used: partners, cideknew, gun, hit, age, sex, race, educ


  1. Several years ago I correlated 73 GSS variables against sex partner # to find the best predictors. CIDEKNEW was .05 for men and .04 for women. But experience with violence was one of the strongest class of predictors: 'Ever been punched' was the single strongest predictor for women (.20). 'Been threatened with a gun' was close.

    The top predictor for men was 'ever paid for sex', but 'been threatened with a gun' was #2. 'Ever been punched' was also near the top.

    While these look like victim variables, victims and offenders are generally the same persons at different times. Promiscuous people are also violent people. More violent people means more promiscuous people, and vice versa. Mating: the most dangerous game.

  2. I don't think being exposed to violence makes people have more sex. However, too much violence does make people cocoon, which leads to lower promiscuity.

  3. In other words, I don't think that being exposed to violence makes a person more likely to have sex.

    People are horny. They have sex when they have the opportunity. You don't need violence to set their triggers off.

    The Millenials are more prudish because they are more reclusive. Sheltering also means that they are generally not as competent at social networking, which leads to less sex.

  4. "It's like a woman who puts off conception until after law school, then realizes she's infertile. Development and maturation wants to stick to a pretty tight schedule, so that's where the culture of procrastination really screws up the society."

    Well, I'm not sure about that. A lot of Behavior seems to be situational.

    The Millenials lack the right knowledge, but given that and a healthier social environment, I think they would act a lot different.


  5. "Promiscuous people are also violent people."

    I think it's more general, like more physical or more corporeal people. Athleticism was also a positive predictor of promiscuity. They're also the ones who like dancing more than the average person, and get more physically into it, such as the warlike Jersey fist-pump. They give stronger hugs, pat others on the back, shake hands, or kiss when meeting, etc.

    Cerebral people express their hostility verbally, satisfy their libido just by exchanging glances, mellow out to singer-songwriter music, and maintain a more policed personal space.

  6. An alternaitve explanation could be that more sociable people have more sexual partners, and also know more people (ergo, higher the probability of knowing someone who was mirdered)

  7. This is totally out of left field, but it seems almost like Millenial boys are becoming more physically infantilized or feminized.


  8. damn Blogger. The new interface doesn't open the "new post" window on either firefox or internet explorer.... will probably try migrating this whole thing to wordpress or something.

    In the meantime I'll put posts on a jump drive and update this blog from some other computer.

    Google also required me to give them my cell phone number to sign back in to my account sometime last week.

    Give nerds just a little bit of power, and look what happens...


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