Thinking some more about this column, I do like how Robert Frank suggests applying cost-benefit analysis to the quest to love and be loved. I just wish he did it more effectively.
Consider the enormous costs people pay with when it comes to seeking love and sex. Americans spend billions of dollars on dating and weight loss and beauty products and fancy toys and everything else people use to get others sexually interested in them, and it's impossible to count products not explicitly sold for dating but still get used that way anyway (like cars and food).
Add to that the time spent seeking romantic partners - it can be several hours a day for some people. They could earn a lot of money by taking on a part-time job or have lots of fun with a cheaper, less time-consuming hobby.
Then add in the cost of uncertainty: some people risk losing their family and job and respect from others when the sex and love a person wants isn't what others want for them. Not everyone takes these risks, but enough people do that it can't be ignored.
Frank doesn't get into it (his column would have been more interesting if he did), but one of the most fundamental concepts in economic theory is that the expected benefit has to exceed the expected cost for someone to do something. People don't buy things they don't think they'll like.
Consider a straight male politician risks his career for an affair: does he really think there's zero risk of getting caught? Or does he think there is a risk, but was willing to accept that for the benefit having the affair would bring to him? I imagine that people who spend weeks focus grouping every campaign ad and rehearsing every debate aren't so irresponsible that they think that the American media will just ignore their sex lives.
How about a woman who cheats on her partner, the woman she built her life with, a relationship she desperately doesn't want to end. It happens. But she still took that risk. I refuse to believe that she's just irrational.
Or consider gay men who risked - and still risk - police brutality and family rejection and unemployment just to be touched by another man. It's about more than living one's life honestly, as the discourse around coming out suggests. It's far more primordial than that.
Women who can't afford children in states where contraception and abortion are inaccessible still have sex. Policy is used to intentionally raise the cost of sex for women, and yet women there still have sex.
And how about any person who tried, futilely, to lose weight because they wanted to be loved? Dieting involves suffering with little promise of long-term results, but many people are willing to try it if they think they need to in order to be loved.
Instead of assuming irrationality, maybe we could deduce from these examples that the benefit to sex and love is bigger than we generally imagine. If these people were just looking for some fun or to pass the time, they'd choose activities with a lower cost. Like sky-diving or yachting or alligator-wrestling.
Instead, people continue to feign surprise as other people continue to pay a high cost for both sex and love. And people aren't satisfied with just getting love in the one form society approves of: their preferences are specific.
I'm not saying that the risks are always worth it. I'm saying that assuming that the risks seem worth it to the people who make these choices is a lot more productive than pretending to be shocked - shocked! - every time someone does something stupid for sex and love.
Of course, artificially raising the price of anything is generally rejected by economists. If consumers really don't want something, then they wouldn't pay for it. If it hurts others not involved (like, say, pollution produced by cars hurts people who don't have cars), then there are ways to deal with that other than just bringing down the hammer of prohibition. Prohibition is useful if it's the only way to meet people's needs, needs they define for themselves.
That cannot be said about the sex that our culture tries to prohibit. People clearly want it and the aspects of sex that they don't want - children they're not ready for and STD's - are better handled through other means.
Taking away contraception to prevent teen pregnancy (so that teens know they'll be punished for having sex and, bam, they'll just decide not to have sex) is counterproductive. The cultural (and legal) prohibition on gay sex does nothing to prevent STD's. Treating sex workers as social pariahs doesn't solve the real problem of violence in the prostitution business.
And, of course, this implies that the price (in terms of money, time, and effort) paid to try to prevent sex shouldn't be written off as irrationality either. The Pat Robertsons of the world don't do what they do for kicks (I should say the non-famous Pat Robertson types, because Pat Robertson himself is making plenty of money from his stated political beliefs). But that question steps into some psychological murkiness that I won't claim to understand just yet.