11/02/08

Tops and bottoms: an economist’s sex equations

As the author of a (hideously technical) guide to coding of sexual behaviour data, I was intrigued by a recent excavation of the coded sex diaries of economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was married but enthusiastically pursued men for sex at any opportunity. He was also the consummate data nerd, so of course he kept records of his conquests, coding them C (the most frequent of his activities) A and W.

Writing in The Economist’s lifestyle quarterly spinoff “More Intelligent Life”, Evan Zimroth speculates at length about what these codes might mean, and readers add fuel to the fire. With an epidemiologist’s blinders on I’d expect him to code his data the way we do: Anal insertive, anal receptive, oral, if we’re looking at sex between men. But then we’d want to look at the possibility of infections spreading from the gay community to heterosexuals (or even in the other direction, as was demonstrably the case in Cambodia, for example). So we’d want a code for sex with women, too. If I could only have three, I’d sacrifice the oral, if I were an epidemiologist, and the distinction between top and bottom, if I were Keynes.

I’d hate to try to outdo Keynes as a card-carrying data nerd, but in one study of sexual behaviour among gay men in Indonesia, we had no fewer than nine permutations of oral/anal/male/female/paid/unpaid partnerships. Our codes started off cryptically (b5r3b etc), but it all got too complicated and we renamed them things like: unpaidmananal. If Keynes had done the same, he’d have deprived a lot of people of the fun of speculating about the joyous activities of an eminent economist who has been dead for 60 years.

Thanks to Jeff Ballinger for pointing me to Zimroth’s work.

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This post was published on 11/02/08 in Men, women and others, Science.

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