Sex, Money, and Marriage

While offensive corporate payments have recently captured national attention, behind closed doors couples often practice their own dubious compensation arrangements.
09/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

While scandalous millionaire bonuses and other offensive corporate payments have recently captured national attention, behind closed doors couples practice their own dubious compensation arrangements. Today we read about Robert Charlton, a cheating British husband that regularly made amends by giving his wife jewelry intended to assuage her pain for his escapades. According to press reports, last month the late couples' daughter auctioned the tainted jewels for almost half a million dollars.

This is just the kind of anecdote the French novelist Guy de Maupassant would have greatly appreciated. It brings echoes of his In the Bedroom, a short story he published in 1883. In it, de Maupassant the tale of the Comte de Sallure, who once had dallied with various mistresses, offering the women "money, jewels, suppers, dinners, theatres." After ignoring his wife for some time, Sallure suddenly developed a renewed and powerful infatuation for the Countess.

The newly smitten Sallure became jealous of his estranged wife's many admirers. One evening, returning home from a reception, Sallure resolved to seduce her by declaring his reborn passion. After reminding her husband of his infidelities and his earlier claims that "marriage between two intelligent people was just a partnership," the Countess agreed to rekindle their relationship, but at a price. Sallure would have to pay her five thousand monthly francs, approximately what he had spent on each of his mistresses. When the husband protested "that the idea of a man paying for his wife is stupid," the Countess explained the bargain:

Well, you want me. You can't marry me because we are already married. So why shouldn't you buy me? . . . Instead of going to some slut who would just squander it, your money will stay here, in your own home . . . By putting a price on our lawful love you'll give it a new value . . . the spice of wickedness.

Sallure relented, tossing her his wallet with the francs inside, asking only that his wife "not make a habit of it." The Comtesse insisted on her terms, adding that "if you're satisfied . . . I'll ask for a raise."

The Charltons' deal, much as the fictional arrangement between Sallure and his Comtesse reveals the usually concealed but often surprising sexual economics of households. To be sure, most couples' practices remain more prosaic and less newsworthy. These unusual cases shock or amuse us because they depart from what we consider legitimate household transactions.

Still the reports we get from the few investigators that actually ask ordinary couples about such things offer surprising insights into the economy of households' sexual relations. In her 1980 study of three generations of working class housewives from a mining town in northern Manitoba, Meg Luxton for instance documents the women's extensive and intensive domestic labor, which included washing, ironing, vacuuming, dusting, tidying up, planning meals, cooking, baking, sewing, budgeting, shopping, and caring for children. In this traditional setting, where women worked hard at home while men brought in the cash, sex often turned into a bargaining chip. As one woman reported:

When I want something for the house, like a new washing machine or something, then I just make love like crazy for a while and then stop. Then I tell him what I want and say that if he wants more loving he has to buy it.

During his term managing the US government's 9/11 fund, Kenneth Feinberg unexpectedly discovered some of the complexities involved in households' sexual economies. Although at first he tried to make awards to survivors of 9/11 victims based exclusively on loss of the victims' financial contributions, he soon found himself considering the economic value of unpaid domestic labor and of companionship. That involved him in deciding which sorts of survivors from broken couples did and didn't qualify for compensation, and what losses those survivors had actually sustained. Feinberg reached his limit, however, when a bereaved husband essentially requested funds to hire prostitutes as replacements for his lost wife's sexual services. in his 2005 What is Life Worth?, Feinberg reported the man's request :

I don't want to sound gross, but there is something else that I pay for, or can pay for. You can figure that out . . . there are other services that could be replaced, but we're not going to into that either.

At that point, even the cool-headed, generous Feinberg drew a line and rejected his request.