A Missouri state assembly bill sponsored by Representative Bart Korman (R-Montgomery County) would require lobbyists to disclose sexual relationships with legislators or legislative staffers. The bill does so through defining sex as a “gift,” which is comparable to extant reporting requirements for “printing and publication expenses; media and other advertising expenses; travel; the time, venue, and nature of any entertainment; honoraria; meals, food and beverages; and gifts.” My favorite part though is that whereas Missouri ethics law generally requires “amounts” and “total expenditures” as part of the reporting for such largesse, the sex bill includes the qualification, “The reporting of sexual relations for purposes of this subdivision shall not require a dollar valuation.”
The bill, and especially the sentence about forgoing dollar valuation, closely mirror a major issue in the social sciences about how people exchange different forms of goods and services and to what extent one form is commensurable with another. The “applied micro” school of economics developed by the late Gary Becker and currently associated with Steve Levitt might be somewhat puzzled by the unique lack of dollar valuation for sex when lobbyists are expected to value all other goods and services. It is an article of theoretical faith and methodological assumption of applied micro-economics that in principle all things are commensurable on a common scale. For instance, in Sex and Reason, Judge Richard Posner describes the difference between marriage and prostitution as “not fundamental,” and indeed this boorish assumption gives him the analytical leverage to make nontrivial analyses about the importance of sex ratios. Even if one can in principle assign implicit prices to in-kind goods and services, in practice pricing the unpriced can be deviously difficult, as can be seen by reading the methods sections of papers in environmental economics as they come up with absurdly varying estimates of how to value an un-dammed river.
In contrast to the economic perspective, every sociologist or anthropologist who reads that sex is a gift, but one that does not require dollar valuation, would have to nod and say, “sounds about right.” (Likewise, this is the understanding of sex in Deus Caritas Est). Sociologists and anthropologists distinguish market exchange from the much older practice of gift exchange. The logic of gift exchange is less about supply and demand than relationships and reciprocity. To accept a gift is to enter into a relationship (and to refuse one is to declare hostility) and on the face, gifts are about creating and maintaining relationships.
For gifts to be about relationships, however, does not mean they are wholly devoid of interest. If I give you a gift, I am establishing a relationship with you, but I can also expect that you will reciprocate that gift and so my motives in giving my gift may be not only to enter into a relationship with you but also to eventually enjoy a counter-gift. This is one reason that humble people give gifts to high status people, as an attempt to elicit patronage. Receiving a gift implies a moral duty to reciprocate with a counter-gift. The failure to reciprocate diminishes one’s sense of honor and most of us have felt a twinge of shame on receiving a Christmas or birthday gift from someone for whom we neglected to give a gift on like occasion. Pierre Bourdieu returned repeatedly to the issue of the duality of gifts, being fascinated by how gifts are framed as expressions of relationships even as there is also a sublimated sense in which they are exchange of gift for counter-gift. Likewise, Cicero and Seneca both speak extensively about how to benefit from the exchange of favors. Perhaps our oldest references to how gifts are not just about relationships, but also carry a sublimated logic of exchange comes in Book VI of the Iliad, when Homer tells us about a gift exchange between two hereditary hospitality friends:
But the son of Cronus, Zeus, stole Glaucus’ wits away
He traded his gold armor for bronze with Diomedes,
the worth of a hundred oxen for just nine
Notably, this logic extends to sex. One of the key terms in Marcel Mauss’s seminal 1925 work The Gift is “prestation,” a French word that means “services provided,” but one meaning of which is a sexual euphemism. Likewise, with the English word “favors.” In both French and English this gift exchange language for sex carries the implication that one person benefitted from the other’s actions. So there is a very different implication between the statement “the lobbyist and legislator enjoyed sexual union” on the one hand and “the lobbyist performed sexual favors for the legislator” on the other hand, even if both phrases could accurately describe the same hidden camera footage. And here is the sense the Missouri bill is really getting at, which is that for a lobbyist to give the gift of sex to a legislator is for the two to enter into a relationship that implies a counter-gift, and the natural gift that a lobbyist might expect from a legislator is legislative influence. And this is true even if neither assigns a dollar value to either the sex or the legislation, just as if you invite me to your home for dinner I owe you a dinner party invitation even though neither of us estimates a dollar value for a dinner invitation as part of this reciprocal exchange of dinners.
Interestingly, although the new Missouri bill defines sex as a gift, it does so in several ways that differ from other lobbyist-legislator gifts already described in Missouri law. Whereas the old sections of the ethics code generally include the legislators and staffs' spouses and dependent children as beneficiaries of lobbyist expenditures, the new bill does not. (Presumably a state assemblyman might be grateful to a lobbyist who has sex with him, but not to the lobbyist who seduced his wife or minor children).
Perhaps the most distinct exemption is that lobbyists need not disclose sex with legislators to whom they are married, or with whom they have a romantic relationship predating their professional relationship. From one perspective, this seems odd, since if the issue is to preserve the integrity of Missouri’s laws from undue influence then a strong bond between lobbyist and legislator should be more dangerous than a fleeting act. However it makes sense if we think not only about whether sex will contaminate the integrity of the Missouri House but also about if sex will contaminate the personal integrity of the Missouri legislators, since sex within marriage is fundamentally legitimate. And the legitimacy of exchange, whether cash, personal, services, or anything else is defined primarily by the relationships of the people engaging in it and whether the goods exchanged are appropriate for the nature of the relationship between the parties.
Gabriel Rossman is associate professor of sociology at the University of California—Los Angeles.