Why you might sometimes care about the sex lives of strangers.

A snarky comment over on an evanescent social media site lead me to shoot back from the hip, but on reflection, unusually enough, I decided I liked the retort enough to preserve it in more permanent intertoobz form.

The discussion was on oligarchy and extremes of wealth, and the comment was essentially that this was a private matter, and that the income, or wealth, of an individual was not a matter of public interest – that it was a prurient obsession of no more relevance than the identity of their sexual partners or preferences in sexual practises.

Yes, but…

So, begin many good arguments.

Now, where I come from, income is actually a matter of public record, because income tax is public, and hence, logically, the income tax record including the filing of taxable income is public. This is a very useful thing in a small homogenous society, and is common to three societies I know of.
Don’t know that this particular Transparency will ever translate.

I grant, given the cultural context, that income and wealth has some expectation of being a private matter.
However, macroeconomic data is generally a matter of public interest – for example, the quantification of distribution of income is a matter of public interest, (eg. the Gini Coefficient – in the limit of a small population, or a very extreme income distribution, the Gini Coefficient becomes a matter of knowing the income of individuals – eg if a small number of people were receiving as income a macroeconomically significant fraction of the GDP of a nation, it would most certainly be a matter of public interest.
Interestingly, that is also where the US is headed.

In the analogy invoked in our discussion, an interesting parallel can be drawn: I don’t care, for example, who other people marry – but, marriage is a matter of public record, and, if there were individuals who were each marrying, say 2,000 times, or more, the median number of marriage partners for the population, I would generally feel that this was a matter of public interest and ought to be knowable.

There is an interesting other parallel here – in the distinction between wealth and income, and whether the interest is primarily in high ratio of individual wealth to median wealth or individual income to median income (the two are, of course, correlated) – the social parallel is obvious and raises analogous privacy issues; there is a difference, and different in what public interest is served, in knowing spousal partners, and knowing who people had sex with and how – one is more private than the other, neither is necessarily absolutely private.

Oh, and lest one dismiss hypotheticals – ignoring the legend of Solomon, casual browsing suggests the largest number of married partners was 158 for a King of Persia – somewhere around 50-100 partners social mechanisms seem to kick in to force a limit on further partnering and breaking up of existing partners.
That might also be an interesting parallel to consider.


  1. #1 Eric Lund
    April 25, 2014

    somewhere around 50-100 partners social mechanisms seem to kick in to force a limit on further partnering and breaking up of existing partners

    Which is of course an important difference between the two: no similar mechanism exists for limiting wealth disparity. The threat of revolution from a populace that has nothing to lose is the primary check on the greed of the people at the top. As long as the peasants have enough economic resources to keep themselves and their families well fed, the oligarchs can get as rich as they want. That was the whole idea behind panem et circenses in the Roman Empire.

  2. #2 Geraldine Letlape 13087640
    Pretoria, South Africa
    May 5, 2014

    In today’s world, there is nothing personal. It is quite hypocritical to say that income and wealth is public knowledge but sex partners isn’t. Either both are, or both are not! The situations are parallel. It is for the same reasons the public thinks it deserves the right to know. So what is personal these days? Does the word still exist?

  3. #3 Eli Rabett
    May 11, 2014

    Thems that has would say so until they want to wave it in your face

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