If prevailing analyses of intimacy and economic activity get causes and effects wrong, but still point to problems real people face, how can we improve on the faulty arguments of separate spheres and hostile worlds? One possibility is that some simpler principle—economic, cultural, or political—actually explains what is going on; that is the nothing-but line of argument. The second possibility is that we need a better account of how people construct and negotiate their social relations: the connected lives alternative. Let us review the strengths and weaknesses of nothing-but before going on to this book’s own account of connected lives.
Impatient with stark dualisms, critics have sometimes countered separate spheres and hostile worlds accounts with reductionist nothing but arguments: the ostensibly separate world of intimate social relations, they argue, is nothing-but a special case of some general principle. Nothing-but advocates divide among three principles: nothing but economic rationality, nothing but culture, and nothing but politics. Thus, for economic reductionists caring, friendship, sexuality, and parent-child relations become special cases of advantage-seeking individual choice under conditions of constraint—in short, of economic rationality. For cultural reductionists, intimate relations become expressions of distinct beliefs or ideological scripts, regardless of what economic connection they may entail. Others insist on the political, coercive, and exploitative bases of the
same phenomena. Occasionally, participants in intimate relations themselves insist on nothing-but: We must run this relationship rationally; your behavior offends our religion; or “If you don’t,
I’ll hurt you.” Social critics and social scientists often follow one or another of these leads.
Across social science as a whole, economic reductionism has provided the most coherent and powerful challenge to separate spheres and hostile worlds views. That category is exemplified by Richard Posner, who in the tradition of Gary Becker, claims the equivalence of all transfers as rational quid pro quo exchanges. Posner has championed the influential “law and economics” paradigm and pioneered its extension to sexuality. Take away any cultural camouflage, such nothing-but theorists maintain, and we will find that intimate transfers—be they of sex, babies, or blood—operate according to identical principles governing transfers of stock shares or used cars. Consider how Posner justifies the “feasibility and fruitfulness of an economic approach to [sexuality]”:
The effort may seem quixotic, for it is a commonplace that sexual passion belongs to the domain of the irrational; but it is a false commonplace. One does not will sexual appetite—but one does not will hunger either. The former fact no more excludes the possibility of an economics of sexuality than the latter excludes the possibility of an economics of agriculture. (Posner  1997: 4-5)
Similarly, David Friedman, another “law and economics” enthusiast, explains why long-term contracts work as efficiently for marriage as for business:
Once a couple has been married for a while, they have made a lot of relationship-specific investments, borne costs that will produce a return only if they remain together. Each has become, at considerable cost, an expert on how to get along with the other. Both have invested, materially and emotionally, in their joint children. Although they started out on a competitive
market, they are now locked into a bilateral monopoly with associated bargaining costs. (Friedman 2000: 172)
“Law and economics” analysts argue that markets provide efficient solutions. Efficient solutions, they tell us, exhaust the legal problems posed by intimacy. Intimate relations, in this view, pose the same problems of choice within constraints as ordinary market transactions.
Nothing-but cultural theorists, in contrast, replace efficiency, rationality, and exchange with meaning, discourse, and symbolism. In its extreme position this view sees cultural representations as determining both the character of intimacy and the place of economic transfers. Take for instance Noah Zatz’s analysis of the prostitution exchange as “a site of powerful sexual pluralism, capable of contesting hegemonic constructions of sexuality that at first seem far removed: the movement from anatomical sex to sexuality to identity and the maintenance of the public/private distinction through the isolation of sexuality and intimacy from productive work and commercial exchange” (Zatz 1997: 306). While nodding to institutional features, on his way to this conclusion Zatz argues that prostitution has no necessary connection to genitalia or to sexual gratification: “constructivist theories of sexuality need to consider,” he tells us, “both that sexuality may be nongenital and that genitalia may be nonsexual” (281).
A third influential nothing-but analysis holds that intimate relations are nothing but the result of coercive, and more specifically patriarchal, power structures. Kathleen Barry’s analysis of the “prostitution of sexuality,” for instance, derives women’s sexual subordination from “gender relations of sexual power” (Barry 1995: 78). Commercialized sex, as in prostitution, from this perspective is no different from unpaid sex in rape, dating, or marriage. The problem here is not commodification but men’s coercion of women.
Common interpretations of the intersection between economic interchange and intimate relations, as we see, range from the moral concerns of hostile worlds theorists to the pragmatism of nothing – but economic views, the constructivism of nothing-but culturalists, and the political critique of nothing-but power analysts. In the case of separate spheres and hostile worlds arguments, the spheres of economic transactions and intimacy remain both morally unbridgeable and practically antagonistic; in the case of nothing-but views, only one sphere matters.
In some respects, nothing-but accounts improve on hostile worlds formulations. Taken together, at least they point out that economic activity, power, and culture all play significant parts in intimate relations. Relations tinged by intimacy often do figure crucially in economic activity, for example, in remittances within migrant families and in household production. At times, only an understanding of cultural distinctions permits us to explain the patterns of connection between economic activity and intimacy, such as in the payment of dowry. Sometimes, finally, intimate relations raise serious questions ofpower, as when managers seek sexual favors from their employees. However, none of the nothing-but alternatives by itself provides a plausible set of explanations for widely observed variation in combinations of economic transactions and intimate relations. In everyday life, how do people negotiate intersections of economic activity with intimate social relations?