Surprising insights from the new field of sexual economics
Sex is commonly thought of as a private, intimate event that occurs behind closed doors. We like to think of making love in its personal, romantic context. We often describe or imagine the sexual event as an ecstatic occurrence bathed in candlelight and fragrant incense, with satin sheets and silk handcuffs, hot bubble bath, smooth Barry White, and cold bubbly. This is all well and good, but viewing the sexual act as a private mind-body event can obscure important truths about its deep nature and meaning. Soft whispers and passionate kisses tell a story of sex, but not the whole story, and not always the most interesting or important part of it.
Hence the importance of scientific theorizing and observation, which seek to explore the sexual encounter from different surprising perspectives in an attempt to understand the event fully and place the private scene in its surrounding social context.
The American psychology researcher Roy Baumeister of Florida State University has been advancing for some time now an interesting theory that analyzes the sexual act from an economic perspective. According to Baumeister, heterosexual sex can be understood as a marketplace in which men are the buyers and women are the sellers. According to this analysis, sex is essentially a female resource. In other words, female sexual activity is much in demand and has high social value, in contrast to male activity, which is plentiful and easy to come by and therefore worthless. A woman’s sexual consent is a valuable asset that may command a high price. Because his sex has no value in the market, the man, seeking to ‘purchase’ female sex, is required to bring other valuable social resources to the transaction, such as attention, time, love, respect, commitment, money, status, etc.
What makes female sex so valuable? The ultimate reason lies with evolution. Evolutionarily speaking, man’s investment in the sexual act and the risk he is taking are minimal. On the other hand, his pleasure (orgasm) is guaranteed, and each sexual encounter increases his chances for more offspring. The female’s investment in a sexual act and the risk she is taking are in contrast very high (the risk of death from complications of pregnancy or childbirth), her pleasure is not guaranteed, and having sex with multiple men does not increase her chances of getting more offspring. Therefore, sex for men is a no-risk/high-profit investment. For woman, the equation is reversed. Thus, the supply of female interest in sex is reduced, and since male demand is high, the price rises.
In addition, says Baumeister, the sexual motivation gap between men and women puts men at a disadvantage in sex negotiations. Scientific evidence suggests that male sexual motivation in general is higher than female motivation. The population of people who want sex but do not get it is almost exclusively male all over the world. Among the couples reporting a gap between ideal and reality, most of those who complain about wanting more sex than they get are men. Men, as a rule, lead all measures of sexual interest such fantasies about sex, consumption of pornography and prostitution, masturbation, etc.
Man’s heightened motivation for sex puts them at a disadvantage because, according to the well-known “principle of least interest,” the one less invested (or motivated) in a relationship, controls it. For example, if you love your partner more than he loves you and you are more invested in the relationship than he is, then control of the relationship rests with him. The one who’s in love will do everything to save the relationship, even if it costs them big concessions. According to this principle, the fact that women are less sexually needy and motivated for sex puts them in a position of power in sexual negotiations.
Another reason why female sex has become a valued resource is related in all likelihood to human social history, in which, without exception, men have controlled most of society’s resources-–money, status and power positions. In such a situation, sex has been one of the few assets that women could leverage for obtaining other valuable social goods such as power, status, and money.
Baumeister’s analysis of the sexual marketplace, then, assumes that sex is not just a private matter but a part of the socio-economic system, just as buying a house is not just a private act but part of a system. According to this analysis, the price of sex depends in part on social and environmental conditions, just as housing prices are so dependent. Thus for example in societies where women outnumber men, the price of sex is bound to drop because supply (feminine sex) exceeds demand (men looking for sex). In such a society we can expect the emergence of more permissive norms for women. A case in point is the current American university, where women are the majority, men are few, and casual sex, no strings (or rings) attached, has become normative.
In this analysis, the sexual woman may be likened to a property owner looking to sell. It makes sense for her to advertise, market, price and position her property correctly in order to create increased demand and end up with the best deal. This analysis, claims Baumeister, can illuminate anew the ongoing debate between, on the one hand, women who claim the right to dress as sexily as they wish without being labeled ‘sluts’ and subjected to degrading treatment, and, on the other hand, men who think a woman who dresses sexy is doing so because she wants to have sex with them. If we view sexy dress as advertising and public relations of a property owner who wishes to sell, we understand that such an owner would want to stimulate interest in as many potential buyers as possible, not because she aims to ‘sell’ to all of them but because she seeks to find the one optimal ‘buyer.’ Thus viewed, an attractively dressed woman conveys an interest in finding a suitable partner, not in finding many partners.
In addition, the theory posits that men, given their position as consumers in the market, will seek to lower the price of sex. The inherent interest of female asset owners, however, is to raise the price. According to this analysis, the concepts of ‘free love’ will be adopted by men more vigorously than by women. Women on the other hand will mobilize more vigorously to fight against pornography and prostitution because these institutions allow man easy accessibility to female sex and thus reduce the value of the property.
In general, it pays for women to operate as a cartel and cooperate to ensure a high price for sex, just as OPEC ensures high oil prices by controlling coordinated supply. The theory therefore predicts that the effort to neutralize and shame sexually permissive women will come mainly from other women, not men, because permissive women allow men easy access to the resource and thus lower its market value. It is no coincidence, Baumeister points out, that sexual women are often termed ‘cheap.’
Indeed, studies show that women judge sexually permissive women more harshly than do men. In general, women tend to hold more negative views toward those behaviors that contribute to lowering the price of sex, like sex before or outside of marriage, casual sex, etc. According to the research, even the famous double standard whereby a man with many partners is considered a ‘stud’ while a multi-partnered woman is considered a ‘slut’ is maintained primarily by women, not by men.
According to Baumeister, female sexual property consists of two parts. The first part, a woman’s very interest in sex, is an asset that is not degradable. Potential female sex has intrinsic value. A woman ready for sex will always arouse interest. The second part, her reputation and good name, is an inherently degradable property and may be exhausted by irresponsible management. A compliment is worth more if it comes from someone who’s stingy with compliments. According to this analysis, women will seek to limit their number of partners and conceal their sexual activities in order to protect their reputation. Indeed, studies have frequently shown that women under-report the number of sexual partners they’ve had.
Baumeister’s view predicts in addition that the pressure to maintain the high value of female sex will be greater in societies that exclude women from access to other sources of social power. Conversely, when women are free to pursue positions of power and influence in society and become independent, their reliance on leveraging sex for social assets will decrease. Studies support this prediction. Stringent restrictions around female virginity, modesty, etc. are more common in patriarchal societies that exclude women. Inversely, restrictions on female sexual behavior diminish as societies open and allow women easy, direct access to the resources of power, money and influence.
In summary, the analysis of sex from an economic perspective that sees sex as a commodity owned by women leads to a series of testable predictions, many of which have found support in the literature. Such analysis can help us understand our own behavior and that of our partners more clearly, and sharpen our ability to foresee the future. Such analysis may also stimulate our sexual imagination as much as flowers, flickering candles, and the touch of silk sheets, although it cannot of course replace them.
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