Sometimes the universe decides I don’t have enough rage in my life.
OK, perhaps I should explain. No is too much. Let me sum up.
One of the dating misconceptions that I tilt at regularly is the myth that women are the sexual gatekeepers and that sex is a transactional procedure where a woman only “gives it up” when a man meets her price; this is generally known as the commodity model of sex. The commodity model of sex insists that women are only worth the sex they don’t have; after all, if she “gives it away” too readily, then she is actively driving down her own value. Because apparently sex is a limited, non-rewnewable resource and once you’ve tapped that particular well, it’s dry forever.
This is an idea repeated over and over again, from toxic Pick-Up Artists like Roosh “Once you’ve had sex with a girl 3 times, there is nothing interesting or useful she will give you for the remainder of the relationship.” V to the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. In fact, it’s the Austin Institute’s video “The Economics of Sex” that prompted today’s column with its supposedly “novel” variation on the commodity model of sex by insisting that women being too slutty devalues sex and thus deprives them of any chance of being married. After being directed to a glowing paean to the idea in the New York Post and then reading Lindy West’s excellent takedown, I had to see this wonder for myself. Because apparently I don’t get nearly angry enough in my day to day life.
So I watched this 10 minute wonder and…
All we have is the usual “if you give the milk away, nobody will buy the cow” argument, trying to use economics as a fig-leaf to give it the sheen of respectability. Too bad it’s complete and utter horse shit.
Let’s take this sucker apart, shall we? Pack a lunch, this is going to be a long one.
The (Bullshit) Economics of Banging
“The Economics of Sex”1 is a self-consciously hip whiteboard-style talk in the style of Minute Physics, because nothing makes slut-shaming go down easier than cutesy rip-offs of popular YouTube channels.
The basic premise of the video is simple: marriage is on the decline in America and that’s terrible. People’s first marriages are happening later and later in life – with a median age of 27 for women and 29 for men – and this is also terrible. Why? Who knows; if the Austin Institute does, they’re not saying. However, the cause is abundantly clear: women are giving it up to easily. You see, sex – according to this video – is a commodity, which means that there’s a market price. Since men want sex more than women do, women are thus the gatekeepers of sex, controlling the sexual market with an iron vagina. Men, on the other hand, are the gatekeepers of commitment, which women desire more than men do. And so the presumed exchange is sex for commitment.
To quote straight from the video:
The “price” varies widely. But if women are the gatekeepers, why don’t very many women “charge more” so to speak? Because pricing is not entirely up to women. The “market value” of sex is part of a social system of exchange, an “economy” if you will, wherein men and women learn from each other—and from others—what they ought to expect from each other sexually. So sex is not entirely a private matter between two consenting adults. Think of it as basic supply and demand. When supplies are high, prices drop, since people won’t pay more for something that’s easy to find. But if it’s hard to find, people will pay a premium.
So apparently under ideal circumstances, the invisible free hand of the market would be quietly stroking everyone’s nethers and keeping the price of sex high. But because women aren’t standing in lockstep solidarity and universally setting the market value for sex at “marriage”, the result is that the “market price” for sex is low.
ACTUAL QUOTE TIME:
Sex is her resource. Sex in consensual relationships will happen when women want it to. So how do women decide to begin a sexual relationship? Pricing. Women have something of value that men want…badly, something men are actually willing to sacrifice for. So how much does sex cost for men? It might cost him nothing but a few drinks and compliments, or a month of dates and respectful attention, or all the way up to a lifetime promise to share all of his affections, wealth, and earnings with her exclusively.
And since everyone knows that men won’t get married unless bribed into it by being granted access to a woman’s hoo-haa, men are reaping the benefits of the low-cost sex available to them. This is, of course, unfair to women because men can get boners forever, whereas women lose their fertility at 40 and thus become completely and utterly undesirable in any context and are thus without any sexual capital.
Oh and also, part of the reason for this market disruption was the ability to have sex without consequence. So the pill has disrupted the sexual marketplace. Also: it literally compares the birth control pill to bees and compares the Sexual Revolution to the effects of DDT. And why is this bad for the “cost” of sex? Again: an actual quote from the video.
Before contraception, sex before marriage took place during the search for a mate—someone to marry. Sex didn’t necessarily mean marriage, but serious commitment was commonly a requirement for sex. Sex was oriented towards marriage. Don’t believe people who say your great-grandparents were secretly as casual about sex as your friends are. They weren’t, because to mess around with sex eventually meant, well, becoming parents.
Of course, this is bad for everyone because having low-commitment sex means men simply won’t grow up because why should they. So this is bad for society all around and thus women need to band together to perform a Lysistrata-esque pork-out and thus artificially dry up the supply, allowing the “natural” market price of sex to rise. And if it does, then we’ll see more “improved wooing”, fewer premarital partners and shorter co-habitations and – most importantly – “more marrying going on.”
Facts? Who Needs Facts?
So let’s start with the most obvious: the idea that women are “the gatekeepers of sex” because they don’t want sex as much as men do. The Austin Institute is quick to insist that women are less sexual than men because “men initiate sex more than women, they’re more sexually permissive than women, and they connect sex to romance less often than women.” This, we are supposed to believe, is just biology; “blame it on testosterone,” suggests the video.
Women actually have a greater capacity for sexual desire than men do… society has just trained them out of acknowledging it. The idea that women are less sexual than men is not only cultural, but recent; before the Age of Enlightenment, western society from the Hebrews to the Greeks to Renaissance Europe tended to view women as almost overpoweringly lustful and needing to be reined in by marriage, lest it drain men of their life’s essences.
It wasn’t until the 19th Century, when (ironically enough) the early Feminist movement and the rise of evangelical Christianity coincided with redefining gender attitudes towards sex, labeling men as bestial and lustful and women as the sacred and angelic guardians of virtue and purity. Up until that point, men were considered to be the pure ones, who had to resist the temptations of women and control their sexual natures for them.
Of course, it doesn’t help that most studies into human sexuality, especially with regard to libido and sexual desire, take it for granted that women don’t like sex as much as men, letting confirmation bias color over bad methodology and shoddy research. For example: while the video itself doesn’t cite any sources (natch), a downloadable companion piece from the Austin Institute’s website references the infamous Clark – Hattfield study that erroneously concluded that women were just flat-out less interested in sex than men. The methodology of the Clark-Hattfield – reproduced later by Hald and Høgh-Olenson – involved literally just walking up to strangers and saying “hey, want to fuck me?” an approach that nobody actually uses to get laid. In fact, a later series of studies by Terri Conely found that women were very interested in casual sex… provided they thought the sex would be worth it. The approach in the Clark-Hattfield study betrayed a significant lack of social skills and set off alarm bells for women’s concern for their personal safety as well as an indication that the sex with person asking probably wouldn’t be worth the attendant risk.
(It certainly doesn’t help that one of the senior fellows is Mark Regnerus, someone synonymous with shoddy research, bad methodology and biased conclusions unsupported by the data. But hey, why let facts get in the way of an agenda?)
But then, our culture tends to vigorously (and sometimes violently) resist, even repress, any research that goes against the accepted wisdom. Alfred Kinsey, after all, had his life destroyed because Sexual Behavior in the Human Female diverged so greatly from the cultural narrative. The exact size and anatomy of the human clitoris had to be discovered twice – once in 1998 and then again in 2009 because the medical community couldn’t be bothered to care the first time; until recently, many anatomical texts would leave the clitoris out entirely.
Of course, this is if you want to be strictly heteronormative about this. The video’s insistence that women are the gatekeepers of sex and men only give commitment in exchange for sexual access rather neatly ignores the existence of gay men and lesbians. Presumably gay men – men, after all, preferring low-cost, no commitment sex – would never get married while lesbians would almost never have sex, ever. And then you have the issue of just where trans men and women fall into this spectrum of “sex” and “commitment”…
But just as the video gets the science wrong – with an air of “just trust us on this, m’kay?”, it gets history wrong too. One of the most egregious examples, from the video:
Here’s the thing: In the past, it really wasn’t the patriarchy that policed women’s relational interests. It was women. But this agreement, this unspoken pact to set a high market value for sex has all but vanished.
Ok… when exactly was this magical time when women were in charge of sexual roles and behaviors? Any time within, say… the last 60 years? 100 years? 1000 years? Trick question: women have never been the gender police. The closest you can come to anything resembling a woman-dominated sexual marketplace (to use their metaphor) requires going back to pre-agricultural society; the only contemporary examples are stone-age tribal units that have been cut off from the world. Men have long established and regulated what is considered “acceptable” sexual behavior in men and women and continue to do so today. The ones empowered to set social and sexual standards were men; men were the heads of the religions that dictated morality. Men were the heads of government that enforced laws regarding sex and sexuality. Women having positions of actual authority outside of the running of a household is a recent development… and even now, pretending that they have somehow taken over, even covertly, is laughable. When a woman in 2014 can’t cut her hair without men lamenting on how it makes her less sexually appealing, it’s hard to swallow the idea that women were traditionally regulating sexual relations and somehow charging a “higher market price”. That “unspoken pact” was unspoken because it didn’t exist in the first place.
Then again, this willful ignorance of actual history is par for the course. In insisting that sex was was traditionally and predominantly aimed at commitment, the Austin Institute ignores vast swaths of history, focusing instead on misty fantasies . In colonial America, pre-marital sex was ostensibly a no-no, and yet it happened anyway; the concern was less about who was sleeping with who and much more about whether the young lady would get pregnant. In the 1920s – the time when the video insists our great-grandparents were really all about marriage – casual sex and cohabitation reached all-time highs.
In Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kinsey found that half the women who weren’t virgins before marriage had slept with more people than their eventual spouses. From the 1950s onward, the social stigma against casual, pre-marital sex was already on the downward swing before the advent of hormonal birth control.
And while the pill helped, it certainly was never the only form of contraception out there. Historians have evidence of condom use as far back as ancient Greece (usually animal bladders or intestines). The first commercial condom factory opened in 1897, and by the 1920s (when your great-grandparents were equating sex with pregnancy, remember), latex condoms came on the market. When people wanted to have some child-free fucking, there were plenty of options for them.
The sexual revolution wasn’t just about the ready availability of condoms; it was also about women’s greater economic opportunities and the de-stigmatization of divorce. Now that marriage wasn’t intrinsically bound up with financial security and sex didn’t mean pregnancy, women were free to actually enjoy their own sexuality… suggesting that the “market price” that the Austin Institute waxes rhapsodic about was artificially inflated under the best of circumstances.
But What About Marriage?
“The Economics of Sex” is very concerned with the fact that the rate that couples marry is on the decline and – worse – the median age of people getting married for the first time is increasing. Why is this bad? They don’t say. We’re just supposed to accept that it’s a bad thing because reasons. Similarly, we’re supposed to just accept that the cause is that women are “giving it away” too cheaply and thus losing potential capital that they could trade for commitment and marriage. An exact quote:
“While there are certainly factors that contribute [to the lower number of Americans 25 – 34 years old getting married and higher average age of first marriages], the gender imbalance in a split mating market is a big one”
Is it? They provide no evidence and in fact, completely elided over all those other causes. This is known as “begging the question”; basically, “this is true because we say it is, and we say it because it’s true”. But let’s look at a few of those pesky “other factors”, shall we?
It’s hardly a surprise that the median age of first marriages is rising; in fact, according to the US Census bureau, it’s been doing so since the 1950’s when the median age was 24 for men and 20 for women. One reason for this change: the social stigma against pre-marital sex had lessened and social and legal protections for unmarried parents and their children increased. As a result, men and women who might have gotten married chose instead to cohabitate – splitting their economic burden without necessitating a legal contract beforehand. In fact, the percentage of couples living together and the decline of marriages were almost exactly the same.
Another reason for the change is that, starting in the late 60’s and early ’70s, the barriers preventing women from having greater economic opportunities finally came down. For the first time ever, women were able to fully participate in the workforce, choosing jobs outside of the traditional “women’s fields” of nursing, teaching and social work. They were looking forward not just to jobs but careers, ones that mandated college degrees. The number of women attending college, masters and PhD programs has skyrocketed since the 80s, and having a college education pushes back the marriage timeline by a number of years for both men and women.
Of course, the pill helped as well. Not only did the number of “shotgun marriages” (marriages prompted by getting pregnant) occur, but it freed women up to pursue their dreams without having to worry that they would have to sacrifice their careers on the altar of motherhood. Women who have kids take a severe career penalty, both in earning power and in upward mobility; widely available, effective birth control allows women to ensure that they’re able to have children on their terms, at a point when they’re much more established in their careers. In fact, a large part of the “hook-up culture” that causes the Austin Institute and writers like Naomi Schaefer Riley to gasp and clutch their pearls is due in no small part to the fact that women like sex, but don’t want a commitment because it would get in their way of their career ambitions. Women who marry later in life earn more money and report higher satisfaction with their lives in general. And considering that the average college student graduates with $25,000 in college loans to pay off… well, small wonder that men and women both would want to maximize their earning potential before tying the knot.
But What About The Men?
Of course, after spending all that time slut-shaming women, one would think that men would get off clean. Not so; in fact, men get insulted in equal measure. Men, you see, only care about one thing: bangin’. In fact, the only reason why men aren’t getting married is because they’re too busy enjoying all this low-cost sex that women are just tossing around. After all, men are incapable of emotional connections and relationships. Men just don’t fall in love… not when there’s all that cheap poontang to sample.
ACTUAL QUOTE TIME:
The blunt reality is an economic one. Women vastly outnumber men in the marriage market, which means men can be picky and insist on extensive sexual experience before committing. Men are in a position to maximize their rewards while investing fewer resources. Why do they do this? Because they can.
Yup. You caught us. There’s no chance that sex with one’s romantic partner is a component of one’s emotional connection; we’re just insisting that women put out because otherwise we’ll never spring for a ring. Busted.
(Who, exactly are they insisting on this extensive sexual experience from? Either they’re having “extensive” sex from their partner – which is part of what the rest of us call “a relationship” – or they’re demanding to be allowed to play the field before settling down. Except… they’re already “overpopulated” in the short-term market where women supposedly control things. So somehow men are getting low-cost sex in a market that women supposedly dominate because otherwise they won’t marry them. How exactly does one resolve this intellectual conundrum? Naturally, the authors don’t explain.)
Of course, since men will never commit except if they’re coerced into it… what is the appeal here? I mean, we’ve established that men don’t care about silly things like love or emotional intimacy or companionship… so what, exactly, is the upside to being coerced into an otherwise loveless marriage? Getting laid?
Evidently the ideal world that the Austin Institute pictures is an awful lot like “Paradise By the Dashboard Light”. To whit:
I couldn’t take it any longer, Lord I was crazed
And when the feeling came upon me like a tidal wave
I started swearing to my God and on my mother’s grave
That I would love you to the end of time.
I swore I would love you to the end of time
So now I’m waiting for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive
Because if I have to spend another moment with you I don’t know how I’ll ever survive.
And why, exactly, wouldn’t guys just leave? After all, according to the video, women’s desirability goes out the window when they hit 40 and their fertile years are gone, while men have the capacity for “fun”2 well into their twilight years. What’s keeping the men around around once her fertility’s run out? The sunk-cost fallacy? Well shit, sign my happy ass up. That sounds amazing.
But you see, men need women… because otherwise we’re just never going to grow up. You see, according to the video, young men are somehow “failing to adapt to contemporary life” – a familiar old complaint. By what standards are they measuring men’s ability to adapt? Once again: they don’t say. We’re just supposed to take it at face value. But this is because women are being too permissive with us. By giving up the ass, they’re enabling us to live a life of pizza, beer and trashy women. No, seriously. They blame women for this. Again, an actual quote:
In reality, men tend to behave as well or as poorly as the women in their lives permit.
So just for those of you keeping score: women have to quit offering sex and be surrogate mothers because guys are incapable of maturing on their own.
Keynesian Concern Trolling
The internal logic of “The Economics of Sex” is dubious. The video spends a great deal of time simultaneously slut-shaming women and insisting that they’re somehow less sexual at the same time – Schrödinger’s Sluts if you will.
Hell, as the blog Lady Economist points out, it’s not even good economics! I mean, shit, even if we were to concede the idea of sex as a commodity, there’s more that influences the market value than just simple “supply and demand”. Even if the supply of a particular item is high, there will be other factors that influence price ranging from desirability to perceived quality. Bespoke fucks3 are going to be going at a premium regardless of how much sex is floating around.
But in the end, the cold, hard fact is that outside of sex-work, sex isn’t a commodity and equating a woman’s willingness to have sex with her “market value” just hides the implication that one believes that this is all a woman has to offer. All this is is an attempt to give the authors’ Madonna/Whore complex a gloss of legitimacy by pretending that it’s about the numbers, not the authors’ attempts to impose their world-view on others. Like other attempts to rationalize slut-shaming women, this is just concern trolling. The false note of solicitude, the tone of “hey we don’t like it, but this is just the way it is” and the crocodile tears shed for women standing in solidarity just makes it more insulting.