Much has been discussed concerning the economics of the flesh trade world wide. But there is another kind of sexual economics of interest to Christian thinking that hits immediately close to home to all American Christians- especially young adults and parents. That is, how sex functions in the trading of life, commitment and romance between opposite gender partners in our culture- especially young adults. Or, more importantly, how that dynamic is changing.
Studying sex from an economic perspective has been an interest of Professor Mark Regnerus for some time, and I have posted on his book Forbidden Fruit here before.
His most recent book is Premarital Sex in America: How young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying (Oxford UP). Regnerus has been an advocate for early marriage for some time, but in his recent book he explores useful sociological facts about how increased educational success among females is changing the equation of how sexuality and marriage are negotiated.
One of the bottom lines of sociology is that we don’t act just out of ideology, we act in relation to context. Most people in the church lament that our theology is weakening and especially in our doctrines concerning sex. That is true. But it is not the only factor. Environmentally, the changing economy of sex is making the cost of chastity increasingly higher for young women, and as they give in to that rising cost it becomes a self fulfilling prophesy- driving down the functional price of sex even further, creating a kind of bidding war. This change is to the detriment of what women usually use sex to gain- commitment, companionship, stability and provision.
When sex is looked at economically (and Regnerus asserts strongly that doing this helps us explain a lot) the reality is that women don’t pay for sex, men do. Male prostitution has never been that lucrative, and there is not a general problem with women who want sex finding willing men. Because in all measurable ways men want more sex more quickly and are not that picky about partners, the functional cultural value of male sex is 0. The feminine supply will never meet the level and enthusiasm of the demand. This has been a human universal as long as there have been humans. And it is all encapsulated in that Scrubs quote from Elliot to Carla on her wedding say, “Now you’ll never have to have sex again unless you want to!!!” So in normal cases where ratios of men to women are 50-50, women set the price of sex, and traditionally, that price has been pretty high- usually in the form of serious commitment and often not until marriage. And even if a man committed to a relationship for 6 months before having sex, this meant that the R&D cost of switching partners was high, and, in terms of the sexual economy, was a strong dissuader to changing partners.
However, When the number of men is artificially decreased in a given market, things go bad for women in relation to sex, commitment and marriage. So historically, when inter clan or nation warfare was more common, arrangements like polygamy made more sense for women since finding one’s own non-defective man was harder. Along these lines, it would mean that the price of sex in a crime ridden subculture is lower. If many males are either involved in crime, unemployed or incarcerated, then the price of sex for employed non-incarcerated men goes way down. In one interview, Regnerus said that this is why the changing economy of sex has hit African American women the hardest. And because this is an environmental factor- it’s not a shot on black men or women, it’s just an socio-economic fact- the sex environment is just harder. A young black woman may have greater convictions and better self control that a similar white woman, but my price her own sexuality lower, not because of her self esteem, but because of her accurate assessment of the sexual market forces in which she is competing for a particular male’s affection.
Today, it is not so dire as the ancient world, but the market forces do not favor the woman looking for the traditional payoff of sex.
One might object in two ways. First, this assumes sex is being had in a committed relationship? Is this really happening? Aren’t young people just hooking up or having non-monogamous relationships anyway? you’re assuming that modern educated women that can offer themselves provision and security need men in the traditional way aren’t you? Maybe they don’t anymore. Well, that’s not what these women are telling our sociologists. The reality of hooking up culture is not like it is on TV. ‘Hooking up’, as a casual affair, isn’t as common as people think. Regnerus says the dominant sexual narrative now is serial monogamy, even in adults ages 18-23. This makes good economic sense, as it is a kind of compromise. Men can offer a low level of commitment and have regular access to sex. So long as the commitment is conditional and easily disolvable, the woman in the monogamous relationship is still functionally competing in the market. The woman gets some commitment, but that commitment is relative to the time it takes to get into a new sexual relationship- which is not very high because it’s not very long. This is because the sexual cost is not that high for men switching partners. A full 35% of new relationships become sexual in a week and 48% within the month. The R&D costs of a new relationship sexual relationship aren’t that bad. And the woman the man is being monogamous with at the moment knows it- and she knows he knows it. This effects her use of sex in the relationship she’s got.
This has lead to increases in women’s stress in relationships, a decrease in men’s willingness to put out real effort in romance (taking a woman out to dinner rather than texting her to ‘come over and hang out’) which decreases commitment based on relational intimacy and deep friendship, and fosters a powerful sense of sexual competition between women.Women have always had a reputation for commitment you might say, but sex was not considered a completely legitimate weapon. Women who escalated in that way were somehow shamed. The full use of sex in competition for the attention of men is a little like a fist fight becoming a knife fight. It may still be a fight, but the stakes are going up.
I think it’s important to note that this is not some conservative Christian intuition. This is a sociological fact, and further, is an intuition that every trashy urban woman’s magazine uses to market itself. Cosmo is constantly selling sex secrets to women in order to make them more alluring and exciting to their man. This includes pages that I’ve read with young women asking is she should ‘invest’ in the relationship through anal sex, sex with multiple women involve and so on- and getting terrible advise in my opinion. These magazines are showcases that that the drop in the price of sex is not just in women giving it, but in producing sex that is more erotic, more regular, more trashy, more exotic, more dysfunctional, more deviant and more dangerous than ever.
There’s plenty of that mentality of “Well, if I give him what he wants then he should stay.” I think women feel they have to compete with each other, and that if they stick to this script it will eventually work out for them. But I think we’re seeing increasing numbers of women who are saying, “I don’t like this script, it sucks.”
A second factor: People who go to college like to marry people who go to college. That’s not weird. But the standard values of the sex market only work well in a more even populated market. The more women in a sub-market (ex. college educated or ‘at college’), the worse the price of sex- the more women are implicitly forced to compete with each other- forcing the price a man pays for sex down. In American colleges today 57% of students are women and only 43% are men. This is the result of the enormous triumph of feminism in preparing women for success in the workforce and free markets making them able to access education and higher paying jobs. But the educational and professional triumph of the female gender has come with a significant cost in finding a mate or to attract men in general.
Regnerus says in a Salon article:
That’s a radical reversal of where we were 30 or 40 years ago. Presuming that people are attracted to people who are like them educationally, it means looking for secure relationships becomes challenging because the sex ratio is so imbalanced.
That’s a terrible environment to try to get men to commit. The women wind up competing with each other — not necessarily to marry because they’re not interested in marriage at that point — but they compete with each other to attract men. How do you compete with other women to attract men? Well, sex is the way to get his attention. It’s the opposite of a cartel effect where women would say, “All right, we need to band together and artificially restrict the price of sex and get it high, even if we don’t want to, in order to extract things from men.” It used to be women would shame each other for selling low.
People try to look for the message here about women — am I being hard on women, am I being soft on women? Neither one. I’m just saying women have had extreme successes — which is fantastic! — it’s just those successes don’t translate to success in the relationship field. Individual women can still have it all, and plenty do, but if you take a step back and look at the whole scene, women are not as successful in relationships as perhaps they once were. (emphasis mine)
Add the prolific abundance of pornography (virtual sexual competition) and other factors to the mix and you can see the equation worsening for women. Regnerus anticipates our complaint, “Why can’t men just be more honorable and not be sleazy bastards? Why live for love according to ‘economic factors’? Is the whole enterprise of love that dead? Are men really that cynical?”
Regnerus says in a Christianity Today Article:
This is not to suggest that men can’t commit. They can, but they have to do so today in an environment of such rich choices. It makes it difficult for them.
What I want to point out here is that this is an inevitable result of disestablishment and why I have heard some older men talk about the sexual revolution as “The biggest trick men ever played on women.” It broke up the female sex cartel and gave over all the sex power to men. Sexual freedom flooded the market and makes women have to either sell low or risk not selling at all. There are lots of smart, pretty girls out there, and her roommate may be willing to sell lower- and if she does, she’ll too often get the guy. This bears out in the data apparently.
Secondly, in relation to the cynical-ness of love, women have made and do make a contribution to male love cynicism. As a pastor I talk to men all the time who can’t figure out why their wife won’t have sex with them. Sex is just on her terms- period. The fact is that marriage is a female sex monopoly. A husband wants just as much sex as ever, but he now has one supplier. And are women magnanimous and generous in how they live in their sexual commitment? Well, many are, but many aren’t. And word gets around ot men that they are getting screwed in the marriage relationship- or, well, not enough. The fact is that both sexes are selfish about sex. Both sexes give the other gender reason to be cynical about love and the intersection of sex and companionship it creates. And this cannot be overcome by sheer economics.
I’d would point out that Christian faith has the power to explain and begin to heal this problem. First, our doctrine of depravity makes plain that no one gender should be expected to be the evil one. Both genders use their power to get what they want- we all want to be served, not to serve. And Christian faith also infuses our sexuality with a religious sacredness and moral clarity that does not diminish the profundity of it’s expression. This also bears out in the literature I’m told. Steve Simpson has said that married Evangelical women report the highest frequency of both sex and orgasms, and that is going to correspond in their husbands sexual happiness: an available and please-able wife.
But, in contrast to this, what should we expect men (or women) to act like when we take all the moral sacredness and social constraints surrounding sex away, as we have over the last 40 years? Did we think we were still going to treat it morally and sacredly? Did we think men would get MORE sentimental and gentlemanly about romance after we debunked it having any objective spiritual, moral or communitarian basis? What we have is exactly what we should have expected.
So what is the solution. I’m not sure, but here are a couple of thoughts.
First, I think Christian women have to deepen their commitment to become principally sexual beings- rather than prudish or permissively sexual. No man, Christian or otherwise is looking for less sexual women. And I think Christian man will be willing to wait for sex is he believes that is coming out of character not power. If a young man waits because she believes that marriage is the tent of sexual celebration, he may be willing to wait for 40 years of principled celebration. He’ll endure her principles for a couple years if they are going to pay off for decades. The character of a woman that says no when she wants to say yes for principled reasons is the wife who will say yes when she wants to say no for principled reasons. This kind of woman can get an edge by just being the right woman for the right reasons.
Second, I think my solution for my two daughters is to invest in them being amazing. I was a youth leader in churches, camps and college for a decade, and there is one thing I know about this problem. If Christians are called to marry and romantically pursue Christians, then there is a certain sub-economy of sex within the church. And within it, the ratios are even worse for women. But one thing I’ve seen again and again is that there are still only a small minority of these young women that are true spiritual, emotional, intellectual and sexual treasures. Most young women are focused on what they want- to attract attention from a young man. And in doing that, they focus more on image than on becoming a person of real substance. So for a period of time, these women may get an advantage form more advanced preening and body language tips and Taylor Swift ‘sexy but not trashy’ facial expressions they practice at home. But in the end, when young men start thinking about being with one person for life, it dawns on them that less than 1% of their life will be spent in coital rapture. Their children will be in her image too. She will be their mother. This is the woman that will take care of them when they are sick. This is the woman that he has to trust not to be a trial by being emotionally fragile, a bad spender, or a tedious bore or nag. And the more Christian men teach young men about these things the more they will think about them. This means that the ten or so percent of real godly christian women rises to the top, and the ones the don’t, don’t have the sexual culture to blame as much as themselves.
Thirdly, we men have to teach men about sex and relationships and re-cast sex as what it is- something to be undertaken sacredly and honorably as well as excitedly. Women can push men to be men by holding out on them and telling them to grow up and be men, but only we men can pull them up and show them how it’s done. Masculine domesticity in the church has to be championed and we men have to engage in it as the great battle of our lives, not against our wives, but with them. The really christian marriage is a rare thing in these times, but I would submit that, as an example it’s potency to inspire is only increasing.