Monday, April 18, 2011

Markets and Sex

Got your attention? You could be thinking this will be about sex trafficking. Nope. Maybe this will be about the selling of sex, as in prostitution. Nope. I’m going to write some about how the number of men relative to women in a given geographic area affects dating and mating behavior. There is a lot of evidence that an uneven distribution of men and women affects how men and women behave toward one another. The word “market” here comes from the idea that there is a supply and demand dynamic between men and women based on this the relative numbers of men to women (or women to men, if you prefer).

I’ve read about this aspect of relationships, off and on, for many years. A few years ago, I read the book “The Logic of Life” by Tim Harford. Among many other interesting things, he discusses how having an uneven number of men and women in a society affects divorce rates and also the likelihood of settling down with a partner in poor communities (where many men are incarcerated, affecting the balance in the number of men to women). Here’s the basic idea. Whenever men or women are a relatively scarce resource, the gender with fewer numbers has more power in the “market” of mating and romance. A person in the smaller group has more options to choose from, which is the basis of greater power. And what that means is simply that they have to give up less to get more. Harford does a very nice job of talking about how great the skew in power is based on even a small difference in relative numbers.

I came across this idea recently in a USA Today article, entitled “More college 'hookups,' but more virgins, too.” It’s a fine article by Sharon Jayson, who I have talked to many times over the years. She covers a great many interesting points in her article, but none more interesting than the idea put forth by Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas-Austin. He asserts that the growing, higher ratio of women to men on college campuses has advanced the growing culture of uncommitted hook-ups. To quote from Jayson’s article (available here):

"The women wind up competing with each other for access to the men, and often, that means relationships become sexual quicker," says Regnerus, co-author of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, released earlier this year.

This is a pretty powerful theory with empirical evidence to support it. Let me break it down a bit. The average college campus (according to the article) now has 56 to 44 percent females to males. Suppose Barbara is a sophomore on a campus where there are 67% females and 33% males. That would make the ratio of females to males 2 to one, right? There are two girls for every boy. Regnerus is making the point that Barbara will feel more pressure to be sexual, and sooner, with boys she has attraction to than on another campus where the ratio is 1 to 1. To attract a boy, she not only has to get his attention, but she has to keep it from going to one of the many other females around.

You know, there was a song about this idea called Surf City. The authors understood the point really well. It’s a song by Jan and Dean (somehow, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was also involved) named Surf City, and it was very popular.

The refrain was “Two Girls for Evvvverrrrrryy Boy.” Unless you are a newbie on the planet, the refrain is now going through your head. Take a moment to listen to it. Jan and Dean understood very well the dynamic that Regnerus is speaking to in the USA Today piece. Here is just a small sample of the verse:

“Yeah, and there's two swingin' honeys for every guy
And all you gotta do is just wink your eye”

That’s pretty straightforward. Guys in Surf City, the land of loads of females, don’t have to do a lot to get the girl. A wink will do. It used to be a wink and a nod, but with this deflation in the market of boy-meets-girl, it’s taking less and less. Have you noticed? (I’ll leave alone the definition of what “get the girl” means at present. Suffice to say, that for my purposes here, it means everything from a little to a lot.)

As Harford and Regnerus suggest (as have many other social scientists), in such circumstances, the girls will be competing against each other; over time, they will offer more sexual involvement, more quickly, and without being able to demand much commitment in return. You could wonder where morals and beliefs about what one should or should not do come in, and I’d say this: They surely matter a lot. Beliefs affect behavior. Morals matter, but contexts also have a powerful influence on behavior.

Back to Regnerus’ point. He’s saying that the growing hook up culture on campuses is, in addition to many other influences, further propelled by the growing tendency for women to outnumber men (on campus). If this keeps up, guys may not even have to wink.

I am now reading the book by Regnerus and Uecker noted above. It’s fascinating and I highly recommend it. Next time, if I dare, I’ll share my theory of why men are becoming less likely to get college degrees relative to women. Hint: I don’t’ think it’s all about women having improved options.