The sexual cost of female success

Young women have excelled academically, leaving men in their dust, but experts say it's at the expense of romance

Topics: Sex, Coupling, Feminism, Gender, College, Love and Sex,

The sexual cost of female success

Not a day goes by when we don’t hear about the incredible accomplishments of today’s kick-butt young women. They outnumber men in college and they are out-earning their male peers when they first enter the work world — to such a degree that many consider it evidence of a “boy crisis.” But the authors of a new book, “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying,” say all this success has come at a great cost to women’s sexual bargaining power. When it comes to relationships, they say men are calling all the shots — which means less commitment and more sex.

This might feel a bit like a “gotcha,” yet another claim that — see! — women can’t have it all, but researchers Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker of the University of Texas at Austin based their conclusion on data from four national surveys, as well as additional interviews with men and women between the ages of 18 and 23. The cold-hard truth is that women’s successes have left them with a small pool of similarly educated and financially stable men, they say. As the authors put it in a press release, “It’s created an imbalance that tips relationship power in the direction of the men. Instead of men competing for women, today women feel like they must compete for men.” Before adding this to my list of life’s painful ironies, I decided to give Regnerus a call to chat about the current state of “hookup culture” and the power of withholding sex.

You report that the “price of sex” has hit an all-time low. What does that mean, exactly?

I measure the price of sex in a couple of different ways. I didn’t write this theory personally, but social psychologists claim that men’s sex has no value per se. In the world of prostitution you never see women paying men for sex. Men pay women for sex, men will pay men for sex, but women don’t pay men for sex. You get a sense that she has something of value that he wants.

So how do we measure how people price this? A couple different ways: First, the time until they have sex in a relationship. A second measure is the number of sex partners that “sub-optimal men” have had. I define that group as men who are 22 years old, dropped out of high school and don’t have a full-time job — men who don’t have a lot going for them. We compare the number of partners they’ve had with the number of partners of a male college graduate who is employed full-time. Theoretically, if sex is valuable to her then she’s not going to trade it away to just some crummy man, and when we look at the data, we find that those sub-optimal men report a lot more partners than men who actually have a lot going for them.

In the book, we report that 35 percent of men’s relationships are reported to have become sexual within two weeks; and 48 percent become sexual within a month. That gives you an indication that it doesn’t take long for men to access sex, so it must not be all that valuable, right? That’s how we get an indirect sense of the price of sex. Now, let’s say sex was the highest possible cost. You’d see women never having sex with anyone until a man commits to marry her — that’s the most expensive thing you can charge. But that’s just not the way the world is today, and that’s not the way the world ever was — the price of sex has never been that high, but it was certainly higher than it is today. All he has to do is maybe buy her dinner and text her.

It seems counterintuitive that young women’s greater economic freedom has resulted in fewer romantic choices. How does this work?

It’s not that young educated women don’t marry — in fact they have the highest odds of getting and staying married — it’s that if you look at the whole relationship scene out there today, more than ever women feel like they’re competing for men. In American colleges, 57 percent of students are women and 43 percent are men. 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.

It strikes me that your research could be revealing something about how the so-called boy crisis — where young women are excelling in academia, and later the work world — is impacting romance. Do you think that’s the case?

Exactly. It’s frustrating for women because you think that working so hard and being successful should translate into success here, and it almost is the opposite.

The challenge of facing a small pool of similarly educated men reminds me of what we’ve been hearing for a while now about the romantic predicament of African-American women.

They have one of the most profound challenges. Not only do they have this sex ratio problem in college but a sex ratio problem in their communities. Most of the rest of us don’t have a sex ration problem in our communities. So they feel the sex ratio problem most poignantly.

What’s the current state of hookup culture? Is it as wild and crazy as we’re led to believe?

In certain corners of the American population, yes. But in general, I would say it’s not quite as salacious as people might think. Hookups happen just as much outside of college as in, if not more. But colleges that have Greek systems, people are more likely to hook up. I mean fraternities exist for this purpose — this is a cartel of men who have covenanted together to try to help the brothers access sex cheaply and without strings. They sanction each other often when people take on a girlfriend or fall in love — that can really be a threat to what the others are trying to accomplish.

It’s also more likely to happen at elite private universities. In part it’s because these are high-strung, high-octane kids who study hard and have great success, but it’s like, what do you do with sexual desire? You have to segment it, compartmentalize it and keep it from being a threat to your larger intentions. So it makes sense that hooking up as a short-term solution is more popular in the most elite universities.

I’m not sure if you remember this book “Unhooked” by Laura Sessions Stepp, a [former] Washington Post journalist …

Oh, do I!

I’m not surprised that she got really depressed after writing it, because all she did was study Duke and George Washington, and some of these high schools in D.C., and that is sort of the pinnacle of where the hooking up mentality tends to happen. You go to the University of Nebraska or something and it’ll be there but it’s not necessarily the most common thing.

You found that on average young women are less satisfied with “no strings attached” relationships than men. So why are they having casual sex then? Are they doing so with hopes that it will keep the guy around longer?

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.” The problem is it can be difficult to express that to their peers. Say you have a college dorm room with four girls living in it and one refuses to sleep around at all, the other two are in steady relationships and the fourth prefers to hook up. The one who doesn’t participate in this at all, her odds of meeting a man who doesn’t operate like this gets slim because of her peer who is content to operate like that. When people sleep with each other it’s a data point for a future pricing of sex. There is no completely discreet sex.

What is the answer, then, for young women who are sexual beings but also want a relationship?

Oh, I wish I had one.

Is there a way for them to better navigate this sexual minefield?

This is where I get a little bit controversial and people don’t like what I have to say. I don’t think it’s in women’s interest to play the field for a long period of time. It can get depressing, not only about their relationships but to see the pool of men in their 30s who are available. My advice is if you find somebody who you love and who loves you, make it work, whatever it takes! To always think that something better is down the pathway, you might be mistaken.

I think it’s a bad idea for women collectively to compete with each other for men and to just sort of say I’ll do whatever it takes to be in a relationship with men. Women need to somehow reacquire control over the direction of relationships. They feel like they don’t have control. They feel like he calls the shots. That is most unfortunate. Part of that, I think, involves — and this is what some women don’t want to hear — the artificial restriction of sex until later in the relationship. You might not feel like doing that but it’s for a greater future goal. Men who have sex early in a relationship feel little impulse to make strong commitments. Women desperately want that to not be true, but it is. Men and women make relationship commitments very differently. It doesn’t sound modern and it doesn’t sound natural, but I don’t care what it sounds like, I’m telling you how things work. Giving it away early gives a great deal of power to him.

But how much bargaining power does an individual woman have in terms of withholding sex if other women are not?

Right. I wish I could say, “Oh, an individual woman will get what she wants by withholding sex,” but that is not the case when it’s not the case collectively, when there are lots of other women happy to underbid her. She’s in a bind, which is why a lot of women don’t restrict it because they feel, “Oh, he’s just going to go to my roommate or the other woman at the end of the bar,” which is true. But I still think you have better odds of succeeding, especially if you’re attractive, if you don’t give in, if you make him work hard, get to know you, make commitments — all that stuff that seems pretty basic. This is not about getting sex. Women can get sex whenever they want. Post it on Craigslist and you can have it within the hour. This is about getting commitments.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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