Remember back in the day, when good girls didn’t “hook up”? They “saved themselves” for marriage, and there were names for those who didn’t. If, God forbid, an unmarried girl happened to disgrace herself, she was whisked out of sight for a few months and returned chastened but unburdened.
Remember when the only career options for educated women were nurse, teacher, or maybe social worker, and they were expected to quit when they became pregnant (after getting married, of course)? No one wanted a pregnant nurse or teacher on the job. Presumably, their patients and students would know for sure that they were “doing it.”
Pre-Sexual Revolution, girls withheld sex and boys paid for it—with a diamond ring and the big “I do.” The price of sex was high because it was a woman’s most valuable asset. Since she couldn’t easily orchestrate her own financial security, she could, at least, demand a high price for sex.
This, according to Roy Baumeister, social psychologist at Florida State University, is the economics of sex, and he maintains it isn’t a thing of the past. According to Baumeister, in repressive cultures today, when women have limited access to education and economic resources, sex tends to be less casual and more rigidly controlled—and more “expensive” for men to get. “It's a bit like OPEC: You restrict the supply and you're going to drive up the price,” said Baumeister.
On the other hand, in cultures with greater gender equality, in which women have more opportunity, sex tends to be casual and frequent. People have more sexual partners and start experimenting at younger ages. Women have less incentive to withhold sex—to make it expensive—because they have access to the same resources that men do. Women don’t need to trade sex for a home and financial security.
So, how does this apply to us—women who, presumably, completed our sexual bargaining long ago?
Well, many of us are in the uncomfortable position of re-entering the “marketplace” at a time when the value of our “goods” has gone the way of real estate in California. Demographics, life expectancy, and the ease (relative to women) with which men can attract younger women all conspire to drive down the value of what we have to offer just when more of us are finding ourselves single again.
“When you have a surplus of women relative to men, then there's a lot of premarital and extra-marital sexual activity,” says Baumeister, “and women can't demand too much in terms of commitment and fidelity in exchange for sex.” In a supply-and-demand environment, according to Baumeister, we’re in the position of bringing coals to Newcastle.
So, what’s a gender-equal, midlife, liberated woman to do?