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Why Buy the Cow

by Dr. Barb DePree

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?

  • Maintain perspective. While a theory about the economics of sex makes for an interesting presentation at a conference, and while it even may contain elements of truth, a whole lot of life falls outside those academic theories. We write our own scripts, and we certainly don’t have to feel devalued because we fall heavily on the supply side of the sexual equation. Most of us aren’t interested in peddling sex, anyway.
  • Celebrate equality. Despite all the cultural complexities it brings, gender equality has been a huge game-changer for women (and for men.) Economic empowerment has given us choices far beyond the kitchen sink and maybe has redefined marriage as a less-coerced commitment between equal partners. A lot of women paid dearly to achieve this cultural evolution.
  • Celebrate maturity. Who wants to be 25 again? At this point in life, we certainly should be more emotionally developed, wise, experienced, and self-actualized than our twenty-something self. That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating. So even if we’d really like a steady sexual partner, we’re probably not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. And we probably have a full life happening in the meantime.
  • Believe in love. Even the jaded Baumeister admits that his theory of sex-as-economics can’t account for love. “You can have sexual norms and still have plenty of love, and you can have plenty of love when sex is very permissive,” said Baumeister. “I think this is a little independent of love.”
That’s why we witness (as I did recently) octogenarians getting married in their twilight years. That’s why my friend, Sue, a retired professional with an active social life, refuses to give up on her search for her soulmate, even though she knows all about the demographics. She sometimes gets discouraged, but she’s not desperate. She’s identified what she wants, and she’s on a determined search to find it. In this case, it’s all about love.

1 comment

  • Reading your article has made me reflect about the economics of sex in our Asian culture.Compared to the West gender equality is not as apparent in our Malaysian Chinese culture. Girls who want to marry well into well-to-do households will have to maintain a “good girl image” with no scandals.

    God forbid if you got “knocked up”. Most families will not have a grand. reception in such a situation. They either have an informal gathering among relatives to mark the marriage occasion.

    So abstinence from sex until your marriage does have its bargaining power!

    Hua Wong on

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