Monday, October 17, 2011

Marriage Supermarkets, Guttentag-Secord Theory, Falling Sexual Prices

(Frank Dicksee, Chivalry)

From a recent New York Post article:

In today’s lousy economy, men can take comfort in knowing that there is one sought-after good that is becoming steadily more affordable: sex.

Women are jumping into the sack faster and with fewer expectations about long-term commitments than ever, effectively discounting the “price” of sex to a record low, according to social psychologists.

More than 25% of young women report giving it up within the first week of dating. While researchers don’t have a baseline to compare it to, interviews they have conducted lead them to believe this is higher than before, which increases the pressure on other women and changes the expectations of men.

“The price of sex is about how much one party has to do in order to entice the other into being sexual,” said Kathleen Vohs, of the University of Minnesota, who has authored several papers on “sexual economics.” “It might mean buying her a drink or an engagement ring. These behaviors vary in how costly they are to the man, and that is how we quantify the price of sex.”

By boiling dating down to an economic model, researchers have found that men are literally getting lots of bang for their buck. Women, meanwhile, are getting very little tat for their . . . well, you get the idea.

Sex is so cheap that researchers found a full 30% of young men’s sexual relationships involve no romance at all -- no wooing, dating, goofy text messaging. Nothing. Just sex.

Men want sex more than women do. It’s a fact that sounds sexist and outdated. But it is a fact all the same -- one that women used for centuries to keep the price of sex high (if you liked it back in the day, you really had to put a ring on it). With gender equality, the Pill and the advent of Internet porn, women’s control of the meet market has been butchered.

As a result, says Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, men are “quicker to have sex in our relationships these days, slower to commitment and just plain pickier.”

The issue is partly one of supply and demand, and it begins at US colleges, where 57% of students are women. With such an imbalanced sex ratio, women are using hookups to compete with other women for men’s affections. Once they get out of school, the pool of successful, educated men also is imbalanced, and the bed-hopping continues.

Regnerus likens the price of sex to the housing market. Too many foreclosures in one community, and the price of neighboring homes start to plummet. This is why single women in New York sometimes feel as though sex on the first date is a given: According to the market, it is.

“Every sex act is part of a ‘pricing’ of sex for subsequent relationships,” Regnerus said. “If sex has been very easy to get for a particular young man for many years and over the course of multiple relationships, what would eventually prompt him to pay a lot for it in the future -- that is, committing to marry?”

Did you answer, “Love”? You’re adorable.

“Sexual strategies for making men ‘fall in love’ typically backfire, because men don’t often work like that,” Regnerus says.

It’s little wonder that the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who are married has shrunk by an average of 1% each year this past decade -- down to 46% now. Single women have been catching on, but those who don’t discount sex say they can’t seem to get anyone to “pay” their higher price.

As with many other markets, outsourcing and technology have affected the price of sex as well.

“If men don’t want to take the time to woo a real woman, they can watch sex acts in high definition with images of women who never say no,” Regnerus says. “If you have a suboptimal date with someone you met online, you’re apt now to log on and see who else is available rather than to have another try at it.”

The poor economy is adding to men’s reluctance to commit. Men worry about not being able to provide for a family and about the economic pitfalls of divorce.

So, what can women do to return the balance of sexual power in their favor? Stop putting out, experts say. If women collectively decided to cross their legs, the price of sex would soar and women would regain control of the market. Like a whoopie cartel.

Women in less egalitarian countries do tend to restrict sex as a means of keeping the cost high. This makes sense when women have no access to education and employment. But in the US, it would take a major cultural movement for women to convince each other to say no to nookie.

“Let’s be realistic: It’s not going to happen here,” Regnerus says. “Women don’t really need men and marriage -- economically, socially, and culturally -- like they once did. What I hear in interviews with women is plenty of complaining about men or about the dating scene, but their annoyance is seldom directed at other women.”

The Auction for Marriage

Imagine this experiment: twenty men and twenty women, all strangers, are placed in a room. Women stand on one side, men on the other, and then the mingling begins at the sound of a bell. Each individual has as his or her primary goal the task of negotiating an agreement with a member of the opposite sex. The stakes are very simple and come down to the question of how a $100 payoff will be split between the man and the woman in any particular couple. The point of the game is to find a member of the opposite sex and negotiate a deal with him/her as quickly as possible, get paid, split the winnings as agreed, and leave the others to continue to hash it out in the room.

If, after searching through 20 potential candidates from the other gender, a man and woman can find a mutually-agreeable split and shake hands on it, they are awarded $100, apportion it as per the deal terms, and leave the game.

In other words, if a woman offers a 50/50 split of the $100 pot to the first candidate man she meets and the man accepts, the two form a "marriage couple" in game terms and leave the pool. They are awarded $100 for their trouble and each takes home $50 as per their agreement. If the woman's offer is rejected by the first man, she can change her offer to him or move on to another candidate and continue with the same offer or a new one.

In a relatively egalitarian society and assuming equal numbers of men and women, the standard deal is, unsurprisingly, a 50/50 split between the man and woman (i.e., each makes $50 from the deal and successfully exits the game).

Game theorists studying this "Supermarket for Marriage" in experiments---a scenario in which all of the variables involved in real-world mate selection have obviously been simplified---have always known that the assumptions of the game were grossly unrealistic. In the real world, of course, men and women have different levels of attractiveness and relational power and computing the payoff to a successful deal is a much more complex undertaking. Still, the simplified framework is thought to have validity when one looks at how behavior may change on a very general, macro level, where individual differences between potential mates can cancel each other out and generalizations about average participants can be made.

Researchers decided to tweak the game by removing just one of the men, leaving 19 males and 20 females left in the supermarket. The assumption was that removing a single man would give the remaining men a little bit more negotiating power, since they now enjoyed the advantage of artificial scarcity. Perhaps the new results would show that this advantage meant that men were getting 55%, perhaps even 60% of the $100 take.

These hunches proved to be wrong. Removing just one man from the game meant that the remaining men ended up receiving 95% or more of the winnings.

What appears to be happening is this: women survey the numbers and rapidly conclude that one of them is going to be left with nothing when the music stops. As the play begins, the odd woman out attempts to undercut other women by making more attractive offers to her male counterparts. This creates a new odd woman out, who must do the same. Ultimately no woman in the game is safe; men look at the situation and realize that they will lose out on profitable opportunities if they accept a deal too quickly, so they hold out for the highest bids. Mounting desperation and competitive bidding among the female players lead to situations in which absurdly rich offers are made to men.

Something conceptually similar to these results can be found in the structure of so-called "Wisdom of Crowds" games. In a Wisdom of Crowds scenario, it may be safely assumed that, say, 2 people in a field of 100 actually know the correct answer to a difficult question. When a certain type of polling system is used, however, the 2 correct answers can come to dominate the entire field and so the seemingly-unruly mob magically gets things right. The critical issue for the Wisdom of Crowds scenario is that the 98 people who are wrong are wrong in truly random ways: the incorrect answers will cancel each other out (if the crowd is biased towards systematic errors, the correct answer will not emerge) and the last men standing will be the 2 who had things right. They will throw their pivotal, non-random weight towards the correct response and the "smartcrowd" effect will be captured.

For a number of sociological and biological reasons, the "devil take the hindmost" Marriage Supermarket scenario is apparently becoming a social reality. Today's post and several that follow will explore some recent research that may help to explain this state of affairs, and then will offer some thoughts on how the tide may eventually turn again.

Everyone's Favorite Topic

The situation is rapidly rising to a prominent place in both pop culture and social science. In an interesting recent piece for The Atlantic entitled "All The Single Ladies", journalist Kate Bolick writes that:

In their 1983 book, "Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question", two psychologists developed what has become known as the Guttentag-Secord theory, which holds that members of the gender in shorter supply are less dependent on their partners, because they have a greater number of alternative relationships available to them; that is, they have greater “dyadic power” than members of the sex in oversupply. How this plays out, however, varies drastically between genders.

In societies where men heavily outnumber women—in what’s known as a “high-sex-ratio society”—women are valued and treated with deference and respect and use their high dyadic power to create loving, committed bonds with their partners and raise families. Rates of illegitimacy and divorce are low. Women’s traditional roles as mothers and homemakers are held in high esteem. In such situations, however, men also use the power of their greater numbers to limit women’s economic and political strength, and female literacy and labor-force participation drop.

One might hope that in low-sex-ratio societies—where women outnumber men—women would have the social and sexual advantage. (After all, didn’t the mythical all-female nation of Amazons capture men and keep them as their sex slaves?) But that’s not what happens: instead, when confronted with a surplus of women, men become promiscuous and unwilling to commit to a monogamous relationship. (Which, I suppose, might explain the Amazons’ need to keep men in slave quarters.) In societies with too many women, the theory holds, fewer people marry, and those who do marry do so later in life. Because men take advantage of the variety of potential partners available to them, women’s traditional roles are not valued, and because these women can’t rely on their partners to stick around, more turn to extrafamilial ambitions like education and career.

In 1988, the sociologists Scott J. South and Katherine Trent set out to test the Guttentag-Secord theory by analyzing data from 117 countries. Most aspects of the theory tested out. In each country, more men meant more married women, less divorce, and fewer women in the workforce. South and Trent also found that the Guttentag-Secord dynamics were more pronounced in developed rather than developing countries.

Guttentag and Secord themselves described the outcomes of high and low sex ratios this way:

In a nutshell, when women are scarce and men are readily available, a protective morality develops that favors monogamy for women, limits their interactions with men, and shapes female roles in traditional domestic directions. But when men are scarce and women are readily available, no such protective morality arises to favor monogamy for men. Instead, the traditional protective customs and practices pertaining to women and the pressures on them to fulfill domestic roles weaken or disappear. Men have multiple relationships with women and become less willing to commit themselves in marriage to one woman.

College Girls Facing Shortages

The issue is not one of there being more women than men in society---the absolute ratio of men to women in the larger population is almost 50/50. Instead of representing a general problem, the Guttentag-Secord theory is coming into force when we: A) consider smaller subsections of the population in which women are now outnumbering men; and B) add the simple provision that most women are oriented towards hypergamy---seeking relationships with higher status members of the opposite sex.

With women now outperforming men in general academic achievement at both the undergraduate and graduate school levels, females with degrees who expect their partners to meet or exceed their own levels of education now face a scarcity of men who pass their tests. To make matters even worse, the time requirements these demanding academic and professional goals impose also cause many career-minded women to find themselves only ready to pursue the "MAB Agenda" ("Marriage-and-A-Baby") at a time when they are pushing the end of the normal/safe reproductive window and their male counterparts have no such constraints.

In short, women may face the relative scarcity of highly attractive mates (and the male behaviors anticipated by both game theoretical abstractions like the Marriage Supermarket and anthropological frameworks like the Guttentag-Secord model) at a time when their biological clocks are beginning to sound alarms. The intensity of this experience is compounded by an expectation that the mate will possess a long list of physical, intellectual, and personality attributes, some of which may be hardwired aspects of evolutionary selection, some of which may be the result of expectations created by the media, and at least some of which may actually be in opposition to one another and impossible to find in a single man.

We will explore how this state of affairs has slowly come about, how several interconnected social factors have dramatically increased the risk of marital unhappiness and made for a more mercenary and self-absorbed overall mating dance, how highly controversial research into relationship dynamics within the African-American community may offer a glimpse of the direction that the larger population will go in, and how a new, technically-proficient breed of male social operator has arisen to take full advantage of the new terms of the game.

NEXT UP: The Paradox of Female Unhappiness, "Superior Wife Syndrome", How Marriage Became a Gamble with Negative Mathematical Expectancy


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I really want to know if you like the hot, hyper-competitive game-theorist girlfriend character in that Rebecca Goldstein novel I told you about.

  3. Jay, I downloaded the book after you told me about it, but haven't started it yet. The reviews I read were also excellent; perhaps I should get going on this one...

  4. I assume you noted that she's married to Pinker, which I thought would interest you in the context of all these relationship posts. As much as I like Pinker, I think I like her books better, but perhaps I'm just smitten. Currently reading her bio of Spinoza; her bio of Gödel (which is how I found her) was awesome.