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Sex is Cheap: Regnerus on Why Men Have the Upper Hand in the Bedroom

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Sex is Cheap: Regnerus on Why Men Have the Upper Hand in the Bedroom

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know about Mark Regnerus, sociologist from the University of Texas at Austin and Ph.D. graduate of the fine UNC-Chapel Hill sociology program, author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenager and a few provocative articles on early marriage (one of which I blogged about here after having written on that subject, which I have termed “the Evangelical dilemma,” myself). Well, Regnerus is at it again, this time in Slate, with an article explaining “sexual economics”:

The terms of contemporary sexual relationships favor men and what they want in relationships, not just despite the fact that what they have to offer has diminished, but in part because of it. And it’s all thanks to supply and demand.

…despite the fact that women are holding the sexual purse strings, they aren’t asking for much in return these days—the market “price” of sex is currently very low. There are several likely reasons for this. One is the spread of pornography: Since high-speed digital porn gives men additional sexual options—more supply for his elevated demand—it takes some measure of price control away from women. The Pill lowered the cost as well. There are also, quite simply, fewer social constraints on sexual relationships than there once were. As a result, the sexual decisions of young women look more like those of men than they once did, at least when women are in their twenties. The price of sex is low, in other words, in part because its costs to women are lower than they used to be.

But just as critical is the fact that a significant number of young men are faring rather badly in life, and are thus skewing the dating pool. It’s not that the overall gender ratio in this country is out of whack; it’s that there’s a growing imbalance between the number of successful young women and successful young men. As a result, in many of the places where young people typically meet—on college campuses, in religious congregations, in cities that draw large numbers of twentysomethings—women outnumber men by significant margins. [my emphasis] …

The idea that sex ratios alter sexual behavior is well-established. Analysis of demographic data from 117 countries has shown that when men outnumber women, women have the upper hand: Marriage rates rise and fewer children are born outside marriage. An oversupply of women, however, tends to lead to a more sexually permissive culture. The same holds true on college campuses. In the course of researching our book Premarital Sex in America, my co-author and I assessed the effects of campus sex ratios on women’s sexual attitudes and behavior. We found that virginity is more common on those campuses where women comprise a smaller share of the student body, suggesting that they have the upper hand. By contrast, on campuses where women outnumber men, they are more negative about campus men, hold more negative views of their relationships, go on fewer dates, are less likely to have a boyfriend, and receive less commitment in exchange for sex. …

And yet while young men’s failures in life are not penalizing them in the bedroom, their sexual success may, ironically, be hindering their drive to achieve in life. Don’t forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today’s young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year’s book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, “Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy.” They’re right. But then try getting men to do anything.

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When accomplished women outnumber successful young men, many girlfriends wind up frustrated watching their lazy boyfriends watch TV instead of working hard to get ahead (image credit: Glamour.com)

Regnerus’ points make a lot of sense and they jive with the anecdotal evidence I’ve observed over the years: there are a lot more high-achieving young women out there than young men, but a large number of them seem to settle for relationships that are less than satisfying and operate more on the terms of the men they’re dating.

One interesting potential conclusion from Regnerus’ research is that, on the aggregate social level, women can either have greater power in the public marketplace or in (sexual) relationships but not both at the same time. By that line of thinking, if men have more power in the public sphere, women will have more “sexual capital” to counterbalance it, whereas if women come to be more powerful in the public sphere, it paradoxically tips the sexual scales towards the men—a sort of power homeostasis between the sexes, a yin and yang of sorts.

Whether such a conclusion is right or not, Regnerus’ observation that (again, as an aggregate) young men’s sexual power has paradoxically increased as their achievement levels have flagged compared to their female counterparts is hard to argue against. The next question is whether this is a healthy state for a society. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.

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