The study is part of a big-picture look at sexual behaviors worldwide using “sexual economics,” in which supply and demand are key elements.
It’s a “notoriously unromantic theory,” said Roy Baumeister of Florida State University in Tallahassee Sunday at the American Psychological Association meeting here.
In his presentation, “Sexual Economics: A Research-Based Theory of Sexual Interactions, or Why the Man Buys Dinner,” Baumeister, a psychologist, explained how applying economic principles helps understand people’s sexual decision-making, especially when they’re just beginning a relationship.
“Women’s sexuality has a kind of value that men’s sexuality does not,” he says. “Men will basically exchange other resources with women to have sex, but the reverse doesn’t work. Women … can trade sex for attention, for grades, for a promotion, for money, as in prostitution or sex with a celebrity.”
The idea, he says, is that men want sex more than women do (on average) and that sex in a relationship begins when women decide it’s time. Supply and demand rule, so whichever sex is more scarce has more power. The theory focuses on heterosexual interactions only.
When women outnumber men (as on many college campuses today) there’s more competition among women for those guys, says Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin. He addressed that in the book he co-wrote, Premarital Sex in America, out earlier this year.
Regnerus says Baumeister’s theory of sexual economics was a key element. “It’s a perspective through which to understand sexual relationships and sexual behavior,” he says.
Regnerus’ research attributes the rise of the “hookup” culture on campus to the fact that there are so many more women in college. He says Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs “wrote the key work on the subject” in 2004. Because a woman’s sexuality has a value to men, a man who wanted sex typically had to give her something of value, such as a marriage proposal.
“If women don’t have many opportunities to make money on their own, they need the value of sex to be as high as possible,” Baumeister says. “When women don’t have other opportunities, sex is the main thing she has to offer.”
His new research, published in The Journal of Social Psychology earlier this summer, used two data sets on 37 countries, including an international online sex survey of 317,000 people and data specific to gender equity and related subjects. He found that countries ranked higher in gender equality also generally had more casual sex, more sex partners per capita, younger ages for first sex and greater tolerance/approval of premarital sex. Rankings were by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, 2006; the USA ranked 16th.
“In countries where women are at a big disadvantage, they restrain sex, so the price is high and men make a lifetime commitment to support them to get sex,” Baumeister says. “Men will do whatever is required for sex.”