Jan and Dean would be right at home on university campuses today. Two girls for every boy! For guys (unless they’re in engineering school), life is a paradise of sexual opportunity. For women, it’s a wasteland. The old-fashioned custom known as “dating” (as in: guy calls up girl and asks her out next Friday, takes her to a movie and a meal, picks up the cheque, takes her home, kisses her goodnight and, if he’s lucky, gets to third base) is something their grandparents did. Today, people just hook up.
What explains the campus hookup culture? One widely overlooked factor is the scarcity of men. As buyers in a buyers’ market, they’re on the right side of supply and demand. The price they have to pay for sex – in terms of commitment, time and money – is at a record low. Plus, women are more inclined than ever to say yes. “Today’s young man faces a sex life that probably would have exceeded the most optimistic imagination of most men throughout history,” Roy Baumeister says in his book Is There Anything Good About Men?
Dr. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, is a specialist in the field of sexual economics, which examines modern cultural and sexual trends through the lens of supply and demand. It’s not romantic. Women’s studies students hate him. But it explains a lot.
Sexual economics, says Dr. Baumeister, begins with the premise that men want sex more than women do. A lot more. Especially when they’re young. In the new age of gender equality, this awkward fact is often ignored and frequently denied. Even if true, it’s thought to be a character defect that men should be able to suppress (and even overcome) by adjusting their attitude. This is probably impossible. Consider the famous psychology experiment in which female research assistants were sent out across campus to approach attractive males and ask if they wanted to have sex that night. Seventy-five per cent of the men said yes (and those who couldn’t make it that night asked about the next night). When the experiment was repeated with the genders reversed, all the women said no. That experiment was 35 years ago, but does anyone think the results would be different today?
In economic terms, our unequal desire for sex means that, in the sexual marketplace, men are the buyers and women are the sellers. Until recently, the price was steep, up to and including a wedding ring and a promise of lifetime commitment. In my parents’ generation, the only way for a 22-year-old guy to have a lot of sex was to get married. Today, plenty of 22-year-olds can get all the sex they want for the cost of a pack of condoms.
Dr. Baumeister argues that, throughout history, it was to women’s advantage to keep the supply of sex restricted. “Sex was the main thing they had to offer men in order to get a piece of society’s wealth, and so they restricted sexual access as much as they could, to maintain a high price,” he says in his essay Sexual Economics, Culture, Men and Modern Sexual Trends (with Kathleen Vohs). But as women began to gain power and opportunity, that began to change. Women can now get a piece of society’s wealth on their own. And life for everyone is a lot more fun, because it turns out that, wherever women have more autonomy, people have more sex.
The changes in gender politics since the 1960s have been good for both sexes. Women got something they really wanted (access to careers and money) and men got something they really wanted (more sex). But this bargain is having some unexpected consequences. Young men are in no hurry to get married. Why should they be? As my dear old dad used to say when I waltzed out the door in my miniskirt, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” I hated it when he said that. But he’d grasped the central principle of sexual economics.
A lot of women are in no hurry to get married, either. But it might not work out so well for them. They’ve watched too much Sex in the City. They think they’ll still have the same choices at 35 and 40 that they had at 25. They have no idea that men’s choices will get better with age (especially if they’re successful), but theirs will get worse. Believe me, this sucks. But it’s the truth.
Dr. Baumeister’s argument is that “men will do whatever is required in order to obtain sex” – and that, historically, society has made them do quite a lot. To qualify as good marriage material, a young man used to have to show he could work hard, compete successfully, commit to family life, be a good provider and gain respect in the community. “The fact that men became useful members of society as a result of their efforts to obtain sex is not trivial,” he says.
But now, young men don’t have to do those things. Sex is readily available. According to Mark Regnerus, another expert on sexual economics, 30 per cent of young men’s sexual relationships today involve no romance at all – no hearts, no flowers, not even “Hey, what’s your name again?”
As he wrote in an essay on Slate: “Don’t forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex.” Which may help to explain why women outnumber men in university and so many guys in their 20s are in an arrested state of adolescence. University is hard. Work is hard. Being an adult is hard. And if what young men want most of all is sex, then why work hard if they don’t have to?
Surf City, also known as Two Girls for Every Boy, was co-written by one of the Beach Boys (Brian Wilson) and recorded by Jan and Dean. Unclear information appeared in an earlier online version of this story and in Saturday's original newspaper version.
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