How Women Set The 'Price' Of Sex

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A new study argues that gender inequality causes women to withhold sex from men until they get what they want. A look at the study text, however, raises a lot of questions.


Earlier, I wrote about Roy Baumeister and Juan Pablo Mendoza's study showing that people in countries with greater gender equality have more sex — as defined by number of lifetime partners, frequency of casual and premarital sex, and attitudes toward abstinence. Baumeister and Mendoza theorized that inequality forced women to use sex in order to get various resources, meaning they'd have to "restrain" it until men provided these resources — by this logic, sexual activity would essentially be governed by women's economic decisions. We requested the full study to see if they'd considered other possible explanations, and it now seems like they did — sort of. They write,

Another set of alternative explanations might regard women as helpless victims of oppressive, patriarchal society that stifles their sexuality. This view would explain our findings by saying, as women gain education and power, they throw off the psychological and possibly material shackles and move forward into enjoyment of sexuality, possibly encountering stiff resistance and then only grudging acceptance by the powerful male establishment. In principle, this interpretation could account for all our findings. The main argument against it lies elsewhere, in the many empirical findings and patterns that indicate that the cultural suppression of female sexuality is essentially carried out and enforced by females, when it is to their advantage [...]

So basically, it's women who keep women from having sex. Of course, women could still be participants in an "oppressive, patriarchal society" — and Baumeister and Mendoza address this too:

[T]he possibility that women have come to accept their inferior status as legitimate and therefore work actively to perpetuate the status quo cannot be ruled out, because there would not necessarily be any direct signs of this in the available empirical evidence. Still, this explanation suffers from one problematic deficit, which is the lack of any clear evidence that men opposed the sexual revolution and its liberation of female sexuality. If anything, evidence suggests the men were even more supportive than the women of these changes.

To recap, guys really want women to have sex with them. If they don't, it's because women are enforcing a system wherein nobody gives it up unless she gets something in return. Baumeister and Mendoza aren't putting any value judgments on sex here — they're not saying women should keep the "price" of sex high. However, lots of people do say that — including Mark Regnerus, who told Salon early this year that women should engage in "the artificial restriction of sex until later in the relationship [...] for a greater future goal." He says Baumeister's theories of sexual economics were influential for him, calling them "a perspective through which to understand sexual relationships and sexual behavior." This perspective is somewhat limited — the idea that women always control access to sex, for instance, ignores the existence of rape.

But ultimately, what's most important may be what we do with Baumeister and Mendoza's analysis. If we accept their data as accurate, then what they've shown is that once women have some economic power of their own, their sex lives become less restricted. And so rather than telling women who have already attained some equality with men that they should go back to treating sex as a currency for other stuff they need, maybe we should focus on making sure women can get their needs met in other ways, so they can have sex by choice, not out of necessity.


Earlier: Research Claims More Gender Equality Means More Sex

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On a related note, a while ago I saw this study done by a student that basically told study participants a story of two teens that either had or didn't have premarital sex (randomly assigned a version), and gauged the reaction. Female participants were the ones whose opinion of the teen girl dropped the most in the sex version (male participants judged the girl equally, but judged the guy more positively in the sex version).

The conclusion of that study was also that women are the ones pressuring other women not to have so much sex.