Sexual Economy

cow by Emily Flake

Sexual economy refers to the resources men offer to women in order to acquire sex. In this sense the heterosexual community is considered as a marketplace where sex is bought and sold. The marketplace is defined by gender roles, and in the sex economy men are the buyers, and women are the sellers.

Couples and their sexual activities are loosely interrelated by a marketplace; the decisions made regarding sex by each couple may be influenced by conditions in the market. As with all economic principles, price is determined by supply and demand, product variety, complicity among sellers, competition between sellers, as well as other factors. The price of sex is not limited to money, it has a wide conception of resources including, respect, love, time, gifts, affection, or commitment.

Gary Becker (1976) was the first theorist to define human behavior in terms of economics; there are four main assumptions to his definition. First, an individual’s behavior is interrelated in a market system in which individual choices are determined by cost and benefit in the framework of stable preferences. Second, scarce desirable resources are assigned by shifts in price and other influences on the market. Third, those that sell goods and services will compete with one another, and fourth people want to maximize their outcomes. This theory is used in a cultural sense to analyze the behavior of individuals as it is shaped by the market.

The interaction between two parties through the evaluation of cost and benefit to each is referred to as ‘Social Exchange Theory.’ If each party gains more than it loses in an interaction the exchange will continue. Therefore, the main crux of the social exchange theory is the assumption that in every social interaction each person gives and gains something from the other, which is what constitutes the exchange. The broader market as well as individual preferences will determine the value of the gain and exchange process. The application of economic principles to social rewards enables the prediction of the way in which social behavior will advance. The amount that a person is willing to pay for an apple will depend on how much an individual likes apples, how hungry they are, and it will also depend on the supply and demand for apples within the community that the participants are operating in.

In using the social exchange theory to analyze sex, sex is viewed as a female resource. Sex between a man and a woman is seen as an exchange, the woman is giving the man sex, which is considered as valuable. The interaction is mis-represented unless the man gives the woman back something in return of equivalent value. The general consensus is that women want commitment and men want sex, therefore in order for a man to engage in sex with a woman he must make a commitment to her. Studies have indicated that women value commitment (marriage) and men value sex; if women are aware of this they should not give a man sex unless he is committed to them.

Scholars often study why sex is a female resource. The most popular answer to this question came from Symons in 1979. It concentrated on the fact that reproductive strategies are shaped by evolution. In his explanation he states that male investment in parenthood is minimal, but for a woman it is abundant. Therefore, he stipulated that sex for a man has ample benefits at little cost, however for a woman, the cost is substantial even if the pleasure is high, she risks possible pregnancy and pain during childbirth. She then may have to raise the child alone if the man is not good enough to be a father, or if he has left. The risk of high cost should be an incentive for a woman to hold back, and therefore the man must offer considerable benefits to counterbalance this.

Is it conceivable then to state that men desire sex more than women? Sex drive and gender differences were recently examined in a literature review. It discovered that men displayed a consistent greater sexual motivation than women. Byers and Lewis discovered that out of their large sample of participants half of them had a disagreement about sex at least once a month, and each disagreement was due to the fact that the man wanted some form of sexual activity, and the woman didn’t  In this manner it can be deduced that the sexual negotiations between couples revolve around a man’s attempts to encourage the woman to have sex and not the opposite.

One critical element of the social exchange analysis is that sexual activity within a community is loosely interrelated as an ingredient of the sexual market place. Sex evolves into part of an economic system, similar to the sale of a house, in that it is not simply a transaction between two people but is interlaced into the housing market and the local economy. There is a wide variety in the price of sex. For a man to engage in a sexual relationship with a specific woman he may have to offer her gifts, compliments, dinner, or marriage. The two individuals will negotiate the price in the framework of the prices set by other similar couples. Sexual norms are therefore characterized by a local going rate as to the acceptable price for sex. There will be a variation in rates between different cultures, and across divergent historical periods. Forces within the marketplace will act to stabilize the rate within a community. To exemplify, let’s say that a specific woman may demand a high price for sex, such as her refusing to have sex until marriage. Her admirer may disregard her, and direct his attention towards another woman within the community that will provide sex at a lower rate, such as two dinner dates. If all women within a community were to demand marriage before sex, the man will have no choice but to conform.

An affiliated theory is that sex at a low price works in the favor of men, whereas a high price compliments women. Therefore men will be biased towards an enterprise that lowers the price of sex, as opposed to women supporting a higher price. Principles of ‘free love,’ which is sex that comes with no commitment or exchanges, also referred to as ‘no strings attached’ will entice men more than women. A local sexual marketplace is a loose community characterized by men and women acting as independent members looking for a mutually beneficial agreement. In the marketplace men are the buyers who want to get a lot of good sex without allocating too much in relation to effort, money, commitment, or time. Women are seen as sellers who will only accept a high price in exchange for sexual favors. Negotiation is dependent on each individual couple; the going rate within the community will determine whether the price is a better deal for the man or the woman.

Supply and demand is a law applied to various marketplaces; sex is not an exception to this. In terms of sex the female resource theory stipulates that supply is constructed by the woman and demand is constructed by the man. When the pool of desirable women is significantly greater than the pool of desirable men, this is an indication that supply has exceeded the demand. This leads to a price reduction in which men can obtain sex by offering next to nothing in exchange. In reverse a scarcity of desirable women in relation to men proposes that demand is greater than supply which will drive the price up.

Another characteristic of a shortage for coveted goods is that low cost alternatives become available. Pornography and prostitution can be observed as low cost alternatives for the desired other of sex with a coveted partner. Economics within the sexual marketplace will advocate that men will be the target of such low cost substitutes, and to some differing degree will be embraced by men. In contrariety women should protest them as they present a peril to women in general. One may question why it should bother a woman that a man masturbates to pornography? But if pornographic material can satisfy the male demand for sex, then it may create a reduction for a demand of her specific sexual favors and result in her having to accept a lower price.

Postulating that the majority of men have a preference for sex with loving female companions, as opposed to the alternative of prostitutes or watching pornography and masturbating, the women within a community could possibly create a monopoly if they are capable of binding together and reducing the competition between themselves. A viable economic strategy pursed by several monopolies or conglomerates is the artificial restriction of supply in order to push prices up. In the sex economy, this could involve women coming together and agreeing to abstain from sex with a man until he made a commitment of marriage. In the business world this strategy has been successful enough that governments of countries in advanced nations have implemented laws against it. Therefore women should work together and restrict the supply of sex in order to get a higher price.

Desire and price go hand in hand. The highly desired woman within a community can command a higher price. The most obvious indication of the extent to which she is desired by men is her beauty and sex appeal. A woman who conforms to the standards of beauty set out by the society in which she lives can command a higher price than women who do not conform to this standard. A woman can enhance her beauty using makeup, clothes, dieting, and other methods to assist in her improving her looks. A woman will maximize her level of attractiveness by conforming to the norms of the community in which she is competing for male attention. She is comparable to an entrepreneur enhancing their appeal by bringing a new product onto the marketplace. Therefore, the act of enhancing appeal is a viable strategy. Advertising a product is also a viable method of increasing demand. Creating the impression that sex with her will be an undeniable pleasurable experience by wearing sexy clothes and flirting, is considered to be a sensible economic strategy for women to pursue.

Feminists consistently argued the fact that women should be able to wear what they want without becoming susceptible to unwanted male attention. The social exchange theory helps us to understand that it is beneficial for a woman to gain more male desire than she wants to satisfy. If men could grasp this concept, it may lead them to understand why women dress to impress without it meaning that she wishes to have sex with any of the men that she attracts. Her role in the sexual marketplace is to get as many men to desire her without having sex with them; sex is only given to the highest bidder. In fact having sex with multiple partners for a woman makes for an unsuccessful strategy. Scarcity increases the value of a commodity, as emphasized by social exchange theorists. If a woman is known to provide sexual favors regularly to different men she is perceived as of low value, and the amount that a man is prepared to exchange will be equal to that perceived value. A woman is perceived as of a high value if she rarely provides sexual favors  In this sense a woman’s sexual favors are a non renewable resource, which provides a woman with an incentive to allocate them moderately.

Therefore a wide distribution of a woman’s sexual favors assists in a reduction in value. A repercussion of this provides her with an incentive to maintain a reputation for having minimal partners as well as being selective in her choice of partner. Men on the other hand, are not bound by these constraints; men will brag about their sexual conquests and even exaggerate how much they have had. Therefore low cost sex is of benefit to a man who can boast about his many lovers without bearing the cost of having to marry each partner that he chose to sleep with, at the same time as gaining respect from his peers. Women on the other hand do not have this privilege. Competition among women may be bound to advertising ones beauty and upholding a virtuous reputation for sexual exclusivity as long as demand is high.

During the third quarter of the twentieth century sexual attitudes and behaviors encountered a considerable conversion. This shift was predominantly among women. There were several factors associated with the revolution including the innovation of the oral contraceptive pill. The sexual revolution served as a ‘market correction’ in which the price of sex was significantly reduced. Social exchange theory would cite a reason for this as a change in woman’s circumstances such as her no longer needing to depend on a man for finances, and the ability to have sex without getting pregnant, led to a reduction in their reliance on the fact that sex was their most valuable resource. Despite the sexual revolution bringing about many positive changes for women, these changes also served as a disadvantage in the devaluation of their sexual resources. Even though women wished for sexual freedom, their ultimate goal is to get married in the future. If the price of sex has been reduced, it limits their potential to find a suitable mate who will pay the highest price (marriage), because he can find sexual resources elsewhere without having to pay the price of marriage.

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