In recent months, we have seen increased attention to the slacker men who aren’t settling down and getting married. Kay Hymowitz, author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, gives voice to all the young women who wonder “where have all the good men gone?” In her WSJ article on the topic, she claimed that the explanation for all this “puerile shallowness” is “our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men….with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional….”
In focusing on the economic rise of women, Hymowitz gives a demand-side answer to the problem they face. But there is a supply-side answer that is much more convincing and can be described in terms of changes in simple relative prices, rather than amorphous cultural changes. Women have more economic options than before, but they still—in overwhelming numbers—want the same things as their mothers wanted. A very high percentage will eventually marry and eventually have children. It is just a lot harder because of the supply problems. Young women have, thankfully, many more options than they once did, but in spite of how much satisfaction they get from careers, friends, and their social lives, their genes are still screaming at them to find a man who will help them procreate and then provide some measure of protection and support for the children to come (I know, I know, not everyone wants that, and I’m oversimplifying things, but bear with me).
To understand the supply side requires a model of supply behavior. Fortunately, we are dealing with men here, who are simple creatures. Men also want what men have always wanted: regular sex. We don’t have to delve too far into “cultural uncertainty.” Simply biology and economics will do the trick just fine.
Men’s demand for marriage or long-term partnership (and hence the supply of these men in the marriage market) has declined precipitously over the past half century because the price of complements have gone way up and the price of substitutes has gone way down. Thus, holding other factors constant—including the desire of men to have children, income, preferences, and cultural forces—the male demand for sex within a committed relationship, such as marriage, has declined.
Let’s go through these price effects one by one. First, the price of complements. For a variety of reasons, much more is required of men in committed relationships than ever before. I appeared on earth at the tail end of the baby boom in 1964. That was the heyday of the pre-revolution male. The economy was strong, a man could earn a good wage without much education, he could watch ball games in a recliner with a TV dinner, and as long as he kept his nails clean, he got to be married to January Jones. Well, maybe not the last part, but the costs of relationships were much lower. No one expected him to change diapers, support his wife’s education, go to PTA meetings, or talk about his feelings. Those days are gone. I happen to be one who prefers the new regime, and I think investment in a marriage and family are worth the price. But make no mistake: the price has never been higher.
But changing prices of substitutes has had even more of an impact. Before the sexual revolution there was certainly premarital sex and plenty of non-commital sex, but nowhere like today. In short, the girls that boys would want to marry and start a family with often didn’t give it up for free. They wanted something in return, namely some form of a commitment. And traditional religious views on sex outside of marriage were the views espoused, by and large, in the public media, making the costs of casual sex higher because it violated longstanding cultural norms. Certainly, non-marital sex was available, but the price was definitely higher.
Finally, the internet has washed the earth with cheap, explicit pornography. Porn is certainly not a perfect substitute for sex with real women, but it is, nonetheless, a substitute. When the price of a substitute—even a lousy substitute—falls through the floor, the quantity demanded for the real thing will also fall.
So, through the lens of the simple market model, the behavior of men isn’t hard to explain. Changes in relative prices can do the heavy theoretical lifting here. But the behavior of women is a little more perplexing. Why, for instance, have women facilitated men’s substitution of casual sex for marriage? Hymowitz has it backwards. It isn’t the “rise of women” that has caused the problem (though it has played some role); it is, quite the contrary, the “fall of women,” namely the ever-increasing tendency of women to participate in the hooking-up culture and give men what they want without extracting anything from them in return. Sure, women enjoy sex just as men do (though they seem to be able to go without it for periods of time much more gracefully than men do, though let’s not delve into any personal anecdotes here). But, if we believe Hymowitz and a lot of contemporaneous feminists, women are getting the raw end of this deal. The men they want are simply following the new demand functions created by the sexual revolution, which leaves women to face a reduced supply of potential mates at every given price.
This downward spiral that women have been caught in—the dwindling supply of available men induces women to make themselves even more sexually available than the next women in order to compete, thereby further dampening the supply of potential mates—seems impossible to break out of. At the heart of the problem is a classic, Olsonian collective action failure. All women would benefit if, collectively, women were to require more of men they had sex with. But every woman knows that her behavior, by itself, will not cause market prices to change, so she cheats—and by “cheats” I mean she cheats the female collective. The problem with this free riding behavior is that everyone faces the same incentives and there is not an effective punishment for cheating. The result: men get more sex and women can’t find mates. Such are the fruits of feminism.
Maybe the old (some would say sexist) adage that “good girls don’t” had something going for it after all.