Cheap sex as collective action failure

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.

18 thoughts on “Cheap sex as collective action failure

  1. So, like, a free market is good for liberty and efficient and all that… unless we disagree?

    At least here in Australia, conservatives aren’t confused about this, and are internally consistent and coherent: markets need to be managed to conserve what we have – whether money is involved or not.

    1. Virtue libertarians don’t think that all market outcomes are “good” in an ethical sense; we just think that true virtue requires freedom and that freedom is valuable as an end in itself (and because it is the system that best produces human welfare in general).

      1. I think it’s a far more sane view of history to say that a properly managed system of governance which allows a modicum or freedom is best for human welfare. I say this because the state must first exist and ensure lawfulness by coercion. But when states collapse, we see that that this is not good for welfare (though *sometimes*, the end outcome is better – but usually the pigs win and Orwell gets the last laugh)

        From over here, I don’t get the fantasy of freedom that is running free and masquerading as “conservatism” in USA. I think everybody would be much better focusing on good governance. I conclude that in the long run, USA is a failed state, and it’s just a matter of time before the combination of the extermism of the founding fathers and the gradual social change towards interlinked/interdependent societies will destroy the social contract that is USA.

        Of course, people who live in USA don’t want to agree with this. Time will tell.

    2. It is indeed important to keep government on the right track. But here is the problem. Government needs constraint. As for moral capital, Australia and NZ don’t look all that different from the rest of the West, except that economically they have had strong external economic pressures to liberal market reforms. The constraints on their governments have been largely external.

      But in addition to external constraints, a government can be limited to its essential tasks by internal institutional ones. That was the real source of the success of the US which has driven for many years the western economic engine. But as those constraints fail its hard to see how Australia or NZ will do much better over the long haul. By claiming that markets must be managed, you really do put the cart before the horse. And before you go to put the bit in that horse’s mouth, you best make sure the driver holding the reins is not inebriated–with power.

  2. Obviously, the problem here is the same as the collective action problem of underpaid workers, and unionization is the answer. I look forward to Sven’s post defending the Wisconsin teachers.

    1. A closed union shop is indeed an effective way to promote collective action among the workers in a workplace. The problem is that it exploits consumers and nonunionized workers. Not all collective action by groups within society is desirable from the point of view of society at large.

    2. Yes, workers have a collective action problem as well. I’m certainly supportive of the right teachers have to form any associations or groups they want to. That is their constitutional right.

      But there is no corresponding obligation that firms, the state, or citizens pay any particular heed or recognition to those associations. State laws meddling in employer-employee relations, such as state mandated collective bargaining or any kind of requirement mandating that workers belong to unions or pay union dues as a condition of employment is clearly unconstitutional, save for those cases where the employer voluntarily ascents to such agreements.

      The Constitution used to have something called the contract clause, though the Court’s abusive, illegitimate use of the commerce clause has essentially rendered the contract clause moot.

      1. Let’s not forget that laws are as likely to curb the freedom of unions as favor them, as for example the law against secondary picketing.

  3. With respect to the contention that the price men pay for marriage today has gone up:

    I have noticed that in your birth cohort – 1964 and later – while the men are required to perform what were probably considered women’s tasks in the past, women do not have to reciprocate. Men help with the dishes and the kids AND mow the lawn, take out the garbage, chop the wood, run the tractor, fix the plumbing, etc.

    Very few “feminists” actually share the work with their significant others. When confronted, they often smirk. Women who do share the men’s work are often the subject of jokes or patronizing.

    The other real problem is that men today often are uncertain about the parentage of their offspring because of sexual promiscuity and can be easily forced to support a wife and child who desert them with a no evidence required charge of “abuse.” I think Hymowitz made this case in an earlier book or article.

    It’s a sad state of affairs, for sure.

  4. It seem obvious to me that LHF’s data set is; a) anecdotal, and b) unfortunate! Of course, in terms of shared work, women now “work” as opposed to simply working in the home in the traditional sense, and as such, bring home a paycheck; something earlier married women rarely did.

    While the evidence is unclear, LHF’s bias seems to be informed by tramatic experiences.

  5. If we have a genuine collective action problem at work here, then perhaps the solution is finding some property rights scheme that will facilitate greater care, prudence, and foresight applied to the diminishing asset. Perhaps the government should assign tradable, assignable sex permits? Sven?

  6. I’m not being flippant here, but a genuine concern might be that less desirable women (ugly ones) won’t get any sex at all, and so fail to experience even the temporary illusion of love and commitment that may help sustain their egos.

    As it stands a certain number of unattractive women get laid because guys are playing the field, not having to treat any one woman as a serious proposition. If women get picky again, the more attractive women will be in more or less the position they are now, and the less attractive women will be up the creek because men will prefer to watch porn rather than settle for less attractive women that aren’t willing to “put out” rather immediately.

  7. “Very few “feminists” actually share the work with their significant others. When confronted, they often smirk. Women who do share the men’s work are often the subject of jokes or patronizing.” — LHF

    I had to respond to this absurd comment about smirking post-feminists. Yes, indeed women DO share the traditional “men’s” work: it’s called gainful employment. If more men are changing diapers, perhaps it’s because today, unlike in past generations, more women are working outside the home providing a paycheck and helping keep the family afloat financially. And every study about housework divisions of labor indicate that even in homes where both partners work outside the home, the women still do the majority of the nurturing, child care, and housework.

    As to the assertion that at least the sexual revolution tosses crumbs to “less hot” girls by letting them taste of sex, be it loveless and void of commitment – do you think that only pretty girls got husbands in ages past? Many less than beautiful women have lived happy, fulfilled married lives. And many beautiful AND plain looking women have also been used and tossed aside by men who slept with them and then abandoned them, broke their hearts, left them pregnant. Women have everything to lose and little to gain from casual sexual encounters. Why is this a net positive in your mind for these women?

  8. do you think that only pretty girls got husbands in ages past?

    No, but beauty and intelligence are correlated, and assortive mating means that what’s left for these girls are the male losers as far as long term relationships go. Unattractive women are doing better than their male counterparts, generally speaking, and as it stands these women can expect to occasionally sleep with better looking men due to the playing field as the author of this post described it. But if women across the board get pickier, the more attractive and successful men will focus on just the most premium women, leaving the relatively successful but unattractive women without much to satisfy them sexually and perhaps psychologically.

    But if you believe that casual sex is worse than no sex at all for women, then the above situation is still an improvement.

    (Speaking from limited experience I don’t think this is the case. I’ve been ‘targeted’ by a woman who basically admitted it’d been too long since she got some action. I can say with near certainty that our encounter was a net positive.)

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