Sexual Economics Theory Definition
Sexual economics theory is an idea about how men and women think, feel, respond, and behave in a sexual context. More specifically, this theory says that men’s and women’s sexual thoughts, feelings, preferences, and behavior follow fundamental economic principles.
The basic premise is that sex is something that women have and men want. Sex is therefore a female resource that is precious, and hence, women hold on to it until they are given enough incentive to give it up. Men’s role is to offer resources that will entice women into sex. The resources that men give women include commitment, affection, attention, time, respect, and money. Note that in this theory, the term sex is used rather broadly, to refer to not only intercourse but also touching, kissing, fondling, talking about sex, and other aspects of sexual behavior.
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Sex as a Female Resource
Sexual economics theory uses as a starting point social exchange theory, which is an idea about how each person in a dyad gives up something that he or she holds to get something of greater benefit in return. For instance, if a person owns a puppy and a family wants to buy it, then the family has to want the puppy more than the money it will give to the person and the person has to want the money more than the puppy he or she will give up. If both parties want what the other has more than what they themselves hold, then the exchange takes place.
Sometimes one party wants the exchange to take place more than does the other. This situation gives rise to an imbalance in power: The party who wants the exchange less has more control over the relationship because he or she can hold out until a highly tantalizing offer is made. In the context of sexual exchange, men are eager to get sex whereas women are less interested. Women have more power when men want sex, and therefore women should be able to get something valuable in return for giving up sex.
Do men really want sex more than women? The answer is a definite yes. When researchers have reviewed all the findings on men’s and women’s sexual responses, they have observed a strong and consistent difference, with men (as a group) uniformly liking and wanting sex more than women do. This gap means that men have a stronger motivation to obtain sex than do women, and therefore, they must attempt to persuade potential sexual partners. According to sexual economics theory, men give women resources so that women will allow sex to take place.
This trade of resources in the context of sex has happened consistently enough through eras and cultures that societies recognize that female sexuality has value, whereas male sexuality has no value. Ample evidence supports the idea that female sexuality is perceived as having value. For instance, men’s and women’s feelings about their own virginity are vastly different, and in line with sexual economic theory. Far more women than men think of their virginity as a precious gift to be given only at the most ideal time. Men, in contrast, far more than women see their virginity as a shameful condition from which they want to escape. Society places positive value on female virginity but not on male virginity.
Another piece of evidence comes from violent relationships. A woman with a violent partner apparently would offer sex to distract or soothe her partner if he seemed to be heading for abuse. In this way, women traded sex with their partners to lower their risk for being beaten. Men with violent partners cannot usually escape victimization by offering sex.
In one international study of the reasons why marriages are allowed to dissolve, wives’ adultery was punished far more severely than was husbands’ adultery. In fact, in many places wives’ adultery was a viable reason for husbands to be granted a divorce, whereas husbands’ adultery did not justify divorce. These findings fit the idea that sex is a female resource that, in this case, is traded in exchange for being married. When a woman has sex outside her marriage, she is in effect giving away something that the husband considers his.
In one graphic illustration, women prisoners in Australia who had to endure public floggings could have the amount of punishment cut in half if they agreed to be whipped naked to please the male onlookers. Male prisoners were not given any sex-related options as trade for a reduced punishment.
Last, and more germane to the current analysis, recent research reveals that being around sexual cues prompts men to give up monetary resources. When men saw photos of scantily clad women (versus landscape scenes) or they felt bras (versus T-shirts), they were willing to part with monetary resources.
Hence, psychological experiments and historical records show that men trade resources to convince women to be sexual. These patterns spring from men’s stronger motivation to obtain sex than women’s, which leads men to offer women resources in the hope that they will respond favorably and offer sex.
At What Price?
Women, in general, want to obtain many, high-quality resources in exchange for providing sex. Men, on the other hand, want to get sex without having to give up much. So, in other language, women want to set a high price, but men only want to pay a low price. The actual price, the going rate, is influenced by what others in a given community are doing. For instance, if women in a given community wait until they receive an engagement ring before they have any sexual interactions with their partners, then a specific woman has a good chance of getting her partner to give her a ring before she agrees to sex. However, if the women in the area collectively give sex away cheaply, then any one woman who wants to receive a marriage proposal and ring before having sex will likely be unable to ask such a high price. Seen this way, women are sellers, and according to basic economic principles, sellers compete with each other. The more competition among women, the lower the prices for the men. However, to curb this downward trend in prices, women exert pressure on each other to keep the price of sex high. Women do this mainly through social punishment (via rumors, interpersonal exclusion, etc.) of women who offer cheap sex.
Men want the opposite of what women want: They want low-cost sex. Men would prefer to get sex without giving up money, commitment, affection, or time—or at least, to give up these resources when they want to, not only when they want sex. Just like bidders in an online auction, men as buyers at times compete with other men to get sex from a specific woman. In an opposite fashion to what happens with female competition, male competition results in the woman being able to command a higher price.
How do people know what others in the local market are doing and for what price? Often, they do not know, although gossip about the sex acts of one’s neighbors and friends are key determinants of what people think is going on. Because people often do not have direct knowledge of the going rate for sex in their community, perceptions of norms become important. Men attempt to convince women that sex occurs quite frequently and at a low price, and women claim that sex happens much less frequently and only after appropriate resources have been exchanged. This amounts to each partner portraying sexual norms in line with a price level they prefer.
In sum, sexual economics theory is a way of explaining heterosexual sexual interactions. Women sell sex (so to speak) and men buy sex, and in doing so they are exchanging valuable resources. Women give sexual access to men after men have given them money, commitment, affection, respect, or time. It seems crude to think about sexual relations in this way, but sexual economics theory demonstrates that basic economic tenets can explain men’s and women’s negotiations about whether to have sex.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Sexual economics: Sex as female resource for social exchange in heterosexual interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 339-363.