Do Women Like Sex, Or Just Sexual Economics?

Over at Slate’s XXfactor blog, the recently posted blog by Amanda Marcotte, “Do Women Like Sex?” is causing a lot of debate. Short and sweet, the blog is about sexual economics theory which examines the premise that women exchange sex with men for other resources. Though I tried to find resources related to sexual economics theory and homosexual relationships I didn’t find anything. So there’s that. (Thesis idea ready for the taking, bill me later.)

The Roy Baumeister study that Marcotte’s blog post critiques abandons the feminist view that women may participate in random sex less readily than men due to oppression through patriarchy, and instead points to the need for women to control the sex market by essentially cornering it from other women and shaming other women from casually participating in sex. Given the popularity of the Slutwalks around the country, slut-shaming is clearly plays a powerful role in women’s sex lives.

According to the economics of a market economy, less casual sex from women makes sex a more valuable commodity on the market for women to use to demand resources from men. Welcome to sexual economics!

More on that from Baumesiter in an interview with Salon:

The point of sexual economics is that sex is a resource that women have. Men trade women other resources for sex. Historically, women have restricted each other’s sexuality in order to make the price of sex high, so that men pretty much have to make serious commitments of marriage in order to [have sex].

When women have more access to educational and financial opportunities, they don’t need to hold sex hostage as much, so they relax the controls they’ve put on sexuality.

Cited in Baumeister’s research is this one time some strangers on a college campus walked up to both men and women to approach them for casual no-strings-attached sex and while the men were all about it, all but one of the women said no thanks. The gist of this study’s conclusion, and others that speak to the market of women and sex, is that women are more discriminating and want sex less often than men and thus one can purportedly make the assertion women like sex less than men.

Marcotte agrees with the concept of lowered economic value of sex due to greater equality for women, but is put off by claims made that women enjoy sex less than men or primarily find enjoyment in sex for its economic value.  She continues:

If that’s the case, then we should actually see sex rates plummet, and not just in marriage.  Actually, we should see marriage rates plummet, too, if marriage is simply an exchange of vagina for economic stability. If women just aren’t into sex, and they don’t need to exchange sex for goods and services, which is the traditional reason Baumeister says we have sex, then why wouldn’t we just give it up?

While the study of the market economy of sex has some validity in that women have been able to use sex as a commodity and research may show women are more discriminating about casual sex partially for this reason, making a direct correlation that this then means women like sex less is a false one.

Tracy Clark-Flory, who conducted the Salon interview, notes that Baumeister’s study, “shows that countries with greater gender equality have higher rates of sexual activity. With parity comes a greater likelihood of casual sex and more sexual partners.” Good. Sure. However, she  goes on to say that “it also paints a mathematical, emotionless portrait of relations between the sexes.” Not good.

Marcotte concludes her post with an appeal to feminism for greater understanding of women, men and their sexual interaction:

Women enforce the rules because the system penalizes them for not doing so, but if women collectively stop enforcing the rules, i.e. become feminists, then the system collapses.  And women, liberated from patriarchal domination of their sexuality, start having the same kind of variety of sex (casual, committed, somewhere in between) that men have always preserved for themselves alone.

I appreciate an evaluation of the economy of sex, but really women and men aren’t working with the same currency. Both patriarchy and feminism help us understand why this is the case. And how does this research apply to homosexual relationships? Like much of the conceptual framework of relationships that the patriarchy presents to us, lesbian relationships and desire turn this idea on its head — there’s no market value to be had, at least if said lesbian sex isn’t being had in front of a camera, and in fact there’s usually something to be lost, at least in terms of social cache, in one arena of your life or another. When the conversation about women’s desire is centered around a cultural bargain to be struck with men, where does same-sex desire fit?

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Jamie lives in Boston and is currently a PhD student in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a freelance writer and also a team associate for the Boston chapter of Hollaback!.

Jamie has written 79 articles for us.

38 Comments

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    Biologically speaking (heterosexual)sex is much more of an investment for ( women. Casual sex can saddle a person with a child, of course a woman is going to be more selective! Another one of those “DUH!” studies I guess

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    isn’t this a really old concept that we use to critique patriarchal methods of sex-as-exchange and yes-means-yes and the-purity-myth and not like ‘something new that we are talking about as if it happens in a vacuum’ what is wrong with this guy

    i am pretty sure we discussed this in terms like “it is a fallacy that we teach children in school that teenage boys are going to want sex and it is girls’ job to deny it, this really contributes to rape culture if we see sex as something that girls can give to men if they want, gosh, that’s so fucked up, it’s like we’re all seen as prostitutes and have no agency, i guess this also plays into a lot of gender performance expectations for ladies too, oh wow this is all connected isn’t it” in basically every class i had ever in college

    the fact that someone is researching and talking about this without taking any of that into account makes me want to shoot myself in the face repeatedly

    CAN YOU POST SOME KITTEN PHOTOS OR SOMETHING THE INTERNET HAS MADE ME REALLY DEPRESSED TODAY EVERYTHING HAS BEEN AWFUL

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    Yeah, and when studying women’s desire, how about we don’t have a study designed by some random neckbeard creepazoid who wants to go up to undergrads and ask them if they want to fuck? Because the answer is obviously gonna be “Get lost before I mace you.”

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        or maybe they are also just used to being sexually propositioned by strangers and creeps and feel sexually threatened on a very regular basis and are therefore way more likely to shut down when exactly that happens? WHAT A CONCEPT

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          UGH YES THIS.

          My psych professor explained this study to us in class last year as evidence for exactly this- “evolution sez men want teh sexz, women don’t” AND I RAGED.

          OBVIOUSLY IT COULDN’T BE THAT WOMEN ARE TOLD TO BE AFRAID OF RANDOM MEN WHO WILL ASSAULT/RAPE THEM.

          We watched a video where the basic experiment was carried out and filmed, and you could SEE the women become uncomfortable- they took a step backward from the propositioning man, in some cases with a frightened/worried look, crossed their arms over their chests, and pointed their shoulders inwards. I’m not a body language expert, but it was pretty fucking obvious.

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          yeah, seriously, it’s completely ridiculous. how this proves anything other than that “when you deliberately set up a situation illustrating very far-reaching socially ingrained stereotypes, those stereotypes continue to occur and self-perpetuate” i have absolutely no idea.

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          OMG THANK YOU FOR ALSO HAVING RAGE ABOUT THIS- so much more effort went into trying to prove harmful stereotypes in this study than went into TRYING TO DESIGN A NON-GENDER BIASED EXPERIMENT IN YOUR STUDY OF GENDERED BEHAVIOR. WTF?

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      If a random dude propositioned me for sex I’d be 1. concerned about my personal safety, and 2. suspect he’d be a bad lay anyway. A random woman propositioning a random man would seem like less of a physical threat, and more likely to provide a satisfying sexual experience. It’s not that I don’t like sex, it’s more that I don’t like some dude banging away at me like some sort of crazed hornet trying to sting me to death or fearing for my safety. I very much like sex with dudes, ladies, and others.

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      Uh yeah, random dude propositions me for sex on campus, I’m going to assume he’s a sex offender or will be in the future.
      Had they tried in a bar or a club, I’m sure the results would have been way different because it’s more common there for people to look for a hookup. It also depends a lot on the way they phrased it, like ‘would you have sex with me’ is just weird.

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      I feel almost positive there was a study done after the one mentioned here, where they took into account the danger to women (by reducing it greatly) and found that when women feel as safe as men they want to bone just as often. (If anyone can find this study, you win the internet.)

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          YES THANK YOU. In that second article they briefly mention that gay people were more likely to agree to the proposition — but there were no stats or mention of if ‘gay’ meant exclusively gay or otherwise queer or what.

          I’m also interested in that because honestly? All the femme-y looking chicks I’ve picked up in non-gay contexts? We had to be way too forward about it — usually mediated by alcohol oops! — because I mean, when you out yourself to someone you are attracted to at random you’re basically just asking them if they want to come home with you at some point in the future. So talking about this sex drive and propositions thing becomes way more complicated when you take away all these assumptions about men talking to women and who wants what and so on, and I think all of us can attest to the fact that when you’re JUST A LONELY SAD QUEER TEENAGER TRYING TO GET LAID there are not a whole lot of ‘rules’ that make sense or ‘obvious examples all around you for you to follow’ or ‘a large pool of people who might be interested’ and you know, that messes with things.

          The first girl I ever slept with in college like basically came up to me (okay, a little drunk) and was all OMG I SEE YOU AROUND ALL THE TIME I THINK YOU’RE REALLY CUTE DO YOU WANT TO COME UPSTAIRS WITH ME because really? not easy to be subtle about that, especially at 19, and I think we’ve ALL gone home with some lady we weren’t totally into because we were 19 and just way psyched that a lady at ALL had just propositioned us. So in the non-heterosexual community how is that sort of receptiveness to propositions/casual sex also related to the process of having to out yourself in a non-queer-coded situation and how much of it relies on body language and visual cues, etc? I WANT TO KNOW THESE THINGS TOO

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    Yes Means Yes (the blog, not the book) had a SUPER fascinating post refuting the Sexual Strategies Theory explanation for that campus study on casual sex. Very long, kinda academic, SO SO SO satisfying for anyone fed up with SST and other such attempts at making misogyny and oppression seem natural:

    Part 1:
    http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/gender-differences-and-casual-sex-the-new-research/

    AND A BONUS ROUND, Part 2:
    http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/conleys-casual-sex-research-sexual-strategies-theory/

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    Ok,here goes. I know I’m going to get pummeled, but…TESTOSTERONE. Have you all heard of it? Sure, women have some T but men have way WAY more. Those researchers may be part of the patriarchy, but I don’t think anyone is saying women have NO sex drive. Of course they do. Can’t the drives just be different? I’ve been a “lez” for 20 years, and I have to say the number of “sex clubs” out there (especially that last) are pathetic. Sure, many of us like an occasional casual fling, but there is no equivalent of glory holes or manhunt.com as far as I know. Are there sociological reasons for this? I’m sure there are plenty, but to deny that physiology plays some role as well is unreasonable. Please ask someone who has just started injecting himself with a bolus of T if their sex drive has changed (even before their bodies change!). Or if you don’t know any transmen, read about it. God knows, there are plenty of memoirs out there.

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      i think the problem here is that it’s very difficult to convey the nuances of nature vs nurture in these studies and people tend to use the ‘dudes have testosterone’ argument as this be-all-end-all of ‘BUT THEY CAN’T HELP THEMSELVES’ and ‘LADIES NEVER WANT IT’ which are obviously not true. science plays a role, yes, but it’s not ultimate truth — and saying it is ends up reinforcing a lot of really problematic socially created stereotypes. if people end up aggressively talking about the sociology of it instead, i think that’s in response to the aggressive crowds crying to the high heavens about BUT THE HORMONES! THE MEN! THEY CAN’T HELP IT! we don’t mention the hormones because everyone else did and we’re trying to shout back at them that just because there IS scientific biological ‘difference between the sexes’ that doesn’t explain ANYTHING conclusively about gender or sex drive or sexuality or anything. science is not the answer — and the number of times i’ve read studies about ‘sex’ and ‘hormones’ that made correlation into causation because it was ‘science’ so it MUST be true drives me nuts.

      there’s also the issue of generalization here — like me, for example, who is the femme-iest looking thing to walk the planet but also has ‘hormone imbalances’ (due to PCOS, meaning high testosterone, like to the point where doctors are like ‘what’ when they get my bloodwork back and some idiot doctor put me on birth control just to ‘regulate my hormones’ for years until i was like ‘hey, fuck you, no.’) Which apparently may be responsible for a higher than average sex drive along with me being tall and having a lower voice or whatthefuckever. but the other stereotypes of testosterone — being ‘boyish’ or ‘aggressive’ — don’t apply at all, and my whole live i’ve been girly and slow to anger.

      so what gives? am i just a lady with a high sex drive and a super girly, even temper? am i a testosterone fueled sex monster? am i more or less of a lady because of this? what about trans men who aren’t on T, are they ‘less’ men? the problem with talking about hormones is that we tend to mention them and automatically everyone runs away with this SCIENTIFIC PROOF that they trump socialization which i don’t think is the case at all. i know you’re arguing for balance — but i think we are, too.

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        I hear what you’re saying. I agree that we are both arguing for balance. But I think I hear more about balance from science colleagues (whom I DON’T often relate to in many ways) than I do in forums like this. Maybe part of the problem is how the MSM and larger public translate some of those studies, which is over-simplified and often deceptive (We are related to rats and voles, like it or not, but that doesn’t mean everything that is true about them is true about us). I hope there still is a place for geeks like me in forums like this.
        I don’t think transmen who aren’t on T are less men, but they might think about sex less often than those that are on T. I don’t think that means that men can do whatever they want just because they have higher T levels.
        As far as your PCOS goes, you are, of course, more than your hormone levels. Socialization, your diet, your SES, your stress background, your parent’s stress levels, (yes) your genes, and probably more play a role. But I also don’t think that the possibility that PCOS might be related to your higher than average sex drive, lower voice or even super girliness (there are a lot of men who are very girly and they have average male T levels) is such a horrible thought, unless they really bothered you. And good for you, for putting your foot down with your doctor. You should absolutely be the one that decides what your hormone levels are.
        Ok, I’ve veered this conversation off course enough. Thanks for reading!

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      I’m wary of that argument only because it fails to acknowledge how much gender (the social construct) influences how we interpret data w/r/t testosterone. Science might be absolutely right by any measure that T increases the frequency of sexual urges, but our culture defines a sex drive by how often we spontaneously want sex. That is, it defines sex drive based on male desire, so in the scientific realm, men will always appear to have a greater sex drive.

      What folks are implying here with the discussion of that 1989 study is that “sex drive” should be more broadly defined. The 2011 study (cited above by maddie0 and Alo) suggests that women need have to certain needs met before they’ll think about sexy times (safety, for example). Men don’t seem to have the same need for safety, so we assume that means that men just want sex more than women do because they won’t let something like safety get in the way.

      But if we’re going to work within the hormone argument, then we can also note that T also correlates with greater risk taking. That means we could also argue that women may want sex just as much as the men do, but the men aren’t as worried about safety. Say the women’s desire for sex is 8 on a scale of 1-10, and the men’s desire is also 8, but her need for safety is a 9 while his need is only a 6. Same sex drive, but safety wins for the women, loses for the man. The man accepts the random proposal for sex, the woman doesn’t.

      The 1989 study didn’t entertain that as a possibility, though, because we define sex drive as an unconditional wanting of sex. If you put a condition on it, as women generally seem to, then we define it as less of a sex drive, even though we might want it just as much as men. Said another way, it assumes that the man’s 6 desire for safety is the norm, so even though the woman’s desire for sex is an 8, just like the man’s, we take her 9 desire for safety compared to his to mean -3 desire for sex, so now her desire for sex is at 5, while his is still at 8. The 1989 study favored this interpretation over the other, even though the other is perfectly fine interpretation.

      Science marches to the beat of power. Our dominant gender paradigm dictates how we interpret scientific data w/r/t men and women (and even what we define as “data”), so the argument that T = sex drive is really much more complicated and much more tenuous than it appears.

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          For a second I thought this was directed at me! I have a cat in my picture too. But of course, this kind of talk never helps in the popularity department. This is why I rarely get to have sex…sigh.

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          No no no it’s not about you or the liking/not liking of you! This is about IDEAS!!1 I’m glad you brought up the hormone argument because I was surprised no one else did. It’s the generally accepted argument, so I think it’s important to engage it rather than ignore it.

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          I like you also and I like that handsome stormtrooper going for a Sunday drive in your picture, too.

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    Actually, according to evolutionary theory, women want sex as much as men (especially when they are, ahem, ovulating), they are just pickier, which sounds kind of like what you are suggesting (except for the ovulating part). Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

    Anyway, that there may have been other factors that influenced the results of the 1989 study is a valid criticism of that particular study, and all studies for that matter, whether they march to the beat of power or not. But would you say that the reason that there isn’t nearly as much sex with strangers among queer women (and I’m not saying there’s none!) than there is among men has to do with safety? And do you think that transmen all of a sudden having to masturbate a lot more or their heads will explode (so they say) has to do with increased risk taking? Do you think that they are just falling victim to the dominant gender paradigm? I am not on T so I don’t really know, but I would imagine that suggesting that he is just following some gender stereotype would make a transman feel like it makes me feel like when male scientists suggest that PMS is all in my head.

    Anyway, thank you for taking on my questions. I do believe in the spirit of the scientific method (where the experimenter is blind to the treatments so that there is no bias) and that we have gotten a lot of information from science we otherwise wouldn’t know, but I understand that culture influences what questions scientists ask. Having said that, there is a lot of evidence that T (and estrogen…you know, like when you’re ovulating) plays a role in sex drive, but the relationship is complex, and experience can play a huge role in how hormones work, even in experiments run by those evil patriarchal scientists.

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      Nope, you’re right, that is what I’m suggesting. And you said, in your original post, “Can’t the drives just be different?”, which is exactly my argument, but I disagree with the emphasis on hormones (biological determinism) because, again as you said, estrogen also plays a big role in sex drives–so why don’t we talk about estrogen when we talk about sex? Why do we primarily talk about T? (And why transmen but not transwomen?) Even men need some estrogen for their sexy urges to work, so why is that the less important hormone? I have a hard time not being suspicious of a discourse that so clearly favors an androcentric–and heterocentric and gender normative–paradigm.

      Science is an excellent tool nevertheless, but the overarching argument about sex drives really has to do with experience–not something science knows how to deal with completely (“safety” is, for example, is an incredibly socially contingent term, and so, I would argue, is “desire”). Does talking about hormones actually illuminate the complexities of sexual urges? To some extent, absolutely, but how far can we take the hormone argument before we’re talking about something totally different from the sexual urges we all experience under the influence of infinite social rules and habits?

      But I appreciate your bringing it up and engaging the issue with me. I think it’s just as important to keep looking toward science, as you seem to be, as it is to keep looking away from it, as I seem to be. Woo multiplicity!

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    Huh, so in essence; straight women have taken the power from men, and split it unequally all by themselves. [If you're a woman you now need an education and job more than ever, since you can't latch onto a guy and demand resources for sex; posh tarts have elbowed you out of the market by being educated, independent and are now taking advantage of it by being easy, thus cutting out the poorest section. It is just like economics!]
    If that applies to gay and lesbian couples you would guess that the trend, were you to look for one, would be from more committed relationships a few decades ago to less committed now. There was a small market and it was hard to find large numbers of like minded people so simply finding anyone was highly valued, but with it being more open and acceptable now [unless you're lucky enough to run into a daily mail...reader (?)] the market value of each individual has been devalued and so it becomes similar to the current straight situation; essentially, sex is easier to come by.

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