The Price of Sex

My feminist staple, Jezebel, has a take on a study that was discussed on Salon about how the price of sex is decreasing. The Jezebel article is a personal take on it, arguing that all this marriage advice is pretty useless–just anxiety-producing.  Agreed.  I am pretty disturbed by this article, though, for its encouraging commoditization of sex, particularly for men.  Salon interviews the author of a study from the University of Texas at Austin, Mark Regnerus.  Regnerus explains that sex has become “cheaper” for men–he claims that because men will pay for sex, either with other men or women, but women won’t, that means it’s more “expensive” than sex that women look for.  Though this is a pretty logical conclusion economically, sex is a little different than other physical commodities, and thus, I would argue, should be treated differently (much like health care–though that’s another post).  Sex is not a zero sum game.  If I have sex with one person, it doesn’t mean I don’t necessarily want to have sex with someone else.  Even immediately after.  It’s not like if the first guy gets it, the second doesn’t.  They could BOTH get it.  Or neither.  Very different from an apple, which if I eat, is gone.  No one else can eat that apple.  So that’s the first fallacy to me.  Plus, I would argue that men don’t really pay for sex.  They pay for something else.  They pay for faux vulnerability.  The ability to be intimate with someone without having to mess with cultural norms, and without the possibility of pain.  I’ve heard it said that men pay not for sex, but for the woman to leave (hah, hah, right??!).  I’ve also heard that men pay not for sex, but to eschew any possibility of getting rejected.  I think there is something to be made of the fact that women can get whatever they’re looking for that includes sex for free, while men are willing to pay for it.  Though I also might argue that a lot of times, both men and women are confused about what they want–thinking they want more or less from the context of sex than they really do.  But that is cultural.

So I have a problem with the main crux of the claim that sex is something that can be understood as a marketplace like any other good or commodity.  But let’s work with that.  Let’s say that it is.  Regnerus continues to explain how the sex market works by pointing out that “theoretically, if sex is valuable to her then she’s not going to trade it away to just some crummy man.”  Which may be true theoretically.  But what if sex isn’t valuable to her? What if she enjoys it, and it is something she freely gives?  What then??  Regnerus also explains that “we report that 35 percent of men’s relationships are reported to have become sexual within two weeks; and 48 percent become sexual within a month. That gives you an indication that it doesn’t take long for men to access sex, so it must not be all that valuable, right? That’s how we get an indirect sense of the price of sex.”  HOLD UP!  If you don’t wait for longer into the relationship to have sex, it is less valuable??  Here’s where I start to get really pissed.  Why would you WAIT to do something that is a)not disappearing and b)NOT valuable?  If I had access to an infinite supply of, hm, let’s say, delicious chocolate cake that would not make me fat, WHY would I let it sit on my counter for 3 months, or a year or two ([until I’d had a chance to marry it and make sure only I could eat it, right?? ;-)] to have a piece?  What world does this make sense in?

Oh, right.  One where women have “sex” to “give” to men.

But then, Regnerus continues on to explain if “sex was the highest possible cost. You’d see women never having sex with anyone until a man commits to marry her — that’s the most expensive thing you can charge.”  And here’s where he begins to limit the role of men.  Why is marriage always about trapping a man?  Men benefit more physically, emotionally, and more recently, financially (which the article mentions–it begins by pointing out that women have a smaller pool of “eligible” men from which to draw because more women than men and now attaining higher levels of education).  Why is there this myth that women somehow need to get married? I suppose you could argue that they actually are so harmed by marriage (again–physical health, emotional health, and financially) that we must convince them that they will be better off if they’re legally partnered, but ugh.  I’m so stuck on this–“[marriage is] the most expensive thing you can charge” for sex.  As if marriage somehow benefits women.  HOW does marriage protect you?  What benefit is conveyed by marriage that it warrants being some huge payment for the sex that women evidently don’t want to just give away?

Regnerus also seems to think that slut-shaming is the way to “increase” the price of sex–he claims that “it used to be women would shame each other for selling low.”  Maybe if sex were something to auction off.  I suppose this whole argument assumes monogamy.  And Regnerus points out that women are competing for men and that they do that through “offering” “inexpensive” sex as undergrads.  Ugh.  This reminds me of the article in the NY Times about the shortage of men, which specifically mentions the University of North Carolina, where I went to college.  The argument there is essentially the same, if a hasty generalization as opposed to a ridiculous conclusion from research.  One young woman explains that many of her friends “meet someone and go home for the night and just hope for the best the next morning, ” which begs the question–the best? What is the best? Why must the best mean that you have some sort of a relationship? He’s probably a douche-bag.  The young woman further explains that “Girls feel pressured to do more than they’re comfortable with, to lock it down,” which is utterly disturbing.  I think this is a great qualitative example of how this whole thinking is a self-feeding cycle.

The more women’s attitudes tend toward “giving” sex away instead of making a decision about whether to have sex or not based upon whether they WANT to or not, the more men are able to treat sex with women as commodities.  It isn’t about making sex more expensive.   It’s about looking at sex as a shared experience, instead of an exchange of something tangibly valuable.  It’s about fostering an attitude toward relationships that recognizes them as something that can, of course, be fantastic and worthwhile but stops short of placing them on a pedestal that is unattainable and extremely unrealistic.  Many relationships fail.  Just because you locked some dude down doesn’t mean he’ll stay down.  And why must we promote this idea that men have to be locked down anyway?  Can’t they choose to be in a relationship of their own volition?

Yet, Regnerus offers some advice for women.  He says that “giving it away early gives a great deal of power to him,” so women should restrict sex until later in the relationship.  I’m sure you can guess what I’m going to say.  I have a problem just with the language he uses.  GIVE it away?? Still stuck on this commoditization.  And Regnerus goes on to undermine his own argument, admitting he doesn’t know how much “bargaining power” an individual women has (evidently, we all have to be on board for this restriction of sex for it to “work”).  Women could definitely get “underbid” by their slutty neighbors, or that round-heeled woman at the end of the bar.

What is most disturbing to me is the underlying (and sometimes not so underlying) message that “women…are paying a social price for success,” as the NY Times article states.  The Salon article says this in its own way.  The message, though, is that maybe this success in other areas of life–career especially–isn’t (or shouldn’t) be worth giving up “success” in relationships to women.  The problem to me is that if you just look at sex a little differently, if you just take a relationship off the table as some prize, or something to be exchanged for sex, it changes the picture immensely.  But that requires seeing women as willing participants in sex.  It’s kind of amazing to me that this thinking is as radical as it is.  If you think about it, the reverse implication of this is exactly what Andrea Dworkin argues in Intercourse–that all heterosexual sex is, at some level, rape.  And it’s amazing that while Dworkin is pretty out there, her characterization of heterosexual sex as rape actually is the foundation of the argument that sex is a commodity.  Who would’ve thought?

The interview ends with Regnerus’ explanation that “this is not about getting sex. Women can get sex whenever they want. Post it on Craigslist and you can have it within the hour. This is about getting commitments,” which pretty much sums it up.  Maybe “women are not as successful in relationships as perhaps they once were,” but who defines success?  The sociology research community studying relationships has some work to do, in my opinion.  Regnerus claims he is using a theory that social psychologists have come up with (the one that I am so fond of, that sex is a commodity?).  Herein lies the problem.  There is an entire field of people who are doing research, using interviews with people, to supposedly prove that this market is real.  But I think we also must examine the anthropological aspects of these issues.  What are the reasons women allegedly are so desiring of relationships and commitment? Part of me cannot believe that there is this entire article, and an entire BOOK that Regnerus wrote with his research partner (“Premarital Sex in America,” if you’re interested), and the question is about this marketplace philosophy that never examines the impetus for placing commitment and marriage on such a high pedestal.  I also just really hate the position the commoditization of sex puts men in.  They become takers and wanters of sex, instead of people.  Sex can be a beautiful, fun, pleasurable thing–whether with someone you care deeply about for a lifetime or an evening, or someone you don’t really give a rat’s ass about.  But that’s when it is sharing, not just some kind of exchange.

On a more personal note (and I apologize, this is getting mammoth), I really do want a relationship.  Commitment is important to me, at least to a degree of sharing a life with someone.  However, sexual monogamy is not, to my mind, essential.  I have no idea what my overall relationships will look like.  But I think we need to re-examine a lot of our ideas about what commitment means.  So many marriages are broken up by infidelity when they don’t really have to be.  And while I have some concerns from a public health perspective in regards to sexually transmitted infections, condoms are really very effective (as much as the abstinence only team would like you *not* to believe that).  I think our marriages would be more stable (isn’t that what these people want??!) and our people much more satisfied if we could drop our guard a bit about monogamy.  For more on that, I will not hesitate in recommending Sex At Dawn, by Christopher Ryan, PhD and Cacilda Jetha, MD.  It is one of the most amazing books I have ever read.  Hands down.  Also hilarious. Though non-monogamy is not for everyone, and I’m not sure even if it for me, I think the only way we can get out of a patriarchal culture is by de-commoditizing sex, which can only be done if it is more free.