As regular readers of my blog are aware, dating (mating) for humans is a competition. Men are competing with other men for the affection of available women, and women are competing with other women for advances from available men. The thing is, men and women are also competing. Dating and marriage/commitment are negotiated contracts, and can be viewed in terms of basic economics.
In short, women have things men want and vice versa. Generally speaking, we can say that two people get into a relationship when each agrees to give the other enough to be happy. The most successful relationships can be viewed as those in which each partner gives the other most or all of what they want out of a relationship and the least successful are those in which one person gives much more than the other, or neither gives enough for the other to be happy.
(For consistency, fluidity of writing, and brevity, I’m speaking of heterosexual relationships, but the exact same economics work in homosexual, bisexual, and polyamorous relationships.)
I wrote two lengthy articles about what men and women want in mates, respectively. Obviously, some people have additional wants, and some of these things are less important to some people and more to others, but in general, people across all cultures want essentially the same kinds of qualities in mates. The most desirable men and women are those who have most or all of these things in spades. The least desirable are those who have very few of them.
There are a couple of things that are difficult to change. Even with plastic surgery, gyms, makeup, and push-up bras, there’s only so much change a person can make to their physical appearance. There’s also the almost magical “chemistry” we feel when we’re around certain people. It’s not entirely understood by scientists, but there really are elements of straight up chemical attraction. We’re hot for certain people just by being in close proximity to them.
Many of the qualities we look for in mates are quite fluid, though. Men can get better jobs or more education. They can “upgrade” the social groups they hang out in. They can improve their interpersonal skills and social intelligence. They can work on “getting in touch with their emotions” more often. They can learn to communicate on an emotional level.
For women, it’s a bit trickier. Looks are important to women, to be sure, but most women will take an average looking guy with lots of friends, money, social status, intelligence, and business savvy over a poor, washed out gym rat. Looks are very important to men, though. Many men will take the vapid hottie over the frumpy overweight stock analyst. This is why, despite all the protests from feminists, women will always dress up for men, and men will always be perfectly happy in blue jeans and a t-shirt. Of course, men do tend to play in their own ballpark. What I mean is that very well educated men (high value) tend to like hanging out with well educated women, and men who hang out in redneck dive bars tend to like hanging out with redneck women. So women can certainly target a certain class of man by changing their social positioning, but within any peer group, the prettiest youngest women will always be the most desired.
Lying, either directly or indirectly, is a big part of the dating process. Men brag about their money, their success, their athletic prowess, and the size of their penis. (Although why they exaggerate that has always been a mystery to me. Why would they want to disappoint a woman right out of the gate?) Women tend to lie more indirectly. Makeup and pushup bras are a form of lie. (For this discussion, we shouldn’t think of lies in moralistic terms. No serious social scientist I know of would suggest that women shouldn’t try to look as pretty as they can if they want to.)
A big part of the dating world is determining what is a lie and what is true. Consciously and unconsciously, women test men’s claims. When a woman sees a man sporting a three thousand dollar watch, she’s going to also want to see the fifty thousand dollar car and the half a million dollar house. When a man sees a woman with a lot of makeup, a pushup bra, dark stockings, and several layers of potentially concealing clothes, he’s going to try to get her naked and clean-faced at some point.
The internet is abuzz with talk about “Game” and “Pick Up Artistry.” The biggest detractors of Game are people who think it’s about lying to get women in bed. And for some men, that’s exactly what it is. For others, it’s applied psychology. Some men take the principles of attraction and work on self-improvement. They’re literally trying to become a man who is more desirable to women. Which “Gamers” are just lying to get laid, and which really are confident alpha males with “good guy” traits? That’s the question women have to answer if they’re going to realistically evaluate a man.
Maybe it’s a stretch, but there are also women who pretend they have a bigger sexual appetite than they really do when they’re dating. We’ve all known someone whose sex life went down the drain after they got married.
In short, both men and women use various forms of deceit in order to make themselves look more valuable than they really are. Maybe things would be better if we didn’t do that sort of thing, but we do. It’s our natures, and there’s no getting around it.
Dating is negotiating. From the moment we approach or are approached by a potential suitor, we’re negotiating terms. When a man buys a drink for a woman at the bar, he’s offering her something of value in exchange for what he wants — time to talk with her and potentially attract her as a mate. When a woman kisses her first date goodnight and goes home when what she really wants is to jump his bones, she’s negotiating. She wants more than just a first date in exchange for sex. When she refuses to have sex until she’s married, she’s placing a very high price on sex.
As we move from casual friendship to casual dating to serious dating to long term commitment, we’re escalating both our demands and what we’re willing to give in exchange for what we want. Instead of meeting twice a week for a date, we want to spend five or six days together. Then we want to move in together. Instead of “guys night out” three times a week, it can only be once a week… or once a month. (I recently talked with someone who dated a girl who wouldn’t have anal sex — not because she didn’t want to try it, but because she wanted to “save something” for the man she would marry.)
In the dating world, there is probably no such thing as “absolute value,” but there are some things that are usually (or nearly always) more valuable than others. Beauty and youth are always valuable in women. Wealth and social power are always valuable in men. Sure, there’s the exception to the rule, but all things being equal, most women will marry the wealthier of two men. Most men will marry the more attractive of two women. (Again… all other things being equal.)
Social norms change the value of some things. I stumbled upon an interesting observation in casual conversation yesterday. I think the value of nudity for women has gone down, and I think the internet is to blame. When I was a pre-internet teenager, nudity was a pretty rare thing, and the girls knew it. I went to my fair share of parties, and I rarely saw the kind of nonchalant nudity that I see today. “Girls Gone Wild” has changed the value of naked breasts. The internet has changed the value of pretty much any display of sexuality.
The value of sex has also changed. With the wholesale changes we’ve seen in the dating market, most women cannot afford to hold out sex for too long or they risk losing their prospective mate to someone else. In other words, since there are plenty of women who will have sex within two to six dates, it’s unreasonable for most women to set their price at six months or a year. To put it another way, if a man has high enough value, there are plenty of high value women who price sex significantly lower than six months. Most men will take the lower offer, all things being equal.
Sex as a Commodity
A lot of people don’t want to think of sex as a commodity. But it is, and there’s no way to prevent it from being so. The exception doesn’t disprove the rule — men want sex. Usually, they want plenty of it, too. I’ve been talking to a lot of people over the last week while I’ve been thinking about this topic, and I’ve been really surprised at the number of men who’ve said they had broken up with a girl or would break up with her if she was either A) really bad in bed or B) had too low of a sex drive. Incidentally, several girls also confessed that they’d broken up with guys who didn’t cut it in the sack. Most commonly, women cited consistent premature ejaculation as a dealbreaker.
There are several ways in which sex is a bargaining chip for women:
- In the beginning: When a couple starts dating, the woman typically has a “price” for sex. For some women, it’s simply waiting until she feels an emotional connection with a guy. For others, it’s a set number of dates, or one especially expensive dinner.
- Casual dating: For many people today, sex does not equate to a committed relationship. In fact, many relationships form after two people have been “hook up buddies” for a while. Like it or not, when a man is choosing between multiple sexual partners, a woman’s availability, enthusiasm, and general skill figures into the equation. All things being equal, men will take a better lover with a higher sex drive over a worse lover with a lower sex drive
- Long Term Dating/Marriage: Let’s admit it. Many a married man looks forward to his birthday because that’s when he knows he’s going to get a particularly good lay, and maybe even a blow job or two during the day. Let’s also admit that sexless marriages very often lead to divorce or cheating. Sex is a way of maintaining and strengthening long term bonds. The healthiest relationships are those in which both partners realize that sex is to men as kisses, flowers, back rubs, and attentive listening are to women. The more you give it (even when it’s not your first preference) the better things will be.
Of course, women want sex too. I don’t want to turn this blog into an advice column, but when I’ve commented on other advice columns, I always stress that both men and women should work on being good at sex. It’s not something that just “comes naturally” to either sex. As I mentioned before, many women look at consistent premature ejaculation as a dealbreaker. Some men are oblivious to their partner’s needs in bed, and it shows in the relationship. I wish I could remember the exact quote (somebody help me!) but I think it was in a movie that someone said something like this: “Sex is like a Chinese buffet. Nobody leaves until everybody gets their cookies.” Men who understand this are more valuable to women than those who don’t.
Also, sex is much more than the old “in and out” for women. The men who are most sexually valuable to women are those who know how to create and maintain sexual tension throughout the day with little gestures, slight touches, sly glances, and other subtle sexual “references.” While men are most often turned on visually, women are turned on situationally. There’s a reason rock stars get laid all the time. Women are turned on by the power rock stars exude, and the control they have over the audience. Men who understand that sex for women is situational are more valuable than those who don’t.
But in the end, any discussion of sex as a commodity will focus more on women. Vaginas are more valuable than penises, and in virtually every relationship, it is the woman who trades sex to the man in exchange for something she wants, whether it’s money, a ring, a commitment, protection, love, or a promotion.
One of the unfortunate realities is that change happens in relationships. I remember a couple I used to know. Bob was an underachieving handyman and Joy was an obese receptionist. (Yes, I’ve changed the names.) For whatever reason, Joy got a surge of determination and spent the better part of two years in the gym. She read everything she could find on nutrition, changed her eating habits, and worked out. And worked out. And worked out. After dropping a hundred and fifty pounds, Joy was a very attractive woman, and she knew it.
During the same time, Bob had done nothing to improve his value. Within six months, Bob and Joy divorced, and Joy started dating an investment banker.
When Bob and Joy got married, they believed they had comparable value. Bob didn’t like working too hard, and knew (either consciously or unconsciously) that he probably wasn’t going to land a hottie. Likewise, Joy was aware that she was obese and wasn’t going to land a top tier man. They each “settled” for the other based on their perception of their own “buying power.” When Joy got a serious boost to her value, she quickly realized that she could upgrade, and so she did. (Poor Bob… I remember him telling me how lucky he was that he was married to a hottie. Social and emotional intelligence are very important, and he just didn’t have either.)
In both short and long term relationships, things change, both internally and externally. Sometimes things change for the better and sometimes for the worse. There’s a reason the wedding vows include the promise that they do. We wouldn’t be worried about that sort of thing if it didn’t happen an awful lot. It’s not for me to prescribe someone else’s morals with regard to this sort of thing, but regardless of what any person believes, changes in value do create imbalances, and everyone involved has to decide whether they’re ok with being in an unbalanced relationship or not. (It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that every relationship ending is a reaction to an imbalance.)
Is There a Moral to the Story?
So, can we learn something from this? Sure. In any dating relationship, both men and women would do well to ask some very pointed questions and look at the answers unflinchingly:
- What, precisely, do I want from this person?
- What, precisely, does this person want from me?
- Is what my partner wants comparable in value to what I want? In other words, is it a fair trade for me?
- Am I willing to give what my partner wants? Will I be happy giving it for the long term?
- Is my partner willing to give me what I want? Will he/she be happy giving it to me for the long term?
- Does my partner feel like it’s a fair trade?
- Are either of us experiencing a significant change in value? What does it mean for our trade?
It may not feel romantic or sexy to think of things this way, but it can save a lot of heartbreak at all stages. If my partner’s value is going up, I need to be savvy enough to figure out a way to keep up, or I risk losing her to an upgrade or making her resentful of giving more than she’s receiving. If my partner’s value is going down, I need to find a way to encourage her to bring it back up, or I will become bitter and resentful, or I will leave.
Also, by thinking of things in terms of value, we can think more critically about exactly what we want and whether we’re likely to get it from a specific person. I encourage all of my single friends (and myself as well) to avoid thinking of relationships in broad romantic terms and to focus in on two or three things that are very valuable — things I want from a romantic partner. By doing this, we avoid falling into the trap of trying to find someone who is “perfect for us,” and instead try to find someone who will give us specific things that we want most in life.
Finally, focusing on dating as value transactions keeps us away from the belief in love as something magical. Love is chemical and transient. We fall in love with certain people because they trigger powerful instinctive drives in us. Sometimes, our feelings match the reality of what we’re going to get, and other times they don’t. By focusing on the value exchange, we can avoid getting into those nasty relationships where we’re miserable but can’t stand the idea of leaving when there’s so much “chemistry,” or where we’re giving much more than we’re getting because we “love” somebody. When we look at ourselves and decide we’re giving too much, what we’re really saying is this: “I am placing too low a value on myself and what I contribute to a relationship.”
When we put it that way, it becomes a lot easier to think about changing the situation for the better.