Being right always puts a spring in my step, ha. A new study out of Duke and Boston College states uncategorically that high school boys want sex, high school girls want relationships, and that equilibrium is reached according to classic economic principles. That’s simplistic, even kind of a no-brainer, but it’s pretty much the entire premise of this blog, and I catch a lot of grief for that, so I welcome the scientific evidence.
The study, Terms of Endearment, looked at the dating behaviors of high school kids using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). What’s unique about this study is that rather than looking at established couples and determining what they have in common, which is the common approach, they used a two-sided matching model.
They looked at what people said they wanted, and then looked at what they actually chose.
This is important, because much of the available data today comes from online dating sites, and focuses on preferences, or what people say they want. These researchers studied real pairings instead, between boys and girls attending the same school. What they found is that “scarcity determines value” and that dating is a marketplace that adheres to economic tenets.
Both women and men in the sample chose partners based on three things:
- the terms of the relationship
- the type of partner
- the probability of matching (pairing)
“Searchers face a trade-off between having a low probability of matching under their preferred relationship terms and a higher probability of matching under less-preferred terms. …As the gender ratio becomes more unfavorable, the individual becomes more likely to sacrifice relationship terms for a higher match probability.”
In other words, if there are a lot more men than women, they are more likely to settle or compromise in order to get what they want. The same is true for women. This has a very large effect because the preferences of men and women differ considerably. The majority makes the rules for the local SMP.
“We find that 37% of women and 63% of men would prefer to be in a sexual, as opposed to a nonsexual, relationship. More importantly, these estimates imply that matching concerns lead some women to have sex, not because they prefer this, but because they were willing to trade off relationship terms for a higher probability of matching. With differing preferences across men and women, observed changes in sexual behavior may then indicate transfers in welfare from one gender to the other.”
Interestingly, about 85% of both young men and women preferred to be in a relationship. Only about 25% of the students actually were in a relationship, suggesting “search frictions,” according to the authors. Half of the relationships were sexual. This suggests ”the possibility that women may be sacrificing what they want in order to form relationships.”
“Whether sacrifices over the terms of the relationship are made may in part be dictated by the characteristics of the partner. Individuals may be willing to take more undesirable relationship terms when the partner is more desirable. [The] results point towards younger women and older men being more desirable and hence they may have more control over the terms of the relationship.”
Not surprisingly, overall women are having more sex than they would like, and men are having less sex than they would like. Senior girls in relationships show the greatest discrepancy: 72% are having sex, compared with 55% who would like to be having sex. Only 33% of freshmen girls are having sex, compared with a comparable 29% that want it. Conversely, 64% of senior guys in relationships are having sex, fairly close to the 74% that want it. And freshmen guys are out of luck, as usual: 53% want it, 38% get it.
What this means is that older men and younger women are able to have relationships closely aligned with their preferences, while older women and younger men are forced to compromise in order to make a successful match. When men, especially older men, are in short supply, women must compromise considerably. This is the situation in American colleges today. The study highlights a statement from a UNC coed in last spring’s New York Times article about the 60F/40M ratio on campus:
With respect to men cheating, “That’s a thing that girls let slide, because you have to. … If you don’t let it slide, you don’t have a boyfriend.
“When gender ratios tilt such that men become a minority—as is the case on many college campuses—women are more likely to engage in sex conditional on forming a relationship, sacrificing their preferred relationship terms for a higher probability of matching.”
Key Implications for the SMP
I. Continued skewed gender ratios in college mean continued compromise for women.
“Our results suggest these changes in the gender ratio should translate into a higher fraction of relationships involving sex on campus and, later in life, women marrying “down” in order to marry. Indeed, Rose (2003) found that for recent cohorts of highly educated women a decline in hypergamy [marrying up] allowed the marriage market to absorb the increased number of educated women.“
Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of women married to men with more education than themselves went from 38% to 31%. Highly educated women continued to marry at the same rate. The decline in marriage rates is occurring almost entirely in the population with low education.
II. Continued loss of sense of well-being among women is likely to continue.
“Stevenson and Wolfers (2009) found that despite the enormous objective gains of women over the last 35 years (education, wages, income, etc.), subjective self-reported measures of well-being indicate that women’s wellbeing has declined both relative to men’s as well as absolutely.”
Compromising on the timing of sexual relationships early, and on the education level of a life partner later, may be causing lower degrees of satisfaction among women. How this will affect marriage (and divorce) remains to be seen.
Key Political Implications
Linda Perlstein, a journalist and education writer, had this to say about the study results:
While submersed in years of middle school research, I kept hearing how girls had gained so much power. If that was true, why was I watching them abase themselves to impress boys every day? Yes, they spoke up more. They were sassy. But an awfully large number let boys grind into them at dances even when it made them uncomfortable and cared more than anything what boys thought of them. To me, that wasn’t power at all.
We may have made girls louder and sassier in the classroom, but they still submit to guys behind the bleachers.
II. Sex-positive feminism continues its steady decline.
Anna North at Jezebel pretended to write about this study, but did her usual bait and switch routine in an effort to deny, deny, deny what is by now more than obvious. In her piece Why High School Dating Sucks she says:
The people most screwed (as it were) by this system are senior girls, who have the greatest “skew between stated sexual preferences and actual sexual activity” (they apparently feel they have to have sex in order to have a relationship), and freshman boys (as stereotype and Superbad say, they’d rather be boning more). This is all pretty sad, as is any study that shows people having sex when they don’t want it, and anything that seeks to explain human relationships in terms of “markets.”
Sex pozzies can run, but they can’t hide from science.
Key Personal Implications
A reader recently asked in the Comments section why sluts get boyfriends if guys value a low number. It has to do with a guy’s objectives at a given point in time. A young man wanting to have sex in college will be in a relationship if that’s what it takes. He’ll want the sex to happen early and often, and he may enjoy a bit on the side as well. A man looking for a life partner has a different set of criteria, but in that as well, scarcity determines value. Then the woman with a low number becomes the prize.