Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

Does a Woman’s Company Always Cost More Than a Man’s?

Behavioral economics meets bride price, dowry, and prostitution

In 2008, Eliot Spitzer was New York’s governor and former Attorney General.  He was also independently wealthy, rich enough to rack up over $80,000 in charges for “escort charges” at the Emporer’s Club VIP, whose website advertised “introductions of fashion models, pageant winners and exquisite students, graduates and women of successful careers (finance, art, media etc...) to gentlemen of exceptional standards.” 

How much escorting does 80 grand buy? Surprisingly little. The Emporer’s club website included a price list (in American dollars, British pounds, or Euros), with different scales for escorts ranked from 3 diamonds to 7 diamonds, depending on “the model’s character and the grace with which she handles public relations/interactions.”  For the company of a woman ranked 7 diamonds (presumably for having the most “character”), a fellow would have to shell out $3,100 for just one hour’s worth of escorting. If he wanted to enjoy her company for a 24-hour period, the bill would be $31,000 (more than enough to buy a fully equipped new Volvo C30).

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(photo shows one of the Emporer's Club "escorts") 

In a very different sector of the economic world, the Guardian reported that the going rate for a wife in Afghanistan was £2000 (about $3,140).  Although this might sound like chump change to one of the Emperor Club’s VIP customers, it is about 2 years income for a typical Afghan. And in sub-Saharan Africa, bride price often runs more than a year’s income for a man (and for his family, who typically kick in to help with expenses). After paying the bride-price, of course, there are more expenses. The man is expected to begin providing resources for the woman and her children for the rest of his life, making the net cost of the long-term contract higher than the single evening’s no-strings rental at the Emporer’s Club.

Why are men willing to pay so much for the company of a woman?

Siwan Anderson is an economist at the University of British Columbia who has studied bride price and dowry (payments made by the bride’s family at the time of marriage). She notes that bride price is much more prevalent across societies than is dowry (bride-price being found in two-thirds of societies in Murdock's (1967) World Ethnographic Atlas of 1167 pre-industrial societies, as compared to dowry, which is found in less than 4 percent of this sample.  Anderson notes further that bride price has generally been presumed to be, at least in part, a payment for a woman’s fertility.  Payment for a bride has historically been linked to virginity, with younger healthier brides bringing a higher price, and women who already have children often not bringing any bride price at all. 

In the language of evolutionary biology, the economics of bride price, and of prostitution, can be linked to “differential parental investment.”  In any mammalian species, humans included, males are exempt from paying the very high physiological price a female must pay for bearing a child (carrying an energetically hungry fetus for several months, then nursing it afterwards).  Because human babies are born especially helpless, with particularly high caloric needs for their large energy-hungry brains, and no capacity to feed themselves for several years, their survival increases dramatically if a male provides resources for the infant and the mother.  Before agreeing to bear and nurse any offspring, then, women, and their kin, often demand evidence that a potential suitor is willing, and able, to provide resources (in the form of bride price).  If the man is not willing not commit resources over the long haul, then women may demand a high one-time price. 

Besides the prevalence of bride price and prostitution, there is certainly plenty of other evidence that men are, compared with women, relatively more likely to treat sex as an opportunity rather than a cost.  In a study I conducted with Gary Groth, Melanie Trost, and Ed Sadalla, for example, students at Arizona State University and the University of Tulsa were asked to think about their minimum standards for a sexual partner, a marriage partner, or a dating partner.  For example, what is the minimum percentile in intelligence you would require before you’d consider having a one-night stand (assuming you’d be willing to do such a thing, and that no one would ever find out about it)?  College men and women had very similar standards for dates (at least above average intelligence), and for marriage partners (at least 65th percentile in smarts).  But for sexual partners, especially one-night stands, men and women parted company.  Women would not sleep with a guy unless he scored well above average in intelligence; a typical man was willing to have sex with a woman even if she was below average in intelligence, well shy of his professed standards for a date.  Numerous researchers in several different countries have replicated this tendency for men to be less picky about sexual partners.  

But what about dowry? 

The cost of bride price and prostitution highlight one part of the sex-differentiated economic equation: Women bear the children, which makes them selective in choosing partners; men will expend considerable energy and resources to gain access to women, moreso to the extent that the woman is young and fertile. Whether one frames this trading arrangement in terms of conventional economics or evolutionary economics, however, there is a phenomenon that poses something of a puzzle.  Although most of the world’s societies have had bride-price, a few have had the custom of dowry—a payment made by the bride’s family at the time of a wedding.

If women have all the reproductive resources, why would a female ever have to pay? To add to the puzzle, those societies with dowry, although much less numerous than those with only brideprice, are also the most successful and powerful. As Siwan Anderson notes: “In terms of population numbers, dowry has played a more significant role, because the convention of dowry has occurred mainly in Europe and Asia, where more than 70 percent of the world's population resides.” 

To complicate matters even further, a number of societies, such as China, have had both bride-price and dowry. During the 20th century, social scientists confronting such cultural variations would have been inclined to interpret them as evidence that there’s no such thing as human nature.  On that account, we humans are infinitely malleable, shaped by the arbitrary winds of history and culture.  But before you throw up your hands and embrace unconstrained cultural relativism, though, check out part 2, when I explore how bride price and dowry differ in ways that reveal some systematic linkages between human nature, culture, and ecology.  

Douglas Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity, are revolutionizing our view of human nature

Related blogs

The cost of a woman vs. the cost of a man, Part II: What do women pay for in a man?

The 7 worst things about being a male.  

References

Anderson, S. (2007).  The economics of dowry and brideprice. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 21, 151-174.

Kenrick, D.T., Sadalla, E.K., Groth, G., & Trost, M.R. (1990). Evolution, traits, and the stages of human courtship: Qualifying the parental investment model.  Journal of Personality, 58, 97-116. 

 

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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