Why could women in a Mozart opera from the 1790s (The Magic Flute) expect stable marriage versus the high divorce rates of American females in the 1970s? The reason is a relative scarcity of men, according to a new Discover article (1) by fellow blogger Robert Epstein. Such scientifically meaningful patterns strengthen sociology as a science.

Guttentag’s insight

This explanation was introduced by sociologist Marcia Guttentag and psychologist Paul Secord who argued that women’s power in intimate relationships increases with their scarcity (2). So if there is a scarcity of women, they get what they want – a husband who is fully committed to them and their children.  Guttentag was inspired by the observation that popular songs of the 1970s took a very different tone than those of The Magic Flute.  Instead of praising marriage, they emphasized romantic conflict and betrayal.  

Conversely, if there are too many women, their bargaining power declines. Men get what they want in the relationship, including sex without much commitment. Guttentag thus attributes the rise in premarital sexuality during the sixties to an excess of young women in the population relative to men three years older (whom they prefer as dates and husbands). This mismatch was an echo effect from the post World War II baby boom.

Facing a severe scarcity of appropriately-aged men, women were effectively locked in a sexual arms race with competitors. They accepted sexual intimacy without commitment in a manner that would have horrified their chaste grandmothers. Hence the arrival of the so-called sexual revolution of the sixties facilitated by effective contraception that virtually eliminated the risk of unwanted pregnancy

Sexual liberation is nothing new. Similar “revolutions” occurred in Chaucer’s England where males were subtracted from the population due to wars and plagues and in the ancient Greek city state of Sparta where male infants were slaughtered if they seemed unsuitable material for warriors (3). Women in these societies were sexually assertive. Chaucer suggests that the Wife of Bath’s sexual needs put her five husbands in the grave, for example.

The beauty of Marcia Guttentag’s insight is that it rescues sociology from the circular thinking of social trends causing themselves. Sexual liberation is a response to objective conditions. Anywhere there is a severe scarcity of men, women can be expected to compete over them by offering sexual intimacy without strings. Otherwise, if they are in demand themselves they will be more restrictive, possibly reserving sexual intercourse until after marriage.

This idea is simple enough. Yet, it has profound implications for sociology, and evolutionary psychology, and strengthens them as predictive sciences (4). Epstein's article develops the political implications. The same applies to evolutionary psychology.

The evolutionary background

So how can women pursue sexual gratification - much like men - in some societies and virtually shut down their sexual appetite in others?

Like other male animals, men are more eager to mate as highlighted by the sex industries of pornography and prostitution that cater principally to male customers. Biologists explain this in terms of the greater investment that females make in their offspring making them a resource over which males compete (3).

Being in demand as sexual partners, women may extract resources from men in return for sexual favors. For their part, women generally seek emotional commitment in a relationship that screens out prospective dads from shallow cads. Either feminine strategy secures masculine investment in her children.

Dads versus cads

One of the more remarkable discoveries about human sexuality is that both men and women adjust their mating efforts to what is available in their social environment. If college women perceive that there are plenty of ‘dads” around, they act demure and emphasize their sexual modesty according to research by anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan (3). Conversely, if they see campus males as a bunch of cads interested only in one thing, they dress provocatively and engage in casual sexual relationships with various partners.

College men also respond to the sexual tone of their campus. On a “dad” campus, they emphasize their own career potential and capacity for academic success. On a cad campus, they party hearty.

It must be obvious that the cad strategy prevails where there are more women. Being less in demand, women enter into the spirit of men’s penchant for recreational sex. On U.S. college campuses there are now only about 75 men per hundred women. So hooking up (some level of physical intimacy that lasts for just one night) has largely replaced dating (5). The sex ratio has spoken!

The fact that the same person may behave so differently in different settings is a fascinating insight into the complexity of human sexuality. It implies that our remote ancestors had sex lives as varied and interesting as our own.

1. Epstein, R. (2012, October). Sex and the society. Discover, pp. 56-58. 

2. Guttentag, M. & Secord, P. (1983). Too many women: The sex ratio question. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

3. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance: Secrets of the sexual brain. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

4. Barber, N. (2008). The myth of culture: Why we need a genuine natural science of societies. Newcastle, England: Cambridge Scholars.

5. Bogle, K. (2008). Hooking up: Sex dating and relationships on campus. New York: New York University Press.

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