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Sexual Economics and Young Adults

Hope the headline grabbed your attention!  But we’re not going to pull a National Enquirer  bait-and-switch.  Sexual economics and a companion term—erotic capital—are subjects of serious study by academics.  Both are frequent topics of conversation by Gen Y although they use  more colloquial language like “hooking up.”

I overheard a conversation last week among several post-college 20-something women about how they were ready to move beyond casual sex into more committed relationships.  But they were unsure of the rules—if any—of this stage of  the relationship game.   To use another academic term, the “script” that was followed by previous generations–dating, courtship, career, marriage, and children–is under revision, leaving Gen Y to make it up as they go.

Their conversation echoes several recent articles and books about the reluctance of many Gen Y men to commit to serious relationships and the resulting impact on educated, successful young women, who now outnumber  men both in college and in earnings in some fields.

So what roles do sexual economics and erotic capital play in this new, vague script?  A definition of terms is provided by Mark Regnerus, co-author of a new book, “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying.”  Writing in Slate, he explains sexual economics:

“… as social psychologists have repeatedly shown, on average, men want sex more than women do. Call it sexist, call it whatever you want—the evidence shows it’s true…yet despite the fact that women are holding the sexual purse strings, they aren’t asking for much in return these days—the market “price” of sex is currently very low.

And erotic capital?

“Women’s “erotic capital,”…can still be traded for attention, a job, perhaps a boyfriend, and certainly all the sex she wants, but it can’t assure her love and lifelong commitment. Not in this market. It’s no surprise that the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who are married has shrunk by an average of 1 percent each year this past decade.”

The result, says Prof. Regnerus, is that men often control relationships from one-night-stands to living together,  and are reluctant to commit to long-term relationships, or horrors, marriage.

In an effort to help parents try to understand this behavior (and avoid asking too many prying questions of  adult children), we tracked down Prof. Regnerus to Austin where he teaches at the University of Texas.  An enthusiastic explainer of his research, he admitted that some of ideas send people “screaming.”

Q. You wrote in your book that the “hookup” culture allows men to have sex without commitment and that in turn decreases women’s chances of finding partners when they are ready for marriage.  What’s been the reaction to your book?

A. Some of my ideas are frustrating to people, especially to women. There are real gender differences that people don’t want to talk about.  The post-pill era has been a mixed blessing for women.  They have lost control over the timing of sex and serious relationships.   I hear from young women “I love sex” and “I want to be successful on my own.”  But I also hear that they want commitment and don’t want to wait until age 35 for it.

Q. Do young women want to get married but find that age can be an issue?

A. About 90 percent of women still say they want to get married but they often think they can push it to their upper 20s or even 30s before looking for a serious commitment. But then you’re 30 and all of a sudden you have radically raised the price of sex. Yet you’re surrounded by all those younger women not ready for commitment and they become your mortal enemies.

Q. Does  women’s “erotic capital” diminish over time while men get still find marriage partners when they are finally ready?

A. Even with erotic capital attractive women become more hard pressed to extract marriage from men if other women are willing to have casual sex. Another factor is age range.  Since men can’t get pregnant and women can, women’s timetable is a lot more fixed unless they don’t want children.  When it comes to marriage most women look for partners in their own age range and up while men are willing to go 10 years and more younger.

Q. From your research you found that many Gen Y want to have difference experiences before “settling down.”

A. The majority of young adults in America not only think they should explore different relationships, they believe it may be foolish and wrong not to. Instead, they place value upon flexibility, autonomy, change and the potential for upgrading. Many emerging adults–especially men–conduct their relationships with a nagging sense that there may still be someone better out there.

Q. You also found that the very idea of marriage carries all sorts of negative connotations.

A. “Settling down” is something people do when it’s time to stop having fun and get serious–when it’s time to get married and have children, two ideas that occur together in the emerging-adult mind. A distinctive fissure exists in the minds of young Americans between the carefree single life and the married life of economic pressures and family responsibilities. The one is sexy, the other is sexless. In the minds of many, sex is for the young and single, while marriage is for the old. Marriage is quaint, adorable.

Q .You’re a proponent of young marriage, in people’s early to mid twenties. Why is that?

A. By your thirties you have learned how to be independent and many people have grown to like that and find it hard to change.  But marriage is always an adjustment and some adjustments are easier to make when you’re a bit more malleable.  Being ready for marriage is a balance between maturity and malleability. While maturity increases with age, malleability decreases with age.

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