- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Think you haven’t heard of sexual economics? Listen to the pop culture.

“Money can’t buy me love,” crooned the Beatles. “My love don’t cost a thing,” pledged Jennifer Lopez. MTV artists got “money for nothing and the chicks for free,” groused Dire Straits.

Even Adele, in her current No. 1 hit, “Rolling in the Deep,” warns an ex-lover, “Go ahead and sell me out, and I’ll lay your ship bare.”

Evidence of sexual economics — a mashup of Adam Smith and Dr. Ruth that seeks to explain how the “sexual market” works — is everywhere, said University of Texas sociology professor Mark Regnerus.

“One of the biggest unacknowledged facts about sex is the underlying economy to it all,” he said. “When you look into it, it’s really amazing how it works. And it’s fairly elementary as well: We put a price tag on sex. You might not think we ought to do that, but we do. Sex, at one level, is an exchange. … Each person gives the other person something of themselves. But it is typically a different something.”

Mr. Regnerus and co-author Jeremy Uecker use sexual economics theory in their new data-driven book, “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying.”

Their conclusion is that, for young single Americans, modern rules of romantic engagement “clearly favor men” and penalize women who want to marry — especially those who want to save sex for marriage.

The price of sex today is “pretty low,” Mr. Regnerus said.

So what was the old “exchange rate” for sex, and how has it changed? Researchers have long recognized that male-female mating systems revolved around exchanges. Even in ancient times, men and women bonded because one could cook, sew, make a home and have babies, and the other could hunt prey and protect the woman and child, Evergreen State College historian Stephanie Coontz recounted in her 2005 book, “Marriage, a History.”

Exchange rates sometimes involved real money or property, in the form of dowries or bride prices, she noted.

Sociologist Linda Waite and syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher looked at another element of sexual economics in their 2000 book, “The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially.”

Married people, compared with adults in other situations, enjoy the highest household incomes, highest male earnings and highest net worth at retirement, Ms. Waite and Ms. Gallagher wrote.

The reasons for this prosperity include a real-but-unwritten “wage premium” that husbands frequently earn and the prodigious ability of wives to save and hunt for bargains, they wrote.

The birth-control pill rewrote rules about sex and mating, Mr. Regnerus said during a recent forum at the Heritage Foundation think tank. Before the birth-control pill, the sexual market was strongly linked to the “marriage market.”

A man who sought sex with a particular woman typically had to give her something of very high value in exchange — either marriage or at least a marriage proposal, he said. This is because female sexuality has high value to men, he said, citing the seminal paper on sexual economics by Florida State University sociologist Roy Baumeister and consumer psychologist Kathleen Vohs.

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