Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Cheap Sex as a Collective Action Failure

I had Laura Sessions Step, author of UNHOOKED, in at Duke to give a talk a few years ago.  Her question, simplifying a bit, is why do young women make themselves so available, unmarried, to young men in hopes of making themselves, the young women happy?  (This clearly makes the young men happy, but that's beside the point).

Pileus has a simpler and cleaner explanation.

This downward spiral that women have been caught in—the dwindling supply of available men induces women to make themselves even more sexually available than the next women in order to compete, thereby further dampening the supply of potential mates—seems impossible to break out of. At the heart of the problem is a classic, Olsonian collective action failure. All women would benefit if, collectively, women were to require more of men they had sex with. But every woman knows that her behavior, by itself, will not cause market prices to change, so she cheats—and by “cheats” I mean she cheats the female collective. The problem with this free riding behavior is that everyone faces the same incentives and there is not an effective punishment for cheating. The result: men get more sex and women can’t find mates. Such are the fruits of feminism.
Maybe the old (some would say sexist) adage that “good girls don’t” had something going for it after all.


SB7 said...

I think Pileus nails it, but don't forget three other (non mutually exclusive) possibilities: (1) more sex makes young women happy, (2) young women think more sex will make them happy, and (3) young women have the wrong discount rate.

The collective action explanation presumes women know they would all be better off if they all kept their pants on. I think many women would disagree. They don't see promiscuity as lowering the price they are "charging" men, but as a benefit to themselves.

Finally, you're the first person who opinion I respect and value who seems to value Laura Sessions Stepp. I'd love to hear more about why you invited her and what she talked about.

In my younger days I did have the (perhaps dubious?) honor of knowing 9 of the 10 girls she quoted for a Washington Post piece on high school girls hooking up outside of relationships.

Mungowitz said...

I had her in because several young women suggested it. She (Laura) had written about Duke, after all.

It's not clear to me that women DO enjoy casual sex, at least not in the same way as men. The obligation to separate sex from feelings is really difficult for women to parse. It is one thing to have casual sex to be rebellious, but quite another to do it because the culture somehow says that women, to be free, have to act like men. That's not choice, it's coercion.

LowcountryJoe said...

Am I juvenile for finding the 'free riding behavior' line funny?

Anonymous said...

Call me a spoil-sport, but...

...this describes a failure of collective action in exactly the same way in which a competitive market describes a failure of collective action. If such absence of market power isn't news when it comes to "regular" competitive markets, why is it news here?

akon said...

Anonymous -

If the good is sex, i think you're right. Competition is making more available for cheaper (let's forget about quality concerns).

If the good is marriage or lasting relationships or long-term happiness through commitment, this looks like a prisoner's dilemma.

Anonymous said...

I think Pileus is dead on. I am dubious that young women like the current dynamic very much and I think there are some ways to enforce group norms, which are:

1) Class
2) Religion

You'll notice that both are operating successfully to limit the sexual marketplace in certain segments of society. The question is whether these norms can expand their reach.

I'll be a bit more specific on #1: Upper class white females in the US tend to be much less promiscuous than the appalling behavior in lower-income socioeconomic groups. (I don't want to make this a racial post, but just to illustrate what is going on, something like 50% of urban African-American women have genital herpes and almost 60% have children by different men.) But there is a reluctance to play the social class card (sleeping around is what low-class women do) in contemporary America, which I attribute to the idealization of "tolerance" (quotes are meant to be "scare" quotes, but to emphasize the complexity of the concept at play here). So one collective action initiative would be the increase of class-based criticism of female promiscuity.

I know some of the concepts in my post are vague so criticize away. I welcome the opportunity to sharpen my thinking. But the assumption that collective action problems are insoluble doesn't wash.

Grover Cleveland said...

Hi Mike,

Appreciate your link to Pileus. However, I'm curious about your take on coercion above in the comments. Us "statist" libertarians (meaning non-anarchists) would argue that the government should step in to stop or punish coercion. Indeed, this is the primary role of government. Are you suggesting that then that the government should stop people from helping women think they should be like men (since you argue that this is coercive)? Or am I misreading you here (or wrongly assuming you think the state should prevent all coercion since you define it quite broadly)?


Anonymous said...

And the Nash Equilibrium in this non-cooperative game is .... ?

Harry David said...

In *Lysistrata*, the play, the collective action problem is assumed to have been solved. Women form a pact to withhold sex. Men get access again when they pay the price: ending the war. It's a bit of a different problem than the collective action problem in this thread: the women aren't seeking to gain committed relationships but are instead seeking a political commitment to end the war.

I'm too lazy to think through what the parallel explanations in the Greek case would be. Culture changed such that the women increased their demand for a pact? ... might be the alternative explanation.

Gene Callahan said...

"(This clearly makes the young men happy, but that's beside the point)."

So, whatever one does that causes immediate gratification makes one happy?

So much for 10,000 years of human meditation on happiness.