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Last December, television talk-show host Meredith Vieira invited relationship expert Siggy Flicker onto her show as part of her "Ultimate Relationship Gift Guide," to help her female audience answer the big holiday question, "What do I get him?" "It should be about 'from the heart' and it should be a thoughtful thing," Siggy said right off the bat. So, what was the recommended from-the-heart, thoughtful thing for the relationship of a few weeks to three months in? "You're starting to get to know each other. . . . I always say, lingerie, pajamas—or, I love Hanky Panky underwear," she said, holding up a pair of black and red g-string panties.
"But wait," Meredith feigned objection, "that's a suggestive thing, isn't it?"
"Ya know, in the beginning of a relationship, what are you doing a lot of?" Siggy shot back, still holding up the panties. "You're getting to know each other!" she semi-barked in a New Jersey beat. Like, Who hasn't gotten the memo that morals are just, so . . . passé?
Isn't it strange that something as intimate and private as sex has become, at least in the eyes of some, the fulcrum around which all relational life seems to turn? Or not turn. Take reactions to Lolo Jones for example, the rags-to-riches track and field star whose intention to save sex for marriage drew more coverage than her athletic success. "Lolo Jones should've had sex before that race," was one of the tamer digs fired her way, "because #SexisforWinners."
Sex may well be for winners, but before making a definitive statement out of that, the smart single would do well to figure out which game she (or he) is trying to win.
The Economics of Sex
The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, a research group specializing in family, sexuality, and social structures, took a rigorous look at today's romantic landscape, and condensed what they found into a brilliant, ten-minute video titled, "The Economics of Sex." It looks at sex as an exchange that goes something like this: Historically, the woman has been the gatekeeper for sex in a relationship. Will the man have to pay her a few compliments to get sex? Or take her on a certain number of dates? Or will he have to pay the premium—a lifetime commitment of all he is and has? She sets the price.
But the rise of feminism and contraceptive use upset that market equilibrium. It lowered the cost of sex by reducing the likelihood of pregnancy, and gradually the supply of women settling for sex at a reduced rate increased. Men in turn, taking the path of least resistance, went in droves for low-cost sex, rather than paying the premium. This split the mating market into two sub-markets: one where people go for sex, and another where people seek marriage. The former is more male-heavy, while the latter leans female.
This split market altered the woman's gatekeeping function. It became easier for her to secure a mate in the short term, because men looking for sex outnumber available women. But the reverse is true for women seeking marriage. Because, in that market, men, being in shorter supply, have the upper hand.
The Feminist Who Says, "Settle!"
This disappointing reality hits home especially hard for the aging woman who wants a family. In her 2010 book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, Lori Gottlieb, a 40-something single mother (by sperm donation) thoughtfully reflected on, not her unmet fill of sex, but her unmet longing for marriage and family. "Do it [settle] young," she writes, rather than holding out for Mr. Perfect.
Of course, we'd be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won't tell you it's a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she'll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child) . . . in reality, we aren't fish who can do without a bicycle, we're women who want a traditional family.
Her argument met with, shall we say, mixed reviews, though her counsel seemed to be offered in all sincerity.
Solutions That Satisfy
And given current market conditions, it seems fitting. Strictly speaking, the market solution for women would be for them to band together to raise the price of sex. This would call men back to a higher standard, thereby improving relational prospects for all.
Yes, all. In the latest National Marriage Project report, titled "What Happens in Vegas Doesn't Always Stay in Vegas," researchers Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades found that the way couples conduct their sex lives before marriage has a bearing on their future happiness. About 90 percent of couples have sex before marriage, they reported, but those who do so only with their future spouse have better odds for marriage stability than those who play the market first.
In other words, sexual monogamy is a pretty good plan for winning at relationships, if what you ultimately want is marriage and potential family. Admittedly, it's not the way to "win" if sex is all you're after. Since the odds are against finding success at both, the wise single will consider early on, Which one do I want? and choose a course of action accordingly.
Getting to Know Each Other: The Premium Way
Chelsea and Mark got married last summer at age 21. They'd been dating since their freshman year of high school. And while they didn't make a big, public deal about it, most of the friends and family at their wedding knew they had waited.
They, too, drew attention for making a counter-cultural choice. Sometimes there was ridicule, which hurt. But the thing that surprised them most was not the ridicule, but the way some of their peers seemed not even to have categories of thought by which to conceive of such a relationship (What? Well . . . why?).
"They have sex right from the start, and then they have to learn how to communicate with each other," Chelsea said. "If they don't have sex in four days, it's like the biggest nightmare to them. And it's a nightmare because they feel like they don't have the relationship when there's no sex, because that's all the relationship's based on."
She finds that really sad. "It's as if they can't even talk to each other. All they seem to know how to do is have sex. Then they get bored and move on to the next relationship." For her, waiting prioritized the relationship over sex so that the friendship could mature and develop a life of its own, without sex being the center of it. Since the wedding, the sex "has been nice, but we have so much more besides that. Other couples are missing out on so much more that there is."
We should pity Ms. Flicker for confusing cursory sex with "getting to know each other."
Know Your Power
In financial terms, to corner a market is to get sufficient control of an asset to manipulate the price. Casual sex surrenders control and gives everything away dirt-cheap. The smart woman (and man) who wants a sex life that is thoughtful and satisfies longings will retain control of her assets until the set price—the premium—has been paid. "The Economics of Sex" video concludes, "For a woman to know what she wants in a relationship, and to signal it clearly . . . this is her power in the economy." It's also the most winning strategy for achieving sexual and relational success. •
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