Kindness, Not Sex, Is A Woman's Real Power

An interesting conversation sprung up at Marginal Revolution. What started it was a rather silly trio of tweets from a journalist who put forth a two-penny theory about how feminism was initially aligned with "raunch culture," and then over time, anti-feminism became aligned with "raunch culture." To be clear, I don't think this idea has any explanatory power whatsoever, and I don't even think there is such a thing as "raunch culture" to begin with. But, that's what started the conversation.

Before you know it, many commentators were presenting their own theories to account for what we see today: a confluence of shrill feminist rhetoric paired with an ever-diminishing rate of sexual activity among young people. One smart person called "derek" argued that the sexual mores of the world that existed before the (1960s) sexual revolution were designed to facilitate, rather than restrain, coupling. As he put it,
The sexual revolution was about defining sex as simply a source of pleasure, and that any restraint is unnecessary. It obviously is far more than that. The most interesting thing is that a couple of generations with no restraint ends up not doing it very much. Who would have thought that the rigid sexual morals were a societal basis for vigorous horniness? I doubt that any religious person would be surprised by that finding…. 
The most interesting thing is that the upper middle class largely lives a life of chastity, honor and faithfulness because it works very well. And it does, but no one dares say so.
This is not such a radical idea. Hundreds of years after its development, people in society still have trouble absorbing the concept of "Rule of Law." When we sketch out the clear boundaries of acceptable behavior, we all have more freedom within those rules than we do when we eliminate all rules and the boundaries become fuzzy. Certainty, it turns out, is good for freedom; even sexual freedom.

Next came a fascinating game theory treatment written by a person called "asdf." I post it here in full:
Both sexes would like to be strategically promiscuous (in different ways, but still promiscuous).
However, this is a prisoners dilemma. If the double cooperate box is "pre-sexual revolution mores", then the other two boxes (my sex does as it pleases, the other sex continues to play cooperate anyway) seem to be what playboy and pro-sex feminism we're going for for either sex. Turns out defect/cooperate combos weren't too stable, and you tend to end up in a defect/defect equilibrium.

Conservatives though such an equilibrium would mean lots of teenage mothers, and for a time it did, but it seems that equilibrium can also mean sterility due to lack of ability to form the trust necessarily to facilitate sex for most normal people (long term monogamous pairs).

"Feminists" seem to think we can still get to that "women defect, men cooperate" box if only we implement enough Orwellian pressure. Hence the kangaroo courts and such. Mostly it just seems to push us further into defect/defect.
There is a lot of wisdom in that comment, so read it a couple of times over. I won't belabor any of "asdf"'s great points by repeating them in my own words.

For now, let us merely consider where our inquiry is taking us. "Derek" tells us that well-defined sexual mores promote sexual behavior by defining where freedom exists. "Asdf" tells us that, as in a "prisoner's dilemma," stable social equilibria in sexual behavior exist only when both sides either cooperate or refuse to cooperate; when one side wants the other to cooperate, but refuses to cooperate themselves, the situation is both unpleasant and unstable. Note here that "double cooperation" is a more optimal equilibrium than "defect/defect." That is, people are happier when they're in stable, cooperative romantic relationships than they are when they're only ever taking what they can get and looking for the next best thing.

Next came an exchange between "Hazel Meade" -- a ubiquitous econ blog commentator whose comments are almost always of stellar quality -- and myself. [Note: I have no idea if "Hazel Meade" is a nickname, pseudonym, nom de plume, or real name; for our purposes here, I will treat it as a real name merely to avoid having to over-use quotation marks.]

Hazel rightly pointed out that "raunch culture" can be sexist, but can also not be. She then opined that she preferred the brand of feminism that was attached to "raunch culture," typified by the pop culture of the early 1990s, to the more Victorian feminism of today. I responded by recounting an interview with Prince, in which he revealed that the mere act of being raunchy attracts unsavory characters, making it something that we generally can't do often, if we care about respecting each other as individuals.

Then Hazel presented an opinion that seems wrong to me. She suggested that the right way forward is to put women, and only women, in complete control of sexuality. After all, they're the ones with the "scarce resource," and men who want to increase their chances of "getting laid" will allow this to happen if they know what's good for them.

There is plenty to object to about that position, but what made the biggest impression on me was Hazel's simultaneous demand for complete control of all sexual decision-making and her veiled threat of withdrawing sex. It was as if she was saying, "Give women all the sexual power in the romantic marketplace, or else we will take sex away from you."

Let me outline a few problems with that.

First, any man who would trade self-respect for sex is not likely to be a man that sexually appeals to most women. It's been my experience that most women want a man who is confident in who he is.

Second, any man who is willing to do pretty much anything in order to get sex is also unlikely to appeal to most women. A man who can be convinced to do what you want him to do simply by offering him sex is also a man who can be convinced to do what someone else wants him to do simply by offering him sex. His cooperation comes cheaply, and yours is not always the most attractive offer.

Third, any woman who would attempt to manipulate a man in such a way is unlikely to appeal to most men. Men don't want sex to be used as a bargaining chip. Men also don't want to pursue long-term relationships with women who threaten to withhold affection in order to get their own way. That's pretty much the definition of a dysfunctional relationship.

Fourth, this grand ultimatum requires total cooperation from all other women. Unfortunately for Hazel, there will always be women who are willing to give a little ground in order to land a good relationship with a good man. I say "unfortunately," but that's actually a wonderful thing. Humans should generally be willing to give a little ground for the sake of a great romance. That's the foundation of a successful marriage.

Fifth, and finally, Hazel's presentation of the matter only applies to young twenty-somethings. By the time people start to reach their thirties, the power dynamics have completely shifted in favor of the men. At a young age, women can dangle their attractiveness in front of all the young boys and make them dance to the snapping of their fingers. But youth and beauty are both fleeting, and more so for women than for men. A 30-year-old woman can still be beautiful, but she cannot afford to demand as much from men, or else they will simply trade her for another beautiful 30-year-old woman who demands less, or a beautiful 20-year-old woman who expects less. Either option is a Pareto improvement. A beautiful 20-year-old woman likely has more than 20 childbearing years ahead of her; a 30-year-old woman has half that, and maybe less than half. As we age, the pool of quality mates shrinks, but an attractive middle-aged man appeals to both middle-aged women and young women, whereas an attractive middle-aged woman only appeals to much older men. Thus, a woman's insistence on being in complete control of sexual decisioning in her thirties and beyond is unlikely to yield anything positive for her. At best, it might buy her some time; at worst, it'll cost her one of her last good chances with a quality man. That's a fool's bargain.

The point of view I attempted to advance, contra Hazel Meade, was that sexual decisions must be arrived mutually between two equals. For all the reasons outlined above, I think it's a foregone conclusion. The modern feminist notion of putting women in control of romantic decision is an unstable equilibrium that is unlikely to get women what they actually want from their relationships.

Feminism is not the answer; equality is the answer. Two people in a romantic relationship must negotiate the terms of that relationship as equals. If they don't, they jeopardize the integrity of the relationship itself.

In the old days, this was all laid out in no uncertain terms in the form of traditional sexual mores. That's where "derek"'s comment comes in. We had more freedom, and better-quality relationships when we had clear rules and everyone understood when they were being violated. Today, by contrast, we're stuck trying to negotiate the terms of our acceptance of each other. Men and women push each other's boundaries and challenge each other in unhealthy ways, at all points demanding to know, "Do you still accept me now? And how about now?" How much sex can she get away with depriving him of? How much domination can he exert on her before she protests? How long can they afford to wait before they're willing to cut-cord and find someone more compatible?

In the end, women can offer men sex, but in the long run they must offer us kindness. Sex is not a good enough offer from one woman to justify a man's full cooperation. He can always find sex. He cannot always find kindness. Kindness is the truly scarce resource, and it's the one that determines whether she will be a good wife, a good mother, a good in-law, and a good life-partner. Besides, women can only bargain with sex for about ten years before they must start to bargain with other things by necessity.

Men, who never get pregnant or carry a child to term, whose bodies never change to accommodate pregnancy or the nursing process, who remain sexually virile deep into old age, are the ones with the true bargaining power. We can afford to hold out for as long as it takes to find a truly kind, non-manipulative woman. And we can obtain sex in the meantime.

The good news for women is that kindness is an easy offer to make, it doesn't cost a woman any self-respect or challenge her self-worth as a woman. It doesn't make her less a woman and it doesn't compromise her feminist ideals. Kindness is also an offer that is unlikely to be taken up by men who are knaves. A man whose only interest is in taking advantage of a woman and using her will generally make that clear, whether or not she offers him kindness. But a good man will respond to kindness with a clear, obvious, and unambiguous devotion to her.

Kindness, not sex, is a woman's real power.

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