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Sexual Economics: Theory and Patriarchy

The situation of women withholding sex from men is a stereotype that is well familiarized in our society today.

In fact, much of today’s Western mass media, including movies and TV shows paints the familiar scene of the man “in the dog house”- sleeping on the couch, sexless and alone, sentenced to this particular punishment by the woman. In contrast, there is also the scene of the woman tempting the man with sex like a carrot on the stick dangling in front of his very eyes to achieve what the woman wants. Using sex as a reward or incentive, the media paints this picture of an empowered woman using her sexuality as a weapon. These narrative conventions are quite cliché, and all very familiar. However, they all depict a stereotype- that women use sex as a commodity.

This practice is quite evident, and almost encouraged, in current society.

From using sex as a means to get closer to a partner, or flirting at a bar, teasing the idea of potential sex with hopes of getting a free drink, to having sex to gain a promotion at work, the idea of sex as a commodity is firmly based on the sexual economics theory (SET).

According to Vohs (2008), SET is based on the behavioural motivation of women participating in sex solely for the purpose of sexual bargaining. This theory is based on social exchange and basic economic principles. Women have the resource, and men want it. In exchange, men trade their resources of time, money, and status in hopes of receiving sex. In a heterosexual relationship, women are the “sexual gatekeepers”. They are in control of when and where sex will take place. An overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence seemingly depicts this as the norm (Vohs, 2008, p. 785-788).

However, Rudman et. al. challenges this notion of sexual relationships.

They argue that SET is a rather “dark view of gender relations, that portrays women as low status commodity holders and men as a high status commodity holders” (Rudman et al., 2014, p. 1439). It is undeniable that this theory creates a distinguished divide between men and women. SET also creates a lot of implications towards sexual attitudes and behaviours between men and women. To test the validity of SET, Rudman et al. created 4 testable hypotheses in an experimental study:

  • Hypothesis 1: Women primed to SET will increase endorsement of SET, and discourage sexual advice to other women. If sexual exchange reflects patriarchy, women should be resistant to priming.

  • Hypothesis 2: Women should exhibit less enthusiasm for sex than men do.

  • Hypothesis 3: Men’s antipathy towards empowering women results in men favouring sexual economics more than women. Hostile Sexism increases men’s endorsement of SET.

  • Hypothesis 4: Women are motivated to restrict female sexuality to decrease the supply of sex.

With a participant pool of N=225 (105 = Women), an age range of 19-25, and a population of 35% white, 37% Asian, 12% Hispanic, 8% Black and 8% Other, participants were assessed via procedures such as Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, B-IAT’s, and questionnaires. The results corresponding the hypotheses above are as followed:

  • Results for Hypothesis 1: Tests failed to support SET. Enhancing the accessibility of sexual economics did not increase women’s endorsement of it or increase their tendency to sexually discourage other women.

  • Results for Hypothesis 2: No gender differences in sex attitudes between men and women.

  • Results for Hypothesis 3: Men were more likely than women to associate sex with money. Men were also slightly more resistant towards female empowerment.

  • Results for Hypothesis 4: Men were more likely than women to implicitly endorse sexual economics.

Surprisingly, the results show that men value the commoditization of sex more than women do.

Contrary to the assumptions of SET where women are more invested in sexual exchange than men, it seems as though men implicitly favour the idea of sexual economics.

The question is why?

The SET in practice reflects and reinforces patriarchy, emphasizing the economics of personal relationships. This theory enforces the double standard of how men can be sexual beings and women cannot without being judged, discriminated, or shamed. Consequently, it seems that this patriarchal view is favourable to men, which would explain the results of men implicitly reinforcing this theory. Rudman et. Al concludes the study by suggesting than men favoured SET mediated by hostile sexism and investing in patriarchal methods.

In fact, the SET can be seen as quite objectifying.

By regarding the female body as barter for male satisfaction and entitlement, this theory dehumanizes the woman, whilst also suppressing female sexuality. Furthermore, this anti-progressive theory encourages and reinforces “slut shaming” and other restrictions towards sexual freedom by dismissing the idea of sexual pleasure for women. Human instinct and strengthening of bonds should motivate sex, and to suppress female sexual desire is sexist. Similarly, this line of thinking disregards the importance of interpersonal intimacy and relationship building. Intimacy is highly important in maintaining a healthy sexual and emotional relationship, and sex can be used as another branch of love expression and method of communication to further strengthen the relationship.

On the contrary, we have the opposite end of the spectrum; women who capitalize on the value of their sexuality. Female sex workers such as porn stars, escorts, and exotic dancers depend solely on the basis of SET for an income. The truth is, many women choose to use sex as a commodity. Many women are able to maintain healthy relationships and provide for themselves by creating a career out of sex work. While in theory this seems to support the patriarchal basis of SET, in reality, it actually propels feminism forward. The ability for a woman to be able to choose where and how they are able to acquire their resources, sexual or not, is an empowering tool.

In modern society, women no longer need to rely on men for resources.

With progressive feminism and female empowerment, the idea that women must solely depend on men for resources such as money, status, wealth, or security is a thing of the past. Women are able to be sexual beings, while also independently building a life and career without reliance on a male partner. Ultimately, society should be progressing towards equality, and work towards eliminating slut shaming, sex negativity, and patriarchal practices.

To mention, an important weakness in this study is the participant pool. This experiment was done in in a university in New Brunswick, Canada; with all of the participants being students aged 18-22. These participants severely limit what the data can imply. Firstly, it can be assumed that young adults in a Western culture in higher-level education institution will have a more liberal viewpoint. This liberal thinking will affect their attitudes towards sex, and will skew the results to a more sex positive attitude. Furthermore, younger adults also tend to be less conservative when it comes to openness about casual sex and other sexual relationships.

Works Cited

Baumeister, R. F., & Vauns, K. D. (2004). Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4), 785-788.

Rudman, L., Laurie A Rudman, & Janell C Fetterolf. (2014). Psychological science: Gender and sexual economics: Do women view sex as a female commodity? Blackwell Publishing.


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