Men generally want to have sex earlier in a relationship than women. This is consistent with the pattern for other species where males are more eager to mate whereas females invest more in young and are more discriminating. How does this pattern play out in modern environments?
Various trends indicate that men are more in demand as romantic partners today than in the past (whether as boyfriends, as husbands, or as lovers). To begin with, there was a huge increase in premarital sexuality in America during the twentieth century consistent with the masculine preference for earlier sex. Similar patterns are evident in other developed countries.
Then and Now
In 1900, just 8 percent of European Americans had sexual intercourse by the age of 19. Today a large majority of singles are sexually active(link is external) (88 percent of those aged 18-29).
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the vast majority of women were postponing sexual expression until after marriage. There was little or no casual sex. In other words, the late timing of sexual intercourse in the relationship meant that the rules were being set by women. They were in such strong demand as partners that they could stipulate marriage, and permanent commitment as a precondition for bedroom intimacy. In those days, marriage meant that the husband undertook financial support of his wife and children of the marriage for as long as he lived.
Some modern women envy the marital permanence of earlier times whereas feminists pity women of earlier generations as reproductive slaves and describe more flexible arrangements as “sexual liberation.” The question to ask is, whose sexuality is being liberated, men’s, or women’s?
Such social trends are always complex. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was easier for women to postpone sex until after marriage because they matured later (possibly reflecting poorer nutrition, less artificial light, and less exposure to hormones in food and hormone mimics in the environment, amongst other factors) whereas they married earlier. The time from puberty to marriage was just a few years during which time women lived in the parental home and could be heavily chaperoned.
The gap between sexual maturation and first marriage today approaches two decades making premarital virginity rather improbable. This is particularly true given that so many women leave home when they attend college and establish fully independent households after they find employment. Add to this the fact that effective contraceptives allow women to be sexually active without much risk of unwanted pregnancy. Neither need they fear the stigma that followed “loose women” in earlier times. Each of these trends contributes to increasing levels of premarital sexuality and also affects the market for romantic partners.
The Mate Market
In any market, the rules are set by supply and demand. If women are more in demand than men, they can require marriage as a precondition for sex. If there are not enough men available, men can expect sex earlier in a relationship. Given the prevalence of premarital sex, the current mate market clearly favors men in the sense that relationships are being conducted according to masculine preferences.
This transition began in the 1960’s when a surplus of potential brides and a deficit of potential husbands emerged due to the baby bust during World War II. Women responded to the increased competition for a mate by offering sexual intimacy earlier in a relationship. Those who preserved their virginity until after marriage were unpopular as dates.
This is a positive feedback system that grows like a forest fire with isolated campfires burning down the entire forest (i. e., the vast majority becoming sexually active outside marriage). Such episodes often begin when there is a disproportionate loss of men in the population, such as that resulting from the Black Death in the fourteenth century where men had higher infection rates than women. The sexual license of the period is immortalized in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with its lustful apprentices and horny homemakers. The fires of liberated sexuality generally burn themselves out as equilibrium in the population is restored.
This Time is Different
This time may be different. There are various signs that female sexuality is not just accommodating itself to masculine needs but that women’s sexual psychology is converging with that of men in ways never before recorded. Some examples include female sexual tourism(link is external), addiction by women to Internet pornography(link is external), and an interest incasual sex (sociosexuality) by women from developed countries that exceeds the level expressed by men in less developed countries.
Such phenomena are of interest to evolutionary psychologists because they show thatgender differences in sexual psychology recorded in most other societies are not “universal.”
In this brave new world, there are more single women than ever before (thanks to delayed marriage, high non marriage, and increased divorce rates) and “masculine” sensibilities prevail in sexual relationships. This implies that men are in greater demand as romantic partners than women are.
1. Caplow, T., Hicks, L., & Wattenberg, B. J. (2001). The first measured century: An illustrated guide to trends in America, 1900-2000. La Vergne: TX:AEI Press.
2. Guttentag, M., & Secord, P. F. (1983). Too many women: The sex ratio question. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.