This is one of those cliches I was sure I’d blogged about before, but apparently not. It’s a significant one, as witness I devote a chapter to it in Undead Sexist Cliches. It’s the belief that sex is like retail shopping in stores run by women but patronized by men.
As Echidne of the Snakes detailed some years ago, some social scientists approach sex as a form of economic theory, but it’s quite common in unscientific, pop culture views of sex. Women control the store and maintain a monopoly on the sex supply, at least regarding straight men: they have it, men want it, and the only way men can obtain it is by paying the store’s price.
This can be actual cash (for prostitutes), expensive gifts, love, or the ultimate purchase price — marriage. Less scrupulous men use lies (“You know I love you, right?”), manipulation or coercion to get sex from the store without paying.
In the real world, consensual sex is a two-way street: women who give sex get sex in return. In the sex-as-retail interpretation, this isn’t an acceptable transaction: the woman is “giving it away”, a tragic mistake that devalues her sex supply and makes her “cheap,” so no man will ever pay full price again. The guy, on the other hand, gets cool points because he obtained bargain sex, like getting Netflix of Disney + using someone else’s password.
By this logic (I use the term loosely) it’s always a mistake for a woman to put out before she has a ring on their finger. As the old saying goes, if she gives away the milk the man will never buy the cow and she’ll die alone; if she keeps her chastity belt on, the man will bid higher and higher until he finally pops the price. Though of course, other women might undercut her price, but that justifies slut-shaming — make sure nobody breaks with the sex cartel and sells cheap and everyone will benefit (except the women who get slut-shamed, but nobody making this kind of argument cares about them).
As Echidne points out, this is grade-A bullshit. A sexual marketplace like Baumeister imagines would require women have control of their sex lives, with the right to choose husbands or lovers. For most of recorded history women haven’t had that freedom. Decisions about their body traditionally belonged to a woman’s parents, her husband or her pimp. Custom and law added further restrictions on women’s freedom to have the sex life (or lack of one) they prefer.
Women would also need the freedom to refuse men they weren’t interested in, but that hasn’t always been an option either. Women in arranged matches end up the sexual property of the man their parents pick for them. Rape and coercion also restrict women’s right to refuse men. So does women’s supposed obligation to provide men with “service sex” or “duty sex.” Echidne compares women to Ming vases: yes, they command a high value in the marketplace but they have no agency in who owns, buys or sells them. And if the owner decides to smash one for kicks well, that’s his call.
The concept of the sexual marketplace tangles in with multiple other cliches. That no woman can be happy if she’s not married. That men are heartless jerks incapable of marrying for love. That women don’t have to compete for men — they can just wait passively and pick whichever man makes the best bid. And that under certain circumstances, women have no right to refuse sex. Certainly not if they’re married: if a man’s paid that much, he’s entitled to your body, 24/7 (as Phyllis Schlafly put it). Even if they’re not married, the same principle applies: if he shelled out a C-note for dinner, isn’t he entitled to something more than a peck on the cheek? According to Warren Farrell, if the woman lets the guy take her out when she has no intention of sleeping with him, that’s date fraud, and just as awful as date rape.
The reality? No man (or woman, or nonbinary) ever has a right to sex with someone else. Not to their spouse, their partner, their date, nor anyone else. Even if the woman got naked and French kissed him for an hour. Even if he has a hard-on. And sex is not a matter of economics.
I’ll return to this topic in a week or two. Until then you can read more about the sexual marketplace in Undead Sexist Cliches, available as a Amazon paperback, an ebook and from several other retailers. Cover by Kemp Ward, all rights remain with current holder.