Romantic Predators

Last summer a New York Times article worried that having more women on college campuses gave men more bargaining power in dates:

"When there were fewer men, the environment was not as safe for women," said Joyce Bylander, associate provost. "When men were so highly prized that they could get away with things, some of them become sexual predators. It was an unhealthy atmosphere for women."

Relationships are about give and take, but the person in more demand can give less while taking more.  If men tend to more want sex, and women tend to more want romantic devotion, then when men are scarce men should tend to get more sex while giving less romantic devotion.   

But when women are scarce, women should tend to get more romantic devotion while giving less sex.   So why don’t we hear similar complaints about "an unhealthy atmosphere for men" due to "romantic predators"?   Just as we seem more worried about women and children being hurt in war than men, this seems another example where males complain less because they get less sympathy.

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    Is it because men guess less sympathy overall, or because society (officially) values romantic devotion while denigrating devotionless sex?

    I can’t imagine feeling very sorry with a friend who says: “He/She wanted more than sex, so I had to let him/her go.” But a friend who says “he/she wasn’t interested in a real relationship, so I ended it,” will get more sympathy.

    Is this a bias? We seem to feel that sex is a luxury but relationships are a necessity – or at least that the consequences of lost sex are milder than the consequences of lost relationships.

    Since sex can be started again pretty easily but relationships take more time and effort, this might be more than just an unfair bias. And I can’t say that any man I know who lost a relationship got any less sympathy from everyone than a female in the same situation.

  • http://www.subsolo.org/gustibus/archives/2007/03/index.html#005057 De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

    Dialogando com surdos

    Este depoimento só reforça minha crença na inutilidade do “debate democrático” (ou “debates em salas de bate-papo”) como meios minimamente eficazes de se aumentar o capital intelectual das pessoas. Fico com Robin Hanson e suas hipóteses sobre discussõe…

  • Matthew

    And I can’t say that any man I know who lost a relationship got any less sympathy from everyone than a female in the same situation.

    Indeed, the large majority of divorces are initiated by women, at least in the United States. I wonder what that might say about how much men on average value long-term relationships, versus how women value them.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    By way of defending the conventional wisdom, don’t stable relationships benefit the group more (have more positive externalities) than simple sex acts? Why shouldn’t group approval be directed accordingly?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, what positive externalities do you have in mind?

    Stuart, so “predators” are creatures who give necessities to get luxuries?

  • Doug S.

    Another thing that could happen if women are scarce is that low status men may try “other strategies” to get them besides wooing, because they’re going to have trouble competing with high status men.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    My reading of the phrase “sexual predators” suggests more than just men who are looking for sex uncomplicated by relationships, especially in the context of the claim that this made things not “safe” for women. I am sensing a concern that violence and coercion may have entered the picture. However I don’t quite see how having an excess of women over men would lead to predation in that sense, you’d think it would be a problem more if there were too few women for the men.

  • Alejandro Dubrovsky

    You never hear of the “cock-teasing bitches” brand of complaint!?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Alejandro, I would be very surprised to hear an associate provost publicly voice a complaint of the sort you describe.

    Hal, I agree that the phrase can have that connotation, but that does not seem to be the connotation used in this context.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    I think most feminists would say that since the male side of the problem is so low on the list of social problems, it doesn’t deserve as much attention as the female side. You *might* get them to admit straightforwardly that it’s a problem, though. You could probably get them to admit it obliquely, if they didn’t take an unhealthy view on debates.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    Sorry. Should be “You could probably get them to admit obliquely that it’s a problem. You *might* get them to admit it straightforwardly, if they didn’t take an unhealthy view on debates.”

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart, so “predators” are creatures who give necessities to get luxuries?

    With the eternal caveats about the complexity of sex and romance, and minor quibbles about the words “give” and “predators” (I’m really not leaving many hostages to fortune here, am I? :-), that’s a good way to put it.

  • Yan Li

    “If men tend to more want sex, and women tend to more want romantic devotion…”

    That is a big IF. I somehow believe women like sex not any less than men do although they may prefer monogamous sexual relationship more. As for the desire for romantic devotion, I will have to see data to believe there is a gender difference on that account. It is possible though that among men, the so-called “sexual predators” and “romantic predators” are two greatly overlapping sets whereas among women there seem to be more “romantic predators” (only) because there are less so-called “sexual predators.”

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Yan, it is amazing how different our perceptions can be. If anyone has any evidence, speak up.

  • Yan Li

    I suddenly have another thought on this. We hear much less complaints about “romantic predators” perhaps because a “romantic prey” often has difficulties to tell whether she/ he is having a natural crush over someone or turning into another person’s prey. So she/he tends to hold herself/himself responsible for the romantic feelings developed inside. For example, I have never thought about accusing Beethoven for being a “romantic predator.” That is a no-brainer because Beethoven is dead and had never winked to me. But how about if Beethoven is alive and winks to me every now and the, I perhaps would have an even bigger crush while still not calling him a “romantic predator.” Without making any moral judgment, we would label someone a “sexual predator” if we found her/him sleeping around…

  • http://emirateseconomist.blogspot.com John B. Chilton

    For similar reasons polygyny is good for women.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/bayesian/ Peter McCluskey

    One reason for the asymmetry may be the difference in time and effort needed to determine whether the other person is lying. A women has few cheap and reliable ways to determine whether a man who promises to be a life partner will change his mind next year, but a man can cheaply detect that a women who asks for a one-night stand and then attempts to get romance has deceived him.
    A surplus of men does create concerns, it’s just that those concerns take different forms (e.g. concerns that societies with a high male to female ratio have more violence and are more likely to start wars).
    The externalities that Eliezer was referring to might be related to health benefits of marriage, health risks of casual sex (sexually transmitted diseases), and effects of resulting life expectancies on how much effort people put into making the society of 30 years from now a better one (although I’m unsure whether we should worry about these effects).

  • zz

    “One reason for the asymmetry may be the difference in time and effort needed to determine whether the other person is lying. A women has few cheap and reliable ways to determine whether a man who promises to be a life partner will change his mind next year, but a man can cheaply detect that a women who asks for a one-night stand and then attempts to get romance has deceived him.”

    Peter, in the long run, women should know what they are getting into. Under a surplus-of-women situation, they can expect that men will be less likely to become life partners (caeteris paribus), and accordingly request stricter commitments as a condition of relationship. Their “bargaining power” may fall but deceit should not be an issue, per se.

  • James

    Robin,

    If you spent time among my circle of friends you would hear many references to the “unhealthy atmosphere for men” right here in our very own Washington, DC. I know several men who have moved away from DC because of their difficulty finding a suitable mate here. I remember reading a statistic a year ago that 60 of every 100 single DC residents is male. I am still wondering when this bargaining asymmetry will disappear and why it is taking so long for the mate market to swing into long-term equilibrium (which I assume is a 50-50 male to female ratio).

  • zz

    James, if jobs in Washington DC happened to be more favorable to men than women, the long-term equilibrium wouldn’t be 50-50. Both men and women must trade-off jobs for relationships.

  • James

    Good point, ZZ. I have noticed that the types of jobs available in DC typically draw more men than women (high-tech, defense, politics, etc.). However, it is important to note that the men who work in these jobs tend to be highly-educated and have relatively high lifetime income prospects. Presumably these features are very desirable to women and I would expect that the greater likelihood of being able to find a husband with these qualities in DC would be enough to draw the marginal woman to the area. However, I realize that the accuracy of my assertion depends on how much weight women place on each of the factors they use to make the choice of where to live. Anyone know of any data on the magnitude of various factors women and men use when choosing a place to live?

  • zzz

    James, if the educational and income features applied equally to men and women, they would have no effect on the equilibrium ratio. If education, income prospects, etc. are kept constant, the optimal margin of substitution (neglecting job quality) will be 1-1.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/dogofjustice Dog of Justice

    I don’t see why the conventional wisdom Eliezer refers to is incorrect.

    While I am a fan of transhumanism, I am not so confident in the imminence of human immortality, or the Singularity, or anything similar that I am ready to write off the family unit as obsolete. Children who are raised well are a GIGANTIC positive externality of stable romantic relationships, and indeed our society is dependent on this externality for its very survival.

  • zzz

    Dog of Justice, what about children who are raised not-so-well as a result of unstable romantic relationships? If Yan Li is right, placing a slightly lesser value on relationships vs. sex may well improve efficiency by encouraging clear-cut separation of those people who are most interested in a stable, long-term relationship.

  • Bob Gordon

    I just started reading this blog, and maybe I am not getting something, but every entry seems to be filled with unqualified bias. Take this one. Aside from the usual economist frame (relationships are games of exchange of sex for romantic commitment,) where is this idea that men look for more sex and women for romantic relationships come from? Sheesh, talk about simple minded acceptance of conventional “wisdom!” Please set me straight if I am off the mark, but I don’t see anything about overcoming bias here…