Look But Don’t Touch

In both male and female demand, sex and looks are complements; all else equal, the better someone looks, the more you want sex with them.  In male sex supply, sex and looks seem unrelated; how much sex a man offers has little to do with his looks.  In female sex supply, however, it seems that sex and looks are substitutes; the better she looks the less sex she offers. Supporting data:

  • “Overweight or obese teenage girls are more likely than their recommended-weight peers to engage in certain types of risky sexual behavior but not others.” (more)
  • “Women on campuses where they comprise a higher proportion of the student body give more negative appraisals of campus men and relationships, go on fewer traditional dates, are less likely to have had a college boyfriend, and are more likely to be sexually active.” (more)
  • “Women in their 30s and early 40s are significantly more sexual than younger women. Women ages 27 through 45 report not only having more sexual fantasies (and more intense [ones]) than women ages 18 through 26 but also having more sex, period. And they are more willing than younger women to have casual sex, even one-night stands.” (more)

Apparently less-demanded women compensate by offering more sex, by requiring fewer “traditional dates,” and less insisting on official “boyfriend” status.  They are, for example, more willing to be a second woman on the sly.  Many don’t want to fully admit to making this tradeoff, however, and so would rather blame the men. (On the age effect, the study authors actually prefer to explain it as compensation for falling female fertility.  But male fertility also falls, yet men don’t show this age effect.)

So why is the relation between sex and looks so different in female sex supply, relative to other gender and supply vs. demand combos?   On obvious answer is that for women relations are primary and sex is more instrumental; women offer just as much sex as needed to get a man.  For men, in contrast, sex seems primary while relations seem instrumental; men more enter into relations in order to get sex.

A related datum:

  • “Binge drinking significantly increases participation in sex, promiscuity, and the failure to use birth control.” (more)

Why do woman need to get drunk to have sex?  It seems a way to stay in denial about intending to have sex – they can say they got drunk “for fun” and then the sex “just happened.”  Are women in more denial than men about intending to have sex?  That would make sense, if women were traditionally expected to exert more self-control on sex.

Added 5p: I should clarify that by “looks” I mean most any attractive feature, not just physical appearance.

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  • Oligopsony

    Why do woman need to get drunk to have sex? It seems a way to stay in denial about intending to have sex – they can say they got drunk “for fun” and then the sex “just happened.” Are women in more denial than men about intending to have sex? That would make sense, if women were traditionally expected to exert more self-control on sex.

    Analogously, men drink if they want to have emotionally intense conversations with each other. This probably explains why alcohol features so prominently in male bonding, relative to female friendships.

    There are, of course, behaviors sanctioned in a gender-neutral way that people drink to find an excuse for: insulting others is probably the most prominent example.

    • Lemmy Caution

      Analogously, men drink if they want to have emotionally intense conversations with each other. This probably explains why alcohol features so prominently in male bonding, relative to female friendships.

      That is an excellent point.

  • Daublin

    A confound for one of your items is that hormones change as people age. Women’s hormones favor wanting more sex at 35 than at 20.

    • Konvkistador

      Citation needed.

  • William H. Stoddard

    “Women get drunk so they can copulate without feeling responsible” is old male folklore. There’s an old joke that the mating call of the blonde is “I’m sooooo drunk!”

    It’s probably less damaging than some of the other reputed strategies for not being responsible would be. “He raped me” can do major harm. In fact, it used to be argued that especially stringent proof of rape was needed precisely because any woman caught in the act would automatically accuse the man of rape, preferring his facing criminal charges to her losing her reputation for chastity.

  • Unnamed

    Couldn’t it just be that women tend to prefer relationships to casual sex, but those who attract less male interest often have to settle for casual sex?

  • Anon

    Daublin is right that that is a confound, but there are multiple confounds here. The post is nonsense: only the first data point supports the claim, and that weakly.

  • marcvs avrelianvs

    As for young women not being eager to have sex: this may simply be an observation bias.

    As for alcohol and sex: Can this not simply be explained as a relief (and a licence) from inhibitions?

    • Mike

      That’s far and away the best explanation for the datum on alcohol and sex.

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  • http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com Clarisse Thorn

    Wow. Where to start?

    Firstly, I can’t read the binge drinking study you linked, but I strongly suspect based on similar studies (and the abstract) that it found that both men and women are more likely to have sex when drunk/drinking. Which is the first problem with the question “Why do women need to be drunk to have sex?” The second is that you don’t appear to be offering any comparisons to how much sex women have when we’re not drunk.

    Also, good job reinforcing problematic stereotypes of men by implying that men are always up for sex. Assuming you bother to read sex and gender news in any in-depth way (I’m increasingly convinced that you don’t), you can go ahead and tell yourself “Go me!” the next time a man is sexually assaulted and has trouble dealing with it because he “must have wanted it”.

    “Women in their 30s and early 40s are significantly more sexual than younger women. Women ages 27 through 45 report not only having more sexual fantasies (and more intense [ones]) than women ages 18 through 26 but also having more sex, period. And they are more willing than younger women to have casual sex, even one-night stands.”

    It takes most women a pretty long time to figure out how to have sex that’s relatively satisfying. For example, a large proportion of women only learn how to have orgasms in our 20s or even 30s. This is a better explanation for why older women have more sex — because they enjoy it more. A related factor is that for women, it often takes many years to get over the “sluthood is bad” stereotype, for those of us who get over it at all.

    “Women on campuses where they comprise a higher proportion of the student body give more negative appraisals of campus men and relationships, go on fewer traditional dates, are less likely to have had a college boyfriend, and are more likely to be sexually active.”

    I can’t understand why you think this backs up your claim.

    “Overweight or obese teenage girls are more likely than their recommended-weight peers to engage in certain types of risky sexual behavior but not others.”

    Many (though not all) teen girls don’t feel ready for sex, but feel social pressure (both from large-scale social mores and individuals that they may date) to have sex. Girls likely to have lower self-esteem (for example, overweight girls) are more vulnerable to this pressure. So I suppose this datum comes closest to reinforcing your claim, but I think the real dynamics behind it come closer to Unnamed’s comment above.

    Also, doesn’t it seem like a red flag to you that few women comment on your blog and no other women have commented on this post? Unless Unnamed or Anonymous are female, in which case you’ve made this space so hostile to women that the only female commenters besides me insist on anonymity. Great job. You’re part of the problem.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      The paper clearly means binge drinking increases sex relative to not so drinking.

      I don’t see where I implied “men are always up for sex” or that a sexually assaulted man “must have wanted it.”

      You complain that I “reinforce problematic stereotypes” and am “hostile to women” because this post hasn’t been blessed by approving female comments, and because though I offer a simple theory to simultaneously explain three disparate sets of data, you can think of other explanations for two of the datasets, and you don’t see how the third one relates (you’d need some econ 101 for that). So the “problem” is not always preferring other explanations to stereotypes some women think “problematic”?

      • luzhin

        this reply betrays the inveterate literalism of a born beta.

        you cannot win when the ”focal values” of an interaction implicate you as a sexist pig, especially when your opponent is a woman.

        ignore and reframe, robin.

      • http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com Clarisse Thorn

        By focusing on how women (not women and men) require alcohol to have sex, you disappear the fact that men have different sexual preferences at different times.

        You complain that I “reinforce problematic stereotypes” and am “hostile to women” because this post hasn’t been blessed by approving female comments.

        No, that’s not why I’m making the claim. It is, however, a piece of evidence in my support. When I comment on your gender posts here, you (and often, other commenters) insist that I’m biased, hysterical, etc. But if I’m alone in my opinion and you’re doing such a great job of describing gender dynamics, then why aren’t any women agreeing with you? Or even trying to contribute to the conversation?

        I’ve written posts on masculinity that got hundreds to thousands of interesting, insightful, and open-minded comments from men, and I did it by writing the posts as if I cared what men think and don’t want to misrepresent their experience. If you care about getting female feedback on your posts about how women experience the world, I suggest that you make an effort to do the same.

      • Ryan

        Robin, your new blog slogan should be ‘don’t tell me i’m biased; show me i’m wrong’.

    • Doug S.

      Robin Hanson is a sexist pig. ;)

      He’s often interesting reading, but he has indeed managed to drive away most female readers.

      • http://thefrenchexit.blogspot.com Elisa

        I wouldn’t call him a sexist pig, but it’s deeply ironic how Robin, and so many of his readers, look for bias everywhere but refuse to examine the possibility that they might themselves have a gender bias. The dearth of female commenters is evidence enough to at least take the possibility seriously. Yes, many blogs have few female commenters, but that doesn’t mean Overcoming Bias is not sexist. Those blogs might be gender-biased as well.

        I have read OB on and off for years, and whenever gender bias comes up, people get aggressively defensive. I’ve given up hope that it will ever be taken as seriously here as other forms of bias.

      • hmm

        Hey, the genders are different, with different goals, and evolutionarry succesful stratigies. (oh man spelling)

        Some strategies may be considered sexist. Some may not.

        Dont hate the players. Hate the selfish genes.

      • http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com Clarisse Thorn

        I wouldn’t call him a sexist pig, but it’s deeply ironic how Robin, and so many of his readers, look for bias everywhere but refuse to examine the possibility that they might themselves have a gender bias.

        Yeah, this. I’ve made this point myself before, but never so succinctly!

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        I have a write-up on the physiology behind xenophobia.

        http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/2010/03/physiology-behind-xenophobia.html

        The reason some men are sexist pigs is because they are unable to understand women.

    • http://kazart.blogspot.com mwengler

      Hey Clarisse,

      This blog is not about selling an improved way of looking at each other or making society warmer and fuzzier for children and other living things. Rather, it is a run up the middle using a certain kind of rational mindset to try to figure out what is going on here and there.

      There are all sorts of blogs that have almost completely male participants. Sports and video game blogs come immediately to mind. I’m pretty sure having primarily male participation is not a measure of the sexism of the bloggers.

      I have been surprised that “game” (Pick-Up-Artist) and cryonics are such recurring themes of this blog. In My Opinion ™ this blog is largely about ACCEPTING some very basic emotional drives (wanting to get laid, wanting to stay alive) and accepting where these drives seem to take you as valid goals for rational planning. My own interest in rationality tends more towards understanding these drives and less towards accepting their content as valid goals. But there you go, maybe I’m must a sore-loser (or a sore-beta in the “game.”)

      I suspect that men and women approach sex so differently, that having a man post about this stuff in this sort-of straight run up the middle of my brain kind of way will seem off putting to women, because it assumes so much as given that is only really given for males. Even though I’ve never done game, I am well aware of the drives in me to screw everything in sight (or at least everything that moves, when I’m feeling fussier). I would look at this perhaps as “men’s studies” and play the game of trying to figure out what we must be thinking to write such things.

      Judging it will probably result in you missing out on a lot of information.

      • http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com Clarisse Thorn

        Actually, I used to write games professionally. And check out my karma score sometime on LessWrong.com. I think I know a bit about male-dominated conversations and aiming for rationalism. Perhaps my strong reaction occurred because Robin actually is biased and I’m not just being judgmental.

      • Willyoubethere Ben

        Thats right. Im 29 and a virgin. and never had a girl friend or been in a relationship. And its posts like these that help me to figure out why. Its cuz the girl was dtf and i didnt know the score. And i aint that bad looking either. facebook – willyoubethere.ben@gmail.com

    • ha

      Wait,sterotypes that men are alway up for sex?

      Dude, im an 18 year old guy. Reading this, I am laughing.

      I *AM* always up for sex with an attractive chick. Really, dosent matter if im hungry, thirsty,worn out for working out.

      Sometimes, sterotypes are sterotypes for a reason. Now,im going to jack off to some porn.

    • ha

      and,for the “must have wanted it”
      lol, it would be some ugly woman for me not to want it, ill tell you that,

    • ha

      So, to the guy that is surprised “game” is mentioned on this blog.

      Check out the link “roissy in dc”

    • http://michaelkeenan.blogspot.com Michael Keenan

      > good job reinforcing problematic stereotypes of men by implying that men are always up for sex.

      You’ve exaggerated Hanson’s view, but the weaker version “males are less selective about sex than females” is true of humans and almost every other species (the exceptions are elucidating; for example, a male pipefish will nourish eggs in his bloodstream, equalizing the resource investment of males and females, so female pipefish are unusually active in courtship, seeking out males and initiating mating).

      Because this conclusion from evolutionary biology (that males are less selective than females) is so widely known, I’m not surprised that Hanson assumes his readers already know it. If you’d like to learn more about evolutionary biology, I recommend The Moral Animal by Robert Wright (it includes discussion of the pipefish); it’s also recommended by Eliezer Yudkowsky (find his “bookshelf” page on his website).

    • http://www.permut.wordpress.com Michael Bishop

      Clarisse, your speculation that binge drinking men also have more sex is supported by the paper. Therefore the paper does not support Robin’s suggestion that, women (more than men) use alcohol to excuse their sexual behavior. Kudos to you for pointing this out. That said, I have heard anecdotes which support Robin’s story.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    The post is nonsense: only the first data point supports the claim, and that weakly.

    I wouldn’t go that far; the post has some interesting valid points, just not the one promised in the title and the first paragraph. Using age and availability of men as proxies for beauty is very tenuous.

    Many don’t want to fully admit to making this tradeoff, however, and so would rather blame the men.

    And I’m pretty sure than the men are much more bastardly in this contexts, based on what their demands are (I might be if I was in that situation).

  • writelhd

    There are good reasons young women may be less eager to have sex, teenagers anyway, aside from having less hormones than older women.

    Sex for teenage girls is risky behavior, teenagers being less likely to use birth control and in some cases even have information about birth control as a viable option–yet the consequences for not using birth control are more severe for a teenager, who has less resources to deal with an unplanned pregnancy.

    What unnamed said makes sense, less-desired women may believe they must settle for casual sex because casual sex is what is available to them. Since teenage-girl world is pretty strongly focused on attractiveness, those who perceive themselves as less-attractive may be more interested in risky behavior as a means to compensate for a deficiency, either by getting male attention that way since the appearance way doesn’t work for them, or just by being able to signal that they have something others may not yet have–sexual experience, which in teenage world does confer some degree of status. The potential downfalls: pregnancy, social stigma, STDs, are the same for both groups, but teenage girls who don’t feel themselves deficient have less to gain from risky behavior.

    As to the middle data point, eh, I dunno. I’ll have to think more about that one.

    As to the last one, hormones, taking a while to start getting enjoyment out of sex, more economic stability to be able to take on a risk like an unplanned pregnancy and less social stigma if one happens, probably all play a role.

  • Oligopsony

    I should note that your final piece of data – that there are social pressures on women not to engage in casual sex – should explain the female supply substitutionality of looks and sex (if it does generally exist) on its own. If (i) sex is more socially costly to women and (ii) marginal men prefer sex but no relationship to no sex and no relationship, sex should have some aspects of a good that women “sell” to men (assuming there aren’t stronger countervailing factors.) (As the intensity of (i) declines, it should look more and more like any other fun collaborative activity. See: the evolution of Western sexual norms, 1950-present.)

    (Of course, what substitution/complementarity implies is entirely dependent on elasticity; a rise in sectoral producitivity can mean that the sector’s workforce grows or that it shrinks.)

    Given this, the sitcomish hypotheses that “women see sex as a means to relationships” and “men see relationships as a means to sex” seems like unnecessary multiplication of entities, especially since there’s so much data to contradict it (the obvious enjoyment women take in sex; the obvious despair of men who’ve been dumped, even if it’s likely to increase their number of sexual partners; the fact that more men than women plan to get married and that more women than men initiate divorces; the happiness boost marriage gives to men and happiness tax it places on women; &c. &c.)

  • http://menswiki.wikidot.com Andrew Usher

    This is just an aspect, as you speculate, of the more general truth that women are not honest with themselves about their sexual desire (men usually are honest with _themselves_). The fact that you get called sexist is ironic because it’s obvious to me that you go out of your way to avoid saying anything directly sexist, yet the truth offends so many people that you get thought of that way anyhow.

    Because really that’s one of the big things our society is hypocritical about: that there might be anything ‘wrong’ with women in general.

    • Oligopsony

      This is just an aspect, as you speculate, of the more general truth that women are not honest with themselves about their sexual desire (men usually are honest with _themselves_). The fact that you get called sexist is ironic because it’s obvious to me that you go out of your way to avoid saying anything directly sexist, yet the truth offends so many people that you get thought of that way anyhow.

      “Women use sex to get relationships, men use relationships to get sex” is a sexist statement, as surely as “compared to whites, blacks are naturally wired to pursue an r-strategy and Asians a K-strategy” is a racist statement. Whether either is true is an empirical question, but let’s not redefine sexist (racist, &c.) to automatically exclude anything you might endorse.

      • Tim Fowler

        Re: “…is a racist statement. Whether either is true is an empirical question”

        I’m not saying its true, not endorsing the ideas (or opposing them), but assuming for the sake of argument that it is, then I would say its not racist. Recognizing the truth should not be called racist or sexist in my opinion. For example saying “men tend to be physically stronger than women”, isn’t sexist.

  • Cyrus

    To be pedantic, the studies pointed to don’t address how much sex a woman would like to have as a function of her own attractiveness, only how much sex she actually does have, and provide no path towards disassembling the Marshallian scissors to isolate the half about which you hypothesize.

  • ravi

    The best strategy for a female is to get fertilized by higher “genetic” quality men and having a socially resourceful nice guy unwittingly invest heavily in the child (as if it were his own) at the cost of occasional pity sex. The precise mix depends on the ancestral environment in which that particular females genes lived.

    She hides fertility and through a social “cartel” like mechanism artificially elevates the cost of “sex” if she thinks you are more of a provider. She lets you (grudgingly) have sex with her during her lowest fertility period while pursuing the high risk strategy of acquiring choice genes. Notice that it is better to seek higher quality men only once you already have a back up nice guy.

    This theory leads to some interesting predictions ..
    1) All the uglies and the fatties are actually seeking a provider like guy. They “give” sex as a manipulation tool and would be interested in your societal status.
    2) Women seeking purely non commital sex should already have a stable boyfriend or husband (and hence likely older and or settled).
    3)Women seeking non commital sex should seek highly visible indicators of male genetic quality.
    4) Women seeking non commmital sex would not care much about your societal status and would like you to be non connected to their social circle. Women would not engage in non commital sex with you if there is a chance that their friends see you with them.

    Some of the hottest looking women i know have been humongous “sluts”. You just wouldn;t know it if they were your office colleague.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Re. “Women in their 30s and early 40s are significantly more sexual than younger women. Women ages 27 through 45 report not only having more sexual fantasies (and more intense [ones]) than women ages 18 through 26 but also having more sex, period. And they are more willing than younger women to have casual sex, even one-night stands.”

    You should mention that the paper referred to offers a different explanation of this – that the product of the probability that a woman will offer sex, times the probability that she will get pregnant, is more likely to be constant than the probability that she will offer sex (in order to maintain a constant probability of getting pregnant).

    It might also make sense for women to be less risk-averse as they reach the end of their reproductive years.

    • http://www.permut.wordpress.com Michael Bishop

      I like the “less risk-averse” story, though it is probably inconsistent with other measures of risk-aversion.

      Why would a woman’s unconscious motivations seek to maintain a constant probability of getting pregnant rather than maximizing it?

  • ThePenileFamily

    Clarisse Thorn,

    You are a feminist. Feminists are amusing. Thank you. What you have shown me is a typical overreaction.

    Oligopsony, you said:

    Women use sex to get relationships, men use relationships to get sex” is a sexist statement, as surely as “compared to whites, blacks are naturally wired to pursue an r-strategy and Asians a K-strategy” is a racist statement. Whether either is true is an empirical question, but let’s not redefine sexist (racist, &c.) to automatically exclude anything you might endorse.

    You sound like you’ve been hit with the politically correct hammer. Please define those things which you have claimed need not be redefined. Judging from your dodge, I think you’ll have quite some trouble doing so. Fire away please…

  • Michelle

    Although I am not a feminist any more than any other normal woman, I am offended both by the article and the comments following. I would like to point out the “facts” stated: overweight teenage girls more inclined to have sex and the sexual statistics of college women are not reliable statistics. When surveying sensitive topics among any person, be it sex, religion, etc. people are not inclined to give true answers therefore the statistics are often skewed. I don’t think you could base any reliable article on such flimsy arguements. I also think many of the comments here are based on the inability of men to understand women. Men would like to think that women have less sex when they are young because of whatever reasons they can think up in their silly little heads. Maybe the attractive women just don’t want to have sex with YOU. ;) I also think that the social stigma branding women as sluts if they even show an iota of liking sex is part of the problem. And don’t tell me there isn’t a stigma because I have expierienced it first hand. I have had a man who I was actually interested in but never ended up being more than friends (I thought). Apparently one night we had sex (which we didn’t) and he told all his friends that I was a slut. ?? So I guess in men’s eyes that the desirability of a woman automatically makes her a slut in men’s eyes? If you don’t believe me, look at the porn industry. How many times in a common porn are women referred to as a slut or whore? Hmm its starting to make me wonder if men secretly are attracted to this for some reason. Perhaps they love and loathe the sexual control we have over them. Many women like sex just as much, maybe more, than many men. We can’t help it if we require a little more finesse to satisfy us than it takes to please a man. Believe me, I wish I could have an orgasm in a few minutes.

  • http://poormagazine.org Joseph Bolden

    Could it be that women do read the responses but
    don’t comment.

    I check out women’s websites hostile or not when
    talking about men, but don’t respond.

    If this Robin Hanson draws ire, anger, or hostility from
    the few women that do respond.

    Maybe its the way he his argument(s) that pisses them off.
    And for those that are pissed off anger just confuses the issue.
    Just tell the guy where went wrong, better yet you show
    statstics where R. H. is in error and leave it at that.

    I hope this helps both women and men converse more
    rationally with emotional intelligence as well.

  • Tim

    Women dont need good looks, charm confidence, status, success, intellect, humor or any positive quality to obtain casual sex. They can be painfully mediocre in every aspect and still get laid left and right.