Who Cares About Unsexy Men?

The 40% of moms unwed statistic I quoted yesterday jolted me into thinking more about something I knew was important, but had thought little about.  I don’t yet have much of an opinion on whether to embrace or resist the new low-marriage mating equilibrium we seem to be heading toward, something between US ghettos and Sweden today, relative to a high-marriage equilibrium we might instead choose, perhaps like Japan or Utah today.

While an awful lot isn’t clear here, two effects of low-marriage seem robust to me:

  1. Kids will spend less time with dads, and
  2. Men will have more unequal intimate sex.

This first effect is much noted, and with great concern.  Kids spending less time with dads suggests men less caring for kids, which suggests moms get less kid help unless strong alimony or subsidies compensate.  This effect seems to increase inequality among kids and moms, and is much noted and lamented.  As that over-the-top Time quote said:

It hurts children, it reduces mothers’ financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation’s underclass.

Time didn’t discuss the other effect, however, nor do most main-stream media mentions.  It is hinted at in this quote Tyler found:

“What are you looking for in a husband?” Without batting an eye or pausing for thought, [the young Swedish woman] answered: “Three things. One, he must be good in bed. Two, he must be a good father. Three, when we divorce, he mustn’t be bitter.”

When dads help with kids less, women tend more to choose sexy over kid-helping men.  Relative to a strong marriage world, sexy men are now more easily shared, either via two-timing, which is easier to manage in a world of fluid relationships, or via serial monogamy, where women wait longer than their men between relationships.   So the few sexiest men get more attention, at the expense of men who might otherwise have been good solid husbands.   (See Patri here for more.)

While dads who want more time with their kids are hurt in this new world, perhaps the total amount of sex goes up as male sex inequality goes up; so it is not clear what fraction of men actually get less sex.

But it is striking to me that people express far more concern about increased kidcare inequality of kids and moms, than about increased sex inequality of men.  Pundits express concern about male income inequality when women and kids depend on those men.  And US pundits  express concern about the unhappy unsexy men created by an imbalanced gender ratio in China, even though since China has a stronger marriage culture, they’ll have a much smaller fraction of unhappy men than we’ll have.  But why do US pundits express so much less concern about US men unhappy about sex inequality?

The obvious explanation I see is that complaining men look weak.  Women and men can both can seem attractively caring, i.e., good parent material, by expressing concern about moms and kids with unequal access to dads or kidcare.  But regarding male sex inequality, men have to act like they aren’t worried because they expect to be among the winners.  Men can express concern about unsexy men in other places, but offer sympathy for local unsexy men and people will suspect that you think you are one of them.

So who really cares about the suffering of unsexy men, besides their parents?

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  • Robots.

  • There is a point which one of the comments to the previous post addressed but which merits to be restated: Being born out of wedlock does not mean being born to a single mother.

    I took a very quick look at the Danish data (www.dst.dk), and they tell us that on January 1 2009, 56% of Danish children ages 0 years lived in a family with married parents, 34% in a family with a couple living together and 0,25% with a couple in a registered partnership (mostly lesbians, I’d guess). If we look at ten-year-olds, the distribution is 67% in a family with married parents, 12% couple living together and 0,06% with a couple in a registered partnership.

    So, have the family values gone down the sewer since 1999? Well, in Scandinavia, it is not uncommon for couples to marry after the birth of their first child. Unfortunately, the data doesn’t tell how many ten-year-olds who live with both biological parents, but my hunch is that marriages often split later.

    My guess is that the long working hours favoured by US and UK employers are as disruptive to father-child relations as divorce or births outside of formal wedlock.

    • I’m not sure how you could think I’m claiming that kids of unwed moms never have any men around. The claim is that men are around less in a low marriage culture.

      • Rob Hicks

        But surely that claim is also rebutted by this data? i.e. the original trend may indicate a decline in marriage but not two parent child raising (80-90% seem like high levels to me). Either that or low marriage cultures aren’t sufficiently homogeneous to pool the US and Scandinavia into “low marriage” sets.

        Also, deducing evidence for the second effect from an anecdotal observation from what you’ve already implied is a poorly written article seems a bit flimsy. The way it’s written you could equally assume the interviewee was flirting with or boasting to the interviewer.

      • Mikko

        I think you have no proof, at all, to your claim that man living together with a woman spends less time with his child than a man in marriage.

        Especially, in scandinavia, the culture is such that people tend to have long and loving relationships and have kids. It’s just like marriage except they are not married.

        You seem to have a bias which you are currently unable to overcome.

      • Rob Hicks

        Mikko, you’re missing the point of this forum. The purpose is seemingly for US (the readership) to overcome OUR biases, not for the authors to confront theirs.

        You’ve got a good point though, I think this is more representative of a widespread bias amongst some intellectuals that their at a disadvantage compared to the brash sexually aggressive neanderthals (and arts professors) who keep stealing their girls. I’d call it a “nerd heuristic” if someone else hadn’t already pinched it.

  • Redbud

    Four unsexy male friends found super (and young) wives in the Philippines. Another is enamored of his pretty Russian wife and their new babies. Where there’s a will, there’s a way ;-).

    Celebrate our free market!

  • denton


  • redbud

    Jacob, if you work out US tax tables, to marry without a child is a tax loss, to marry with one child is about even, and to marry with two children is a benefit. The tax code favors “single” parents, though I doubt anyone acts for this reason 😉

  • Peter Twieg

    Why is this an “unsexy man” problem and not an “unsexy woman” problem as well? All that adding reproductive roles does in this context is ensure that women will gravitate towards relatively sexy men when they want to conceive… but given that that’s presumably only a small proportion of their total sexual activity, then I’m not seeing where the meaningful asymmetry is coming from.

    Lest Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt divide and conquer the entire female population of the Earth, I’d guess that the limiting factor here is obvious – that people have limited energy to expend on relationships, and they would prefer to expend it upon high-quality mates, and thus a low-quality female would not be sufficiently appealing to a high-quality male to justify his paying attention to her over another high-quality female… and thus assortative mating. To put it in more meaningful terms, I doubt there are many males who:

    (a) Are decent enough to be marriage material
    (b) Cannot pull of a Craigslist hookup

    As females become more “liberated”, I’d expect this to only become more true.

    • a_c

      I think that women are more tolerant of infidelity from their mates than men are with infidelity in theirs. This means that there will be more pseudo-stable polygynous men, which will drain a disproportionate number of women out of the active dating market.

      Also, what with all this concern about inequality, it would be amusing to see what an “affirmative-action” or “quotas” system for unsexy men would be like.

  • Peter Twieg:

    Men want more sex. There is more sex with Brad Pitt on the market than there is with Angelina Jolie.

    Men will want more sex even when women come more “liberated”. And many decent men, who would be good providers and partners can’t pull of a Graigslist hookup.

    Even the parents like their sexy sons better than unsexy ones. But I guess there is always prostitution and third world women for unsexy men of developed world.

    • Peter Twieg

      Men will want more sex even when women come more “liberated”.

      This strikes me as something that can’t just be asserted. And even if it were true, how would this create an asymmetry that doesn’t currently exist, unless it’s being implied that women in committed relationships have more sex than they would otherwise for the sake of their mates? If this is so, could we really consider this a good thing?

      • I think it’s quite simple. Sexual desire is about reproduction, and because of differing parental investments the male strategy is quantity and female strategy is quality.

        So high quality males will have a high quantity of sex, and high quantity of women will have high quality sex. There’s the simple imbalance.

        I don’t see how the imbalance doesn’t exist now. It exists with the clients of prostitutes and it exists with the users of pornography.

        “unless it’s being implied that women in committed relationships have more sex than they would otherwise for the sake of their mates? ”

        well prostitutes have more sex than they would otherwise for the sake of money. And probably even women in relationships have sex for the sake of their mates, eventhough men want more sex and especially with varied partners.

    • pap26

      Paavo Ojala:

      Men want more sex… Men will want more sex even when women come more “liberated”.

      I assume you have proof of some kind?

  • JohnF

    Perhaps this could be linked to the observation that unequal access to sex is not generally considered a morally compelling issue? See, for instance, your related post:

    When US pundits express concern over the gender ratio in China, is it really because of concern for the feelings of the men who do not have much sex? Or is it generally more because of the potential broader social implications of such unequal access?

  • Rosyatrandom

    I’m an unsexy man and don’t mind admitting it to all and sundry….

    • Strong counter-signaling! Well, I’m sexy. And I’m narcissistic. Which is also sexy.

      • Robert

        Robin must be really hot to be getting away with all of this sympathy for low status males. Watch out unsexy men, Robin is managing to appear both sexy and caring simultaneously!

        I might try the same strategy – regularly talk condescendingly about my pity for low status males in the modern world, in order to dominate women and further crush their dwindling chances.

        I guess getting married, this presumably isn’t so useful for you Will.

  • bevamirage

    Have you been talking to that marginal revolution guy? Because he’s pretty obsessed with this guy who covers these topics in humorous detail.

    • kvn

      I read Roissy. It seems a lot of other people on OB read him as well. What’s the connection?

      Is it Roissy’s fixation on Evolutionary Psych? His willingness to flout convention and use signaling theory? Or is everyone just looking for practical advice?

      • tndal

        Roissy tries, but fails, to frame discussions of “alpha male” behavior in the context of singles bar and the poseurs one finds there. But alpha males don’t frequent singles bars. Instead they are busy building their career in business and politics. And the likelihood of finding fertile, healthy women suitable for reproduction is lower in singles bars than in other venues (not to mention the high risk of contracting a disease that may terminate your genetic line).

        Some, but not all, behaviors found in singles bars are shared by other primates. Put 20 alpha male gorillas in a room with 20 female gorillas and see what happens. Humans aren’t the same species: we have some unique behaviors.

  • Solution: Unsexy men pool resources to pay sexy men to be monogamous and monitored. A good source of income for untalented actors.

    Also, to agree with Peter Tweig, matching. My sense is that both men and women prefer partners of approximately equal or greater sexiness. So an extremely sexy man may have fewer interesting (to him) opportunities than an averagely sexy man.

    To agree further with Peter, I think, the psychological rewards to long-term, high-quality romantic partnerships are extremely high. This fact is not lost on most people. It will be least lost to people with the lowest discount rates for time. Those tend to be the most intelligent people. And, hey!, intelligence is mildly positively correlated with physical attractiveness. So I hypothesize that good-looking people are slightly more likely to internalize the commitment strategies needed to maintain strong exclusive relationships over the long term. Could be true!

    Also, culture and matching. Is it your sense that attractive, high-human capital men have more sex than less attractive low-human capital men. It’s not mine. The multiplicity of status hierarchies is important here, I’d think.

    • Will Wilkinson:

      Can’t tell if that’s a tongue-in-cheek solution or not. But if not, I’ll point out that the payments would have to be pretty damn high, and that the monogamy proposed would have to be with a very desirable mate, but I suppose that’s what you are implying.

      Interesting suggestion that high desirability might correlate to high-investment in long term relationships (via high intelligence and low future discount rates). But I think that many desirable men today use exactly that high intelligence and concern for the future to stay away from marriage. They perceive the laws and the societal mores as stacked precipitously against their interests when it comes to marriage. One can argue if this is true but the perception, at least, is widespread that marriage has become a fool’s bargain for desirable men.

      Also, I can’t parse your last paragraph. Can you put it in plainer terms? What is an example of “high-human capital men”? And I know what “multiplicity of status hierarchies” means in general, but I can’t tell what you mean to say by this.

      • Master Dogen,

        Tongue-in-cheek, yes.

        Last paragraph… An example of a high human capital man is Robin Hanson. Actually that’s sort of a terrible example. That’s like, “an example of a rich person is Warren Buffet.” I mean men who have invested heavily in the cultivation of remunerative skills. So, anyone with a relatively high level of education. Everyone who finished college. Everyone who reads this blog, even the ones still in college. (Highly educated people tend to forget how rare it is to finish college, much less grad school.)

        By “multiplicity of status hierarchies,” I mean there are a lot of different communities and sub-cultures, and each of them has its own norms for conferring status upon people, and for ranking them according to their status. If you’re an academic, it’s higher status to teach at Penn than George Mason, but my dad doesn’t know that and he wouldn’t care. Likewise, cool punk girls want to be with the coolest guy in the punk scene, not the coolest guy in the metal scene. In the context above, I had in mind the fact that a reputation for sleeping with lots of different women, and perhaps having children by a number of different mothers signals high status in some communities and subcultures, but signals wretchedly low status in others.

    • Vilhelm S

      Solution: Unsexy men pool resources to pay sexy men to be monogamous and monitored. A good source of income for untalented actors.

      I don’t think this can work at all.

      Suppose that men are willing to have sex with 10 times as many partners as women, so women will only sleep with the most attractive 10% of then men. So the other 90% of the men get together and pay the alpha males to be monogamous, effectively removing them from the dating pool along with the 10% most attractive women.

      Now the remaining 90% of women will STILL only sleep with the top 10% of the remaining men! So every man below the 81st percentile is being a chump, paying an pretty-boy actor without getting any benefit out of it.

      What this example shows is that there is no hope of collective action: every man on the margin of desirability has to pay the full price of removing a rival. Which is no improvement over simply bribing the good-looking guy in the singles-bar to leave.

      My sense is that both men and women prefer partners of approximately equal or greater sexiness.

      And there are even hard numbers on it! See figure 1A of
      http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=950782 🙂

  • andrew c

    This post signalled to me that the author is unsexy.

  • Z. M. Davis

    “But why do US pundits express so much less concern about US men unhappy about sex inequality?”

    The obvious explanation I see is that the unsexy men can just learn to masturbate. Honestly—it’s not difficult. The comparison to childcare is absurd.

    • Robert

      Goal of sex isn’t just ejaculation – it’s validation by a woman.

      • Doug S.

        This is a point that perhaps bears repeating.

        If there is a woman that wants to have sex with you, that’s a good reason not to think of yourself as a “loser” or whatever other term you want to use to describe someone worthy of contempt.

      • Anonymous

        To Robert and Doug S.
        “Not thinking of yourself as a loser” is a mental feedback loop, just like pleasure from ejaculation, only decoupled from your peripheral hardware. Its purpose is the same though, that is, to motivate you to get a mate and ensure reproduction, so I don’t see why with a bit of introspection you couldn’t short-circuit it too, if you don’t care about its goal and it’s cheaper than “the obvious default way out the evolution intended” in the long run.

  • John Maxwell IV


    They teach at the same university. 😉

  • I’m not sure of how all the greek-letter terminology works, but I’ll second Rosyatrandom and say I’m well below beta. Due to my puritanical attitudes though I don’t so much pity bottom-tier men as much as I wish the brood-parasite cads were run out of town on a rail lest they at best drain my tax dollars through their dysfunctional offspring or at worst shift our society toward sub-Saharan African norms.

    In case anybody brings it up here, a while back I tried to defend myself from charges of irrational bias against polygamy at my own blog.

    • kvn

      My understanding of the greek letter terminology is this:

      Alphas: Small minority of men who attract many female partners. They gain partners with their sexiness/dominance/power/glamor, etc.

      Betas: Gain a few female partners, not with sexiness, but primarily by promising resources, fidelity, niceness, etc. The large majority of men are betas. They have sex with a small number of partners, then get married.

      Sometimes another category is included, Omegas. Omegas are men who have no or extremely few prospective female partners. These are homeless men, antisocial loners, guys who are profoundly weird, etc.

      • Noumenon

        [i]These are homeless men, antisocial loners, guys who are profoundly weird, etc.[/i]

        All my homeys in the house say “yeah!”

        I’m so darn nurturing, but not sexy, so what I do is go over to my sister’s house and play with her little babies until I am all out of love, then I go home and watch amazing porn in peace and quiet. It’s a good life, I hope all the unsexy men adapt as well.

        My sister’s getting divorced, incidentally, and her babies’ father has already moved on to some Canadian woman.

  • Robert

    If high status males have little interest in relationships with lower quality women (and why bother if high quality women are now waiting around for them), why would low quality women hold out for them with little chance of success? Better to settle for a low quality male, and leave if something better comes up (unlikely).

    Hard to see what the equilibrium strategy is here.

    My guess is that men are more willing to have flings with lower quality women than public monogamous (if brief) relationships with them. This means high status men are more likely to dominate via two timing with other women, and in particular, staying out of relationships in favour of flings with many different women at about the same time.

    The fact that people can control having children makes this more complicated. The rich and higher status choose to have fewer children, but can also enter more relationships. I think it’s probably better to work out mating strategies for sex and relationships first, then see how costs of children change things given observed propensities to have children for different kinds of men.

  • judge for yourselves.

  • Men will have more unequal intimate sex.

    I don’t see this following. And even if it was true, the question was – will there be more sex or less. If there will be more and higher quality sex (what seems to be a very robust conclusion, with increased competition for both men and women, as opposed to local monopoly access), amount and quality of sex for median man and woman might be much higher anyway, even if inequality increases.

    As a personal observation, I don’t think I would have that much more sex than I have now even if I looked like Johnny Depp, there are physiological limits and marginal returns get low quickly enough. It would surprise me if median man wasn’t able to reach this point after the new equilibrium sets.

  • Robert

    Tomasz: Concern is not for median man, but rather below average status men, who probably already struggle to get many sexual partners. Also, sex in marriage may be more intimate as more sexual partners tend to reduce the intimacy of sex.

  • Tomasz: Concern is not for median man, but rather below average status men, who probably already struggle to get many sexual partners. Also, sex in marriage may be more intimate as more sexual partners tend to reduce the intimacy of sex.
    Sorry… forgot to say great post – can’t wait to read your next one!

  • Mike

    Do you think there is a solution for male sex inequality in increased tolerance for pornography and prostitution?

    In our present culture, one might say that unsexy men learn that they must acquire traits that make them good fathers (become sensitive and work hard to make lots of money etc.), so they can compensate for being unsexy and still attract a sexual partner.

    Maybe in the world you talk about, unsexy mean will learn to focus even more on making money, so they can literally buy sex.

    It just occurred to me there’s another historical trend that fits into this: increased labor equality. Going back to a day of high labor inequality (between men and women), women relied more on men for money. There’s a saying, “why buy the cow when you get the milk for free.” But this cuts both ways: women are advised to withhold sex in order to get commitment from men, but the other side is the contract of marriage is arranged so that men do not share control of assets until they get sex. Labor inequality would allow (unsexy) men to barter for sex even if marriage and father roles broke down. Perhaps all this isn’t mentioned above because it’s seen as obvious.

  • josh

    It’ll be interesting to watch as Robin works through the logic of what this new norm may mean. All warfare is limited by whether one side thinks they can gain a material advantage by employing a tactic. The way I see it, there is a different Nash equilibrium in terms of men competing in a monogamous culture than in a serial polygynist culture. I think this could be very bad if high levels of cooperation, such as the ability to create large corporations, or to promote without relying on nepotism, are important in economic growth.

  • JSK

    @Andrew c:
    My thoughts exactly. *makes L-shape with thumb and index finger*

    On topic:
    relative to a high-marriage equilibrium we might instead choose, perhaps like Japan

    According to this stat (http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/peo_mar_rat-people-marriage-rate) the marriage rate in Japan is not particularily high: below that of Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark closer to that of Sweden. Hanson probably thought “if the Japanese have a low percentage of children being born out of wedlock, then marriage must be relatively prevalent” (see yesterdays post). But there is an second option namely: Japanese women are even less inclined to get children than to marry.

    Its the reason why Japan has the oldest population on the planet. This state of affairs did not come about because of some anti-marriage liberal (socialist) philosophy, as Hanson seems to suggest: Family Values are still paramount in Japan, probably even moreso than in the US. However, its the young women – espescially the college educated – who decided to opt out. If women has to quit her job after getting married – as is customary in Japan – then educated women will increasingly refrain from marriage.

  • As I recall history shows that societies pay the cost for men with unequal access to women. When you have a large number of men with no real chance of gaining access to sex (and hence reproduction), those men are inspired to rebel against the current authority in order to change the odds in their favor (they may claim they want to reform and make things equal, and they might, but it’s sufficient if they change who has access to women).

    Consider, the Boxer Uprising might not have happened if these men had been able to marry. Similarly, African coups might be avoided and terrorism diminished. I’m not saying unequal access to sex is the only reason these problems arose/arise, but it is an important part of it: married men usually have too much to lose to rebel unless they are put in such dire straits that it’s the only possible way to protect their children.

  • Larry

    My sense is that both men and women prefer partners of approximately equal or greater sexiness. So an extremely sexy man may have fewer interesting (to him) opportunities than an averagely sexy man.

    I disagree with Will Wilkinson’s point. Many, perhaps most, appealing men will have sex with the most attractive woman who is close at hand and will have sex with them. If an appealing man is at a bar he will first hit on an equally appealing woman. But if this woman turns him down he will generally proceed to the next most appealing woman. It’s the “closing time at the bar” scenario.

    He wouldn’t have a relationship with these less attractive women, but he will gladly have sex with them instead of having no sex that night.

    But the less attractive woman will probably think she has a shot at having a relationship with this more attractive guy, so she has sex with him. And is surprised when he has sex with her and never calls her again. She complains that guys won’t commit. It’s not guys who won’t commit, but these highly appealing guys who won’t commit to her, a woman who is less attractive than them.

  • josh

    Also, all men prefer partners that are much more attractive than they are. Duh.

  • Rob

    I don’t agree with this but you can’t criticize Roissy for lack of… will:


  • Before we feel sorry for anyone, shouldn’t we first attempt to understand what is triggering this shift in the mating equilibrium? Consider these possible explanations:

    The expanding availability of free and low-cost Internet porn has made sex (and hence marriage) less appealing to men.
    Changes in child support laws has made it easier for moms to forcibly extract resources from (possibly unwilling) dads, and therefore made marriage less appealing to women.

    I don’t claim these exhaust the range of possibilities, but it seems clear that who we should feel sympathy for depends on what’s going on, which I don’t think we know yet.

    • MichaelBishop


  • Grant

    There seems to be a ton of hand-waving about this topic, especially at blogs such as Roissy’s. Where is the hard data? If we’re trying to overcome bias, lets look at the hard facts first.

    Is there data to support the idea that tribal societies were filled with polygamous ‘alphas’ and single ‘betas’? Browsing wikipedia shows that 80% of marriages in polygamous societies involve one husband and one wife. The vast majority of human societies (and thus an even vaster majority of actual humans) are, either in practice or in law, monogamous.

    In societies where financial benefits are not given to the woman upon divorce, do women still initiate most divorces?

    Are there more wives who get bored of their husbands than vise-versa? This would be very hard for me to believe.

    • Psychohistorian

      I believe polygamy in early societies was promoted by high male mortality. There was a lot of tribal warfare, and some cases where the test of manhood was to kill a man from the warring tribe. Add to this hunting casualties, intra-tribal warfare, and general male risk-taking behaviour.This would make polygamy agreeable to pretty much everyone, since the alternative would be a bunch of single women, which isn’t best for anyone.

      • Grant

        I’d always thought the higher male mortality was balanced out by a high rate of death during childbirth?

        Whether I’m right or wrong, I’d still like to see a lot more data and citations which discussing topics like these.

      • Richard

        Pretty much by definition, women who die in childbirth have had sex. Men who have to go through a kill-or-be-killed trial as a test of manhood. pretty much by definition haven’t.

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  • bonara

    Does anyone know of a good study/survey on why do people (men and women) divorce?

    It could help us start understanding the theme of this thread.

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  • who cares

    i just read a little bit of this and thot ‘who cares about this?’ the writing is bad. i think you are trying to sound clever or intellectual or something. just say what you have to say plainly

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