Why do women participate in uncommitted sex? It’s not because they prefer “hooking up” to committed relationships and marriage. Most women don’t actually like casual sex.
One important reason so many women participate in uncommitted sex is because they are caught in what economists commonly call a prisoner’s dilemma.
Timothy Reichert explains this in his groundbreaking article, Bitter Pill. The prisoners’ dilemma is any social setting where all parties have a choice between cooperating with one another and noncooperation. All parties would be better off if they cooperated! But like prisoners held for questioning in separate chambers – and offered individual deals which seemingly advantage the prisoner as an individual – they accept what seems to be the best individual choice. As a result, everyone involved is worse off.
A woman in a dating market, confronted by a man who lets her choose between a sexual relationship and no relationship, is caught in the prisoner’s dilemma.
Men can demand uncommitted sex because the availability of contraception and abortion makes sex look “consequence free.” The social pressure for marriage before sex is weakened. Consequently, the “price of sex” spirals down below women’s desired level of commitment from a man.
Women as a group would be better off if they collectively refused sex before commitment. Yet women individually agree to uncommitted sex, on the understanding that if they say “no,” it is easy for the man to find another woman who will say “yes.”
Here’s how the “prisoner’s dilemma” plays out, compelling women into uncommitted sex they don’t want:
- Men no longer connect sex with commitment and marriage. Reichert explains that when sex without pregnancy becomes the norm, sexual partners don’t even have to consider the possibility of marriage.
- Fewer numbers of men than women seek marriage in their early to mid-twenties, ie. enter the “marriage market”. Rather, more women than men populate the “marriage market” at younger ages especially because women are biologically designed to have children when they are younger. By their early 30s, most women have entered the marriage market. Men have no similar, inbuilt impetus to leave the “sex market” and enter the marriage market. Thus women face more competition in the marriage market, where there are lower numbers of men.
- Consequently, women have uncommitted sex in the hope of successfully competing with other women for committed love.
In addition to compelling women into uncommitted sex, the imbalanced marriage market disadvantages women in other ways.
The imbalanced ratio of male-to female power leads women to more often strike “bad deals” at the margins of the marriage market. This increases the divorce rate, and likely informs the statistic that women file for divorce far more often than men.
Understanding the “prisoner’s dilemma” is crucial to rebutting the feminist mantra that casual sex advances women’s freedom.
When someone claims that women must want casual sex, or else they wouldn’t be having it, the prisoner’s dilemma explains that women are imprisoned by the expectation of uncommitted sex. Women pursue uncommitted sex because they believe it is their “price of entry” for romance and committed love. It is a high price to pay, and has broad and far-reaching consequences.