It seems that no matter where I am in my life someone is standing at the ready to declare, “You’re a seller on a buyer’s market! Lower your price!”
As if hearing it from my mother (“You’re too picky”), my friends (“The good men are all gone”) and the world at large (“You have waited too long”) isn’t bad enough, I recently had a prospective suitor use this ever-so-charming line:
“Before you say no, just hear me out. I’ve done the math and I’ve calculated that for every available man your age there are forty women. 40! Now, if you don’t mind me saying, you are not all that attractive. So, if you have any hope of finding a man you are going to have to compromise. Why not let me buy you a drink?”
Recently, it has become popular to apply basic understanding of supply and demand to the markets for sex and love. The logic usually flows along these lines (at least when it comes to heterosexual dating): Women are sellers, and men are buyers, on the market for sex and love because sex is more important to men than it is to women and, as a result, women have to be compensated to have sexual relationships with men.
In this view of the market, when you increase the number of available women relative to the number of available men, the price women can sell their “services” for falls until a new equilibrium — one in which women are sold at bargain basement — is reached.
And for some reason, when these stories are told, it’s always the women who are forced to compete on an overcrowded market.
The simplicity of this story may be compelling to some, but it’s a poor description how the actual market for sex and love operates; the real economic story is so much more elegant and enlightening than this simple understanding of market behavior.
The market for love is better described as a barter economy — an economy in which there is no money to simplify transactions. When money can be used in transactions, I can trade with anyone who is selling what I want to buy simply by giving them cash, but when money can’t be used I can only trade with someone who is both selling what I want to buy and is buying what I have to sell.
Trading in this market requires what’s called a “double coincidence of wants” — if I have services that I want to acquire the only way I can do that is to find another person who both has services that I want available to trade and wants the services I am offering. and when what you really want is a lover who satisfies your every heart’s desire, waiting for a coincidence can be a long and frustrating process.
This distinction between markets that depend on money and those that depend on barter might seem insignificant, but it goes a long way to explaining why it can take a long time for people to find a partner they like. It’s not because women are setting their price too high; it is simply because these barter economies are horribly inefficient.
Let me give you an example of a specific market that proves my point.
There is a perception, shared by the gentleman I mentioned above, that if a woman is over forty and is single then she is part of a market in which women are greatly disadvantaged because men her age are (inexplicably) in relatively short supply and because women are (inexplicably) over-charging for the services they are supplying.
The reality is that it is difficult for both men and women on this market because these singles are trying to satisfy their double coincidence of wants on a market that has very few players (there simply aren’t as many people over forty who are single and looking as there are in other age groups). Finding a person who wants to buy what you are selling and is selling what you want to buy when there are few market participants not only difficult — it is sometimes impossible.
Failure to find the love of your life might make it seem like there is a shortage on the other side of the market, but that is most likely an illusion created by the complexities of a market in which money isn’t being used to stimulate trade.
I haven’t settled down for a life of compromise with the suitor I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Not because passive aggressive pick-up lines don’t turn me on (they don’t, but that is another issue), but rather because he is on the market for a submissive woman who recognizes his authority in the home, and that is not a quality I am selling. Nor am I interested in purchasing the services of a bossy husband — not at any price.
Marina Adshade’s first book, Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love, was published in March.