The economics of a college campus

Economic theory has been recognized and applied to our behavior since Darwin first discovered the works of Thomas Malthus. In order for there to be evolution, there must be a limited supply of resources and consequently some competition for those resources. In every species, a mate is a resource. Our biological fitness relies on our ability to find a mate and pass on our genes. The current sex situation in our society is a result of the influence of two things on this innate behavior. First of all, many people have figured out that sex can be enjoyable (thus we want it despite having no current aspirations for reproduction) and second, as a general rule humans have developed into a dual gender courtship species, thereby requiring displays of affection, charms, and expressions of interest from both men and women.

A change occurred in the 1960s and 1970s in American society that has liberated women from the stigma of sex before marriage. It’s certainly not gone, but with the increasing education of women, the delay of marriage in favor of furthering careers, and the general acceptance that marriage is simply not the road for everyone, women are increasingly likely to engage in pre-marital sex and to be comfortable with it. This on it’s own can be a very good thing. As Windsor and Burgess advocate, having a sex-positive outlook is much healthier because it makes knowledge and education accessible and leads to healthier, happier people. 

The problem however, is that women in our age group (18-23) are not happier. This freedom they have been granted has not promoted sex-positivity and openness. It has lead instead to the economizing of sexual acts,discouraging some individuals and decreasing the frequency of healthy sexual relationships.

In 2011, sociologists Regnerus and Uecker, of University of Texas and University of North Carolina respectively, published a book about the way young Americans engage in relationships and decide how they will progress. After a decade of study they reported that women who have had multiple sex partners are ten times more likely to experience elevated symptoms of depression. These results occurred after the onset of sexual behavior. Proof of a causal relationship was not proven but a definite correlation was seen. Some men and many women reported feeling disrespected after engaging in casual sex.

The researchers also found that “men are typically in control of when dating begins, but women are in control of when sex begins—and it often begins earlier than they want.” This is a slightly different argument than Kathleen Bogle’s (Hooking Up) who portrayed the struggle of developing relationships in a hook up culture, yet it follows the same logic. Television, movies, and our parents (or fathers) frequently reinforce the stereotypes. Men want sex and women either give it to them or they don’t. The problem comes from the different points at which women find it appropriate to allow sexual activity. Regnerus and Uecker went on to report that “women are increasingly competing with each other for the affections of increasingly rare high-quality men who are willing to commit.” In a world where sex is easier to acquire, more men are less enticed by the idea of committing to just one mate. Women don’t necessarily see the difference so they end up moving faster sexually than they would otherwise choose in a non-competitive environment for fear of losing the man to someone who moves faster than them.

College is probably the best time and place to see how these changes effect women. In the past, there were always far more men on campuses than women and consequently, men had to work harder to secure a date. Now that most colleges enroll an equal or greater proportion of women than men, the opportunities abound for men looking to find a new partner. As evident in Bogle’s book, women “hook up” with men often believing that it will lead to something more. This pretty much jumps the starting point that Uecker and Regnerus assume comes first. The point where a man initiates a date doesn’t have to arise on the timeline at all, let alone first. Women are basically doing this to ourselves. We hear it constantly. We even spout advice to our friends that we then ignore ourselves. Hook ups could have potential. There’s always the exception, right?

Sure there’s a double standard, but basically we as a group are creating it. By not voicing what we want and giving in, we make it less and less about men competing for sex, and more about women competing for relationships.

Evolution is all about promotion of the most fit behaviors. The number of men accustomed to not having to work for sex will likely increase until something changes in women’s behavior. It’s simple economics, “when women compete for men, men win: the price of sex goes down.”


Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. John Murray Publishing. 1859

Bogle, Kathleen. “Hooking Up: Men, Women, and the Sexual Double Standard.” NYU Press. 2008

Windsor, Elroi and Elisabeth Burgess. “Sex Matters: Future Visions for a Sex-Positive Society.” Allyn and Bacon. 2003

Premarital Sex in America. How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying. Mark Regnerus, Jeremy Uecker. Oxford University Press, 2011

A Man’s World. “The sexual economics of college campuses empower men at the expense of women.” World Magazine. Marvin Olasky. May 20, 2011

2 thoughts on “The economics of a college campus

  1. Jthinks: great use of in class and external readings and research. Remember that when you provide evidence for an argument in the form of a quote, you must provide the author and page number. Work toward that for your next post.

    Your use of economic and biological models here is intriguing. I am left wondering a few things. 1) what about women who can’t reproduce (i.e. “infertile” women), how do they factor in? 2) what about women (straight and/or gay) that choose to not reproduce? And 3) what about women who just enjoy casual sex or “hooking up” how do they factor in to your models? Such women do exist, don’t they?

    Good work.

  2. From an evolutionary perspective, the roles of non-reproducing individuals would essentially be insignificant because they aren’t passing on their genes. Ironically in humans, passing on genes isn’t the common way behaviors are propagated. Sexual habits in particular are often propagated by family values, our own observations, and trends in our peers. We don’t rely on reproductive success to have an effect on society anymore. A woman who boldly gets what she wants, for whatever reasons, is going to be replicated by other women. They don’t have to be her daughters.
    I guess what I didn’t explain fully is how we have moved on from reproduction as the only way to pass on our success.
    I don’t think infertile women or those who decide not to have children are any less important in this analysis because the studies of these behaviors are often in college age groups. Women aren’t necessarily battling for mates. In the case of those who enjoy casual sex, they’re not even competing for a real relationship.
    The argument I wish to impart is how each woman is competing for something. This competition originated in the evolutionary fight for a mate. And this competition lowers the price of sex.

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