Inequality is on a lot of people’s minds these days.  For example, living in New York, I have friends who work on Wall Street and I have friends who have sat in on Occupy Wall Street.  Makes for some interesting conversations.

So let me give you a little thought experiment about inequality.

Imagine you had a marketplace.  For a long period of time, there are certain regulations on how that marketplace functions that have the effect of ensuring greater equality of outcomes.  Over a few decades, that market is deregulated, and in this particular case, one result is that you begin to see more and more inequality.  More are left with none (particularly those at the bottom, often through no fault of their own), while a smaller number of winners start to do very well for themselves (often through no virtue of their own).

You would think that liberals would howl in protest, right?  Not so fast.

Because I’m not describing a financial market, I’m describing the dating or sexual market.

Take marriage.  Marriage is an institution that imposes fairly radical equality on sexual outcomes.  Yes, some will cheat, some will play the field, but all in all, a society with widespread monogamy is a much more (sexually) equal society than one without it.

Keep in mind that based on various genetic analyses, we now know that about 40% of past men left behind modern descendants, whereas 80% of past women have.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have been egalitarian in many respects, but when it came to reproductive success, they were anything but egalitarian.  Widespread monogamy reduces that inequality.

Think of marriage as a regulation (yes, a regulation) imposed by both culture and the state.  What we have seen over the past half-century is enormous cultural and legal deregulation and a corresponding decline in marriage: lower marriage rates, higher divorce rates, higher illegitimacy, higher single parenthood.

Furthermore, there is a vast social science literature suggesting the uncomfortable truth that single parenthood (the reality is that it’s usually single motherhood) is associated with worse outcomes for children than growing up in a two-parent family.

This is not to blame single mothers.  And if I were a single father, there would be all kinds of things that I would struggle with or not be able to provide (breast milk being only one).

(Also, I realize that a portion of this association of single parenthood and worse social outcomes may be correlation and not causation, but I would wager that the absence of a father is a fairly serious developmental challenge for boys who are trying to learn to harness testosterone in individually- and socially-productive directions.  I am also acutely aware that some marriages are completely dysfunctional and divorce may be the better option in those cases.)

So first, from the perspective of children, the decline of marriage has increased the inequality of home environments.  And second, from the perspective of men, when it comes to sex, well, put it this way: if there were a gini coefficient for sex, it would be a hell of a lot higher today than it was in the 1950s.  And third, while I don’t go into it here in this post, I’d be surprised if there hasn’t been increasing inequality on the female front too, based on what women value in the sexual marketplace.

Consider the sexual marketplace from the male perspective.  While certain male alphas at the top have always gotten “more than their fair share” of women even in widely monogamous societies (say, JFK), my sense is that it’s much more common these days for some men, usually in the major urban centers, to sleep with substantial numbers of attractive, young women in their physical prime.  On the other hand, many more men stay at home, masturbate to pornography, and play videos games.  Male sexual inequality has risen.

Is this important?

Well, if you take a holistic view of health and well being, then I think you have to conclude that it is.  Again, speaking only from a man’s perspective: a lot of problems melt away if a man is getting good, regular sex from a woman.  I don’t want to reduce a man’s needs just to sex — we are slightly more complicated and unique snowflakes than that.  (But only slightly.)  I’ll let women describe what causes their problems to melt away. 

So why do liberals pay so much attention to financial inequality, but seem to ignore other types of meaningful inequality?

(I realize I’m generalizing when I refer to liberals and conservatives, the left and the right.  Please be charitable.)

More confounding to me is that it’s often liberals who reject the materialism of market-based society, and yet seem utterly fixated on financial inequality to the exclusion of other meaningful sorts of inequality.  Even more confusing to me is that many highly-educated liberals actually behave quite conservatively in their own dating and marriage choices.  Upper-middle / upper class people tend to get married and stay married — in sharp contrast to lower class folks, and increasingly, middle class ones too.  In 1960, 88% of upper middle class and 83% of working class were married. In 2010, 83% of upper middle class and 48% of working class were married.

Not only is the decline of marriage an indication of increasing sexual inequality, it is a major contributor to increasing economic inequality.  For example, divorced mothers are one of the most at-risk groups of falling from the middle class to the lower class.  Some researchers (including from the center-left Brookings Institute) have attributed up to half of the rise of income inequality over the past few decades to changes in family composition away from two-parent families.

Of course, to advocate for an institution like marriage would seem prudish and illiberal and religious and would send all sorts of signals that most young, idealistic liberals don’t want to send.  It would force folks to make moral judgments that they may not be comfortable making.

So I guess this is a challenge: Anybody who takes economic inequality seriously should 1) take other forms of inequality seriously, and 2) look at the decline of marriage and be very concerned for both financial and non-financial reasons.

But I just don’t see that concern on the left.  I can only conclude that the liberal concern about inequality is limited to certain spheres, usually financial, that fit into their worldview.  I hope I’m wrong!

Note: I have only focused on the left in this piece, not on the right.  I can write a mirror-image of this piece for the right, since the right can be pretty delusional as to the actual underlying reasons for the long-term decline of marriage — which I think is an important effect to understand and which I think the right is correct to be concerned about, but which started long before homosexuality and gay marriage came to the fore in the culture wars.

23 Responses to “On (sexual) inequality”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Not sure if this was said yet (some of the comments were too intimidating as one lone piece), but I would say it’s pretty well documented (don’t ask me to relay to documentation here, but I was a Sociology major…or just google it) that people in upper-middle class/upper class tend to get married and stay married because they marry later, tend to date longer before marrying, and have kids at a later date.  Mostly due to higher levels of education.  Generally, highly educated people marry later and have kids later (who’s going to get married and start a family while writing a PhD thesis?), and people who get married later and have kids later generally don’t get divorced as often.


    I don’t know why this confused you, John, or why you called it "conservative practices."  Upper middle class is better educated, and better educated means better marriage.  Generally.  Not really that confusing.

  2. sunmoon says:

    Thank you for your post on sexual inequality. I got some practical useful information from the given conversation in this post about your friend. This is really interesting and educative though.


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  3. Jordan says:

    Very interesting post; I had never considered that there might be a link between monogamy and economic equality.  That’ll give me a good bit to ponder on this afternoon.

  4. Christina says:

     Hi John,

    I thought your article presented a very interesting political call to action, and I’m not sure if you’re into Google+ but we’ve been having some substantive discussions about your points on there.  Here are the URLs of the posts if you want to take a look or jump in:

    The original post I read the article from:

    My reshare:



  5. Jordan says:

    Very interesting post; I had never considered that there might be a link between monogamy and economic equality.  That’ll give me a good bit to ponder on this afternoon.

  6. Jordan says:

    Very interesting post; I had never considered that there might be a link between monogamy and economic equality.  That’ll give me a good bit to ponder on this afternoon.

  7. Andrew says:

     So, am I missing something here? Not getting laid is a world away from foreclosure, guys.

  8. PJ says:

    You have a point.

    Note: The ‘preview’ on your comments makes it appear to eat every paragraph break and run everything together. Not sure if that is going to be the tragic result here or not. ;-)  

    I wasn’t sure where you were going with this until near the end there. My impression is something is bothering you and this was trying to put it on paper to figure out what, but you’re probably not quite to the heart of it yet.

     On the topic of inequality, and "subjective moralization" about it, I’m afraid you’ve got your work cut out for you. I say that people mature "in spots" and nowhere is it more evident than in how they perceive or respond to injustice in different areas.

     I’m a single mom with an environmental bent, who is also so conservative I think the modern republications are pansy liberal-lites, which is enough of a contradiction that being both a rationalist and a mystic on top of that pretty much just makes me a whole congregation. (It all seems reasonable, done one at a time. ;-) )  As a result though I’m often included on both sides of political and social-politics debates, and since I’m kind of a closet sociology nut I find that interesting. Like religion, I can walk in any doorway and find something I relate to, and plenty I don’t.

    I lose count of how many women have told me if a man is not sufficient to be their husband or boyfriend anymore, he isn’t sufficient to be a father. The sheer injustice men suffer regarding not only legal visition rights, but the profound damage done children and the relationship with father based on how women deal with the situation, is staggering. There are Father’s Rights groups who I think most people have never heard of. A man all but has to trot out a drug dealer to testify to get a woman declared incompent and the more important part is that IN ORDER TO even get a fair chance at custody or joint custody of a child, he often HAS to use the ‘incompetent parent’ attack against her, because without that he stands no chance.

     Totally aside from this, women can abort any child they like, but then you have other situations like my buddy who at 17 was sued for paternity; they had to test 17 men including his brother to figure out who the father would be (she was a party girl, for sure), and she later told him she’d wanted to be pregnant. So he gets a job at a gas station instead of going to college so he can pay child support (barely). States that allow a man to register as a father and declare independence of it (so they cannot prevent adoption, they have zero visit rights, but are also not locked into a lifetime of child support) — I think Texas at least used to be this way? — this makes more sense to anybody human and humane. 

    Men suffer a number of serious injustices related to women. Do you see women fighting for men’s rights? Not damn often. Do you see men fighting for women’s rights? Actually, surprisingly often. I have several men friends who consider themselves feminists.  There comes a point when any effort for equality and justice has got to involve people on both sides of the equation. I used gender in the above examples but there are many other areas that could be covered. 

    I’ve worked in places where a woman can do her job and a manager’s job who left and do it better than he did and do BOTH jobs, and for a helluva lot less, only to have the management/executive job given either to someone with a degree or higher degree –which I see as institutionalized educational bias mostly engendered by edu field itself which is, make NO mistake, a money driven enterprise –or given to a man who can play golf and even get IN to the golf club on any day but Wednesday… usually some sales guy who is a total asshole and lucky to get his shoes tied without injury he’s such an idiot, but he’s a smooth talker. Not the only requirement in most positions, and lots of people will pay with jobs of misery thanks to having him over them for however long, but it wasn’t ok to promote the secretary to executive. "She’s cute and all, but …" (I’ve actually heard this.)  Competence, even proven, never entered the equation.

    There’s all kinds of inequalities. Most aren’t about ‘rights’ but about ‘fairness’ (we really need a word that is not ‘rights’ and doesn’t make it sound like everyone is "entitled." It’s one thing to be in a situation of equity and justice; it’s another thing to be in a situation of entitlement. Not the same thing).  

    As long as everyone fights the battle alone (chinese gay lawyers with nose rings have rights too!) then "we are legion" with no strength. When all humans start — not fighting, but "advocating, expecting, and implementing" what are more like human rights or as I’d say, human fairnesses, we might actually get somewhere.


  9. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this. Very thought provoking.

  10. Melissa says:

     The real controversial thing here is really…is it right to force women to marry inferior men in the name of equality? Because that’s kind of what monogamy does and that is a real mismatch with our evolutionary history. In most foraging societies, men are allowed to take multiple wives and men who are bad hunters/otherwise undesirable often just don’t get anything at all. Polygamy illegal in our society right now, but I don’t think the prohibition will last long. People in Canada and Europe are already challenging it. And it thrives underground in the US.  No surprise that most of the marriages challenging it are a man married to multiple women.

    The market for buying sperm also is a de-facto form of it, at least reproductively, as you have certain really desirable donors fathering hundreds of children with hundreds of women. 


    • John says:

      Now we’re cooking with gas. You pose a very hard question. Will have to sleep on it.

    • JohnF says:

       Well, it’s not quite forcing women to marry inferior men, they could stay alone. Which does make a significant difference, since otherwise we’d be talking about rape.

      Other than that, there is the argument that polygamy makes society a terrible place for everyone, but the few top males, since it reduces incentives for economic progress and keeps around a whole lot of violence prone single males. Considering that the best system of society (european style industrial democracy) so far has had monogamy as a central component for a fairly long time, there seems to be at least something to the idea that incentivizing men to be invested in society has huge benefits. Conversely, the worst systems of society seems to universally feature a ton of polygamy and winner-takes-all-competitions.

      Compare the stereotypes of the Scandinavian way of getting a women versus the stereotypical African way of doing so. In the first case there is very little charm and a lot of hard work, in the second the women do all the work and the men focus solely on either being charming or killing other men and taking their women. In my view the first case is a preferable society for both men and women, even it does mean all women does not get a shot at marrying the man of their dreams.

      Further, it seems morally suspect to ask men with little chance of starting a family to pay anything what so ever for society’s continued existance. After all, they won’t have any descendants to benefit from schools, social service, and so on. Asking men to both accept zero to no chance of starting a family *and* subsidize women and other men’s children through taxes is a bit much.

      At any rate keeping around economic redistribution without sexual redistribution is a double hit against unsexy, productive males, since it takes away their main competitive advantage without any benefit. We’d also be selecting for sexiness over productivity on a lot of levels, which probably isn’t a great idea long term.

      • melissa says:

         Most women don’t stay alone, they end up in de-facto polygamy-like reproductive arrangements. It’s telling that so many women would prefer to be an "other woman" to a desirable guy than date one of the many single men out there. Or that many powerful men have had many wives, just not at the same time. 

        The problems of young violent single men with little economic and sexual opportunity is indeed a huge problem, but it’s a probably everywhere from China to Saudi Arabia to Spain at this very moment. If you look at most of the school shooters and their ilk all over Western Europe and the US, most of them are such omega-males. 

        I don’t really think we’d  be selecting sexiness over productivity. Interviews with HGs make it clear women care more about a man’s hunting skills than his body. Newt Gingrich doesn’t have much going for him in the looks department, but he has managed to acquire several wives. Steve Jobs fathered children by two women. The sperm donors that have fathered hundreds of children were picked primarily based on job, SAT scores, and height. 

        • JohnF says:

          I wrote a wonderful proof for my position, but since this fucking software doesn’t grant us paragraphs I couldn’t be bothered to post the damn thing.

  11. CPR says:

    Interesting piece, but I think some of your premises are faulty. For example, you write, "all in all, a society with widespread monogamy is a much more (sexually) equal society than one without it." That’s only true if you believe that monogamy and polygyny are the only two types of sexual/reproductive interaction worth consideration. As it turns out, societies that practice some form of multi-male/multi-female sexual/reproductive tend to offer women and children higher status than monogamous societies (you’ll see the data underlying this claim in Sex at Dawn).

    I’d make the same point concerning your contention that a two-parent household is the superior iteration: only if your options are limited to two-parent or single parent. In fact, there are copious data showing that multi-parent scenarios are better for kids’ psychological development (see Sarah Hrdy’s work, for example).

  12. Fraz says:

     Very interesting piece… I wish I had seen similar analysis before. More interesting than the linkage of the economic & sexual marketplaces are the blind spotsin both the “liberal” and “conservative” worldviews. While no viewpoint will ever be completely internally consistant, this degree of dissonance is hard to swallow. Of course, it is likely because of this dissonance that it is rarely discussed.

  13. Tim says:


    I think the mistake here is that you seem to think that mainstream liberals’ critique of economic inequality has to do with uneven outcomes. Thay may be the case for hard leftists, but for most mainstream American liberals, economic inequality at today’s levels are bad because they are a result of uneven advantages/cheating in the marketplace. The problem isn’t with uneven outcomes, that’s expected. It’s with the uneven playing field — the rigged game.

    Most mainstream liberals believe uneven outcomes are fine, as long as they are a result of differing work ethics, ingenuity, hell even luck and genetics (most sensible people would agree those are just facts of life).

    That’s why I’d say that liberal concern doesn’t extend to inequality in dating/marriage/etc. Unless you were to show that there is some widespread rigging of the game here, I just don’t see the connection.

    Also, with regard to the decline in marriage rates being a leading cause of economic inequality, I’m afraid that’s a bit of a misreading. The reason that seems to be the case is that as inequality has risen, one of the few remaining bulwarks against falling into poverty is a two-income household (ie, wives going to work). Dual income households have been a response to rising inequality over the past few decades. Naturally, when there’s a divorce, couples are no longer able to pool resources and stay afloat. But the root cause of the problem is still the general rising inequality. And the link you yourself provided says as much.

    • John says:

      Tim, thanks for your comments.

      In the first, I agree that some of the anger at inequality is motivated by rigged rules (perceived or real) — particularly recently with the financial bailouts. However, on many, many occasions, I have heard liberal friends say: “It’s just not right that X profession makes $30 million dollars. It’s just not right.” Inequality is seen as a bad thing in its own right, and equality as a good thing, regardless of how it arrived. And this is incontrovertably true *relative* to conservatives.

      In the second, I would argue most people don’t go to work because of inequality, they go to work because of their absolute living standards. I don’t know anyone that wakes up and is like “Damn, that Bill Gates is making so much more money this year…I’ve got to work harder.” If they do worker harder as a result of inequality, it’s local inequality — envy is usually local. Furthermore, the reason two people go to work is often because median wages and living standards have been stagnant in the absolute, not because of inequality, per se. But more importantly, regardless of the motivation, the fact remains that married couples stay afloat better together than if each were still working on their own. Pooling resources is a way to raise living standards, so yes, to the extent that marriage allows people to pool resources, it reduces inequality. That is a real effect.

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