One of the more common refrains in the “Where have all of the good men gone!” lament is men’s increasing unwillingness to court women the way women expect to be courted. This is almost always framed as either a great mystery or a case of weak men screwing up feminism (or both).
Examples of this concern abound, from Aunt Haley’s last three posts, to the divorced single mother who found out men weren’t willing to spend very much to court her, to the woman in Vox’s recent post lamenting that her 59 year old friend was only offered half a sandwich by a recent date. Commenter Tom H weighed in with the same concern the other day about his two 30ish career women daughters who struggle to find men who will date them without “pushing for sex”.
How did we get here?
To better understand why men are withdrawing from courtship we need to consider the roles men and women play in the process and how the sexual revolution has impacted the landscape. Men foot the searching costs in the marriage and sexual marketplace (MMP & SMP). This means bearing most of the risk of rejection and expending the bulk of the resources to facilitate the process of meeting and getting to know one another. As the ones who bear the costs of courtship, men have a strong incentive to minimize the number of women they court and the overall duration of time spent in the process. However, as the consumers of courtship, women have an incentive to draw the process out as long as possible and to receive courtship from as many men as possible.
Over the last few decades the expectation that men bear the bulk of the costs and risks of courtship has remained relatively constant, but the time period women expect to be courted has expanded dramatically.
As recently as 1980, the median age of marriage for women in the US was 22. By 2011 this was 26.5, but this signifigantly understates the nature of the change since it doesn’t account for the rapidly expanding group of 30 something women who haven’t been able to marry. A full 25% of all US White 30-34 year old women have yet to marry, and these aging would be brides are the loudest voices complaining about the lack of courtship.
The problem with women’s complaints about courtship is easier to understand if you consider the needs of the man. He needs to manage risk vs reward. When courting, there are two fundamental risks. These are the risk of wasting resources on the wrong women, and the risk of rejection harming the man’s reputation/MMV.
Risk of wasting resources on the wrong women.
There are three subcategories of resource risk:
- Expending courtship resources on women not interested in marriage (in general).
- Expending courtship resources on women who are interested in marriage, but not interested in marrying him (aiming too high).
- Risk of aiming too low.
Risk of rejection harming the man’s reputation/MMV.
This basic risk can in turn be broken down into two subcategories:
- Risk of nuclear rejection.
- Cumulative risk of rejection.
For the ladies reading who might be offended at this, I’ll frame it differently. Picture your ideal husband. Do you want him to propose to you after having been rejected by numerous other women? Of course not. You don’t want to feel like the consolation prize, and you don’t wan’t to marry a man whom other women are known to have rejected. In order to avoid this, the man you ultimately marry must be careful with how freely he expresses interest in women who aren’t signaling an interest in him.
On the question of wasting resources, do you want your future husband to divide his courtship resources between you and many other women? Or do you want all of his available courtship investment to be devoted solely to you?
What does a woman’s age have to do with courtship?
For a man who is managing the risks of courtship outlined above, the age of a woman is very important. The older a woman is, the more likely it is that she is very picky and/or not seriously looking for a husband. Older women also are less attractive from a courtship perspective because they have used up more of their most attractive/fertile years, and while their attractiveness for marriage has declined their expectations for courtship have only increased. In short, the older a woman gets the worse a bet she becomes (on average) when it comes to courting her.
There is another impact of women increasing the time period they expect courtship, and this is on men’s willingness to court younger women. Consider the 25% of current early thirties White women who still haven’t married; unless they are terminally unattractive an awful lot of courtship has almost certainly been wasted on them. They aren’t just bad bets for courtship today, but (in retrospect) they clearly were bad bets for courtship for the last 15 years. Even more telling, just shy of half of all late twenties White women have never married, which means five years ago 50% of early twenties White women were a complete and total waste of traditional courtship risk and resources. Given the direction of the trends over the last five years, the risk is even higher today.
Put simply, the extended delay of marriage by women has placed marriage minded men in a dilemma; older women are (generally speaking) known bad bets for courtship, but half of early twenties women are also poor bets for courtship. And this is before the man in question starts to consider which of the good bets for courtship (in general) would be a good bet for him personally to court.
It is also worth noting that it isn’t just in delaying marriage that women are extending the period of expected courtship. Women are also driving our divorce revolution, and even with a track record of being the worst possible courtship risk (the kind who marries and then gets unhaaaapy) they still expect to be courted all over again.
The logical adjustment by men.
There are only two logical ways men can respond to women’s extension of courtship. The first logical choice is to recognize that these women are debasing marriage, and decide to “court” for sex and not marriage. For most late teens and early twenties women, this is the only form of courtship which makes sense. This is true in even higher percentages for women in their late twenties or higher. For women looking to soak up courtship in today’s hookup culture there is another serious problem; when courting for sex it is in a man’s best interest to greatly limit the amount of resources he spends before getting sex from a woman. This allows him to cast a wide net while keeping his expenditures down. Ironically, as we have learned from Game a man’s chances of receiving sex from a woman are actually higher when practicing the skittles method of courtship (crass site warning).
But while “courting” for sex is a logical choice, it is not a moral choice, and we still do see men courting for marriage. For these men, having a fairly low age cutoff makes a great deal of sense. A woman in her late twenties who claims to be serious about traditional marriage is far less believable and attractive than a woman who indicates the same thing in her late teens or early twenties. Admittedly few women in their early twenties are believably signaling an interest in marrying soon, but this is a plus when trying to minimize spreading courtship resources around too freely. There are of course a number of other markers a man should consider when determining if a woman is a good bet for marriage, which will narrow the field down further. Making things worse for women looking to soak up “traditional” courtship, the logical strategy for traditional courtship isn’t that different than the strategy for men courting for sex; logically speaking, traditional men should keep courtship expenditure to a minimum until a woman has indicated a fairly strong interest in marrying him. Given the large numbers of women not actually interested in marrying at any given time and the opportunity cost of focusing on a non serious candidate, traditional men will do best to greatly limit their courtship efforts and expenditure until around the time of an engagement, and if they are smart they will also insist on keeping the length of the engagement as short as logistically possible.