vicious circles

by rantywoman

Carbone and Cahn describe these developments in terms of the concept of “marriage markets.” Many scholars from all political and philosophical persuasions object to the very idea of treating intimate relationships as something that should ever be the product of calculation or exchange. Yet, most also agree that supply and demand affect “price.” Carbone and Cahn add that sex ratio imbalances produce virtuous and vicious cycles that influence expectations, alter behavior, and ultimately transform cultural practices. Sociologists Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord demonstrated in the eighties, in an influential book on sex ratios, Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, that relationships are in fact the product of a market. If the men outnumbered the women in a given group, Guttentag and Secord argued, men competed among each other to land the “best” women. Women in turn tend to select for some mix of worldly success and good behavior, so an excess of men tends to produce “virtuous cycles” in which men compete to satisfy women by working hard, remaining faithful, and investing in their children. The fact that men outnumber women among high earners eager to pair with each other, Carbone and Cahn argue, provides an explanation for why the marriage rates at the top have remained relatively stable and why divorce rates remain relatively low.

What happens if women outnumber men? The men could seek out higher status women and the women might compete to satisfy the men in a similar fashion to what happens in a market where men outnumber women. It turns out that isn’t what happens: men and women don’t react in the same ways when they are outnumbered in a given marriage market. Instead, men prefer more relationships than committed unions with partners who might outshine them, and the women become jaded by the men’s behavior. In the face of persistent disappointment with male behavior, their standards for an acceptable husband increase and they, too, become more reluctant to marry or to commit to a long-term relationship. The result tends to be what some would term a “vicious circle,” that is, a cultural shift toward greater promiscuity, more gender distrust, greater investment in women’s income opportunities and less in men’s, and fewer stable long term relationships.


At the end, they note that America has not yet created the infrastructure for the post-industrial era that would make the relationship between home and family more seamless and that, in an era of inequality, American companies have built in greater instability in employment that also undermines family stability, damaging any efforts to rebuild the home-family bridges. They offer a deceptively simple solution to diverging family patterns: fix economic inequality. They also recommend fixing the pathways to adulthood with proposals ranging from better pregnancy support to early childhood education through college and employment.