Schooled as we are by Valentine’s Day greeting cards and breath-mint commercials to think of love as something that is expressed in spontaneous, personal ways, we may viscerally reject the idea that what we regard as our innermost, most intimate selves could be governed by something as crass as filthy lucre. Despite the fact that the gospel of romantic love preaches that our love lives are individual and personal, economics has always played a primary role in the choices we make. We are, as Adam Smith wrote, rational actors looking out for our best interests — and if anyone doubts it, they should ask themselves if, all other things being equal, the average middle-class women would prefer to marry a neurosurgeon or a construction worker.
While the latter may have a certain amount of sex appeal, the former won’t get one gossiped about as "could’ve done better." Heck, just look at the problems Harvard-educated Miranda and working-class Steve had in Sex and the City.
In fact, this "rational choice" theory is one of the basic principles governing all human sexuality, from marriage to casual hookups. Behind our conscious sensation of physical attraction (or lack thereof) are innumerable unconscious calculations: Of what social group are this person’s clothes the uniform? What do his or her speech patterns say about their education and class? How will they rank amongst my friends? Sexual attractiveness, as behavioral scientists are discovering, is for the most part based on the amount of social capital a person possesses.
A bit of clarification will be helpful here: "Social capital" — a term invented by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu — doesn’t only refer to money, though anyone familiar with the phenomenon of the "trophy wife" knows that money helps.
Rather, it incorporates a host of other factors such as physical attractiveness, command of language and culture, and education. In other words, sexiness directly corresponds to the number and the type of resources you have at your disposal — and thus, how likely you are to ensure the survival of your offspring.
However, this value is not a constant. Because the worth of these resources depends on environment, social capital is not some sort of absolute score, but rather dependent on who you are, where you live, and in what situation you find yourself. What is attractive to college students on Spring Break in Miami won’t necessarily fly in the Manhattan art scene or the L.A. movie industry. While the trophy wife might find her high-status neurosurgeon husband desirable in a general sense, she probably isn’t creaming in her pants over him — although she may be hot for the pool boy. Yet, while the pool boy might look awfully good on those hot, shirtless summer days (when he resembles what Michelangelo might have sculpted had the Pope asked him to depict the Dying Slave straining leaves out of the Vatican pool), he’s much less attractive at an art opening where he brings a six-pack of Coors and insists that Pisaro was Superman’s weirdo doppelganger. He’s also sure as hell not going to pay for the summer house in the Hamptons. Thus, while the pool boy may get to muddy the gene pool, our protagonist is going to stay married to the neurosurgeon.
The trophy wife phenomenon highlights another universal constant: No matter what your milieu, for a man to be seen with a beautiful woman adds to his standing. The converse, however, does not hold true: While a woman graced with physical beauty can trade this capital for a high-status mate, a woman doesn’t benefit as much from being seen with a beautiful man (Demi Moore excepted). In fact, the female rules of attraction are much more complex. While a prosperous, socially integrated mate who is able to provide security for her children is powerfully attractive, so, too is the "bad boy" who, arguably, possesses status in his own, more primitive way (as well as alpha-male genes that will produce more successful offspring than Mr. Mild). Of course, everything’s a trade-off: Those who find that Marlon Brando-types turn their cranks often find themselves complaining that they can’t find a guy who they can settle down with.
While physical attractiveness is probably the single most important factor that determines what status of mate a woman can land, the most important for guys is social integration and leadership status — as any Washington, D.C. intern can tell you.
This works with the Brando-types, as well as guys who get paid six figures: That bass player who you think is so hot even though he doesn’t have a day job has social capital in their own community. Everything depends on context: It’s no coincidence that one of the few times in my life that a woman tried to pick me up was in an Edinburgh pub after I had successfully entertained a large group of friends by reading selections from B-grade fantasy novels in a Brooklyn accent.
So, while all of this sounds extremely cynical, the fact is that it works in the favor of folks like you and me. As a great man once said, "culture is something the guys who sucked at hunting wooly mammoths came up with in order to get women into bed." (To which we could add "or the girls who weren’t popular in high school used to get their revenge at the ten-year reunion.") Our cultural symbols are able to be endlessly manipulated. This is why we go to college, move to big cities, get interesting jobs, and bone up on mumblecore. The infinite mutability of human culture means that, in the end, creativity is what triumphs. This, of course, shouldn’t be news to the Nerve reader. We know exactly what it is to hack the mating-dating system. That’s why we read this site in the first place. And in the end, Steve wound up with Miranda, didn’t he? n°
©2008 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.|