Sexual Market Value & The Attraction Curve

What’s missing from what the church and world are telling women are the implications of the different drivers of attraction for men and women. That’s critical because the implications are of major consequence, and women have to make decisions about their own lives in the reality that this social reform movement towards gender-neutral attraction characteristics has made limited progress at best to date.

The fact that men and women have different characteristics that drive attractiveness has profound implications that aren’t always obvious.  Most notably is that their characteristics mature at different rates.

Physical appearance tends to mature very early for both men and women. I think it’s fair to say most of us were at our peak in our 20s, usually our early to mid-20s, and start to decline in our late 20s. Once we get into our 40s, we start going downhill fast.  Some of us can hang tough for a long time, but it’s difficult to credit that most people are still becoming better looking after 30, though in rare cases it can happen for people who lose large amounts of weight, etc. Youth itself of course is what it is.

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However, characteristics specific to male attractiveness women want like power, status, and money peak much later. For a lot of men, these come primarily from their jobs. Young men start out at the bottom of the totem pole at work, make entry-level wages, etc. But these go up over time. In my experience, the average professional guy peaks out in his career sometime between 35-45. This is when the famous mid-life crisis hits.

At some point, we all have to come face to face with our own limits and realize that we won’t be the CEO, the MVP, etc. And in fact, a new group of young bucks might even be passing us up already. Most of us realistically peak a lot earlier. However, unlike with physical appearance, a career doesn’t usually go into a permanent descent post-peak, but rather plateaus and declines gradually. (Older men who lose their job can face bleak professional circumstances at times, however).

Below is some data from OkCupid. Showing at what age the opposite sex thinks the other is most attractive. The interesting trend is that for women the age of an attractive man rises with the age of the woman. For men, this is not the case.

Women’s Age VS The Age Men Look The Best (OkCupid)
Men’s Age VS The Age Women Look The Best (OkCupid)

We also start to get a sense of our mortality. As I noted in Masc #8, about age 35 is when people obtain meta-awareness of change. We become able to project our life forward through time and emotionally connect with our future selves in a stronger way than we over could before.  Since all human beings are on a train that’s headed to the same station, death, we typically don’t like what we see.  This is a difficult time of life to navigate and many don’t handle it well. I’m not surprised the surveys say that our 40s are our least happy decade of life.

Here’s the bottom line on what this all means. For the average woman, her overall sexual market value will likely peak by her mid-20s, then start to fall for pretty much the rest of her life. For men, their good looks similarly decline. But their power, status, and money start low and go up over time, which can offset or even more than offset declining looks for a while. I would say for the average guy, sometime in the early to mid-30s he hits his peak sexual market value and then starts his decline, which is gradual compared to women.

When young, women are high value while men are still low value  So the average young woman has much more attraction power than the average young man. By the time we hit our 30s, this situation starts to reverse itself. This is the “attraction curve” or “sexual market value”(SMV) and I would describe it thus in terms of rough averages:

  • < 25: Strong female advantage
  • 25-29: Weak female advantage
  • 30: Male-female parity
  • 31-35: Weak male advantage
  • > 35: Strong male advantage

Again, I’m not designing the system I would prefer. I’m describing how the sexual marketplace is today. Younger women have the advantage over younger men their same age, and then it reverses with old men gaining an advantage over old women their same age.

I opened Masc #17 by talking about my female college friend who had previously had huge amounts of attention from men but now was getting zero dates – and was so alarmed by this that she quit drinking and started going to church. You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that she was over 35.

In my personal experience, if someone is 35+ and single, man or woman, there’s a reason – and it’s almost certainly not a good one. (I was previously in that bucket myself). What’s more, anyone who reaches that age and above is going to find that there are very few other people left on the market who do not have some form of baggage such as a divorce, some kind of sex appeal problem, etc. The runway to marry a high-quality person without baggage is a lot shorter than we think.

But the problem becomes especially acute for older women. Both men and women have declining physical attractiveness as they age, but men can buffer against that with increases in status, money, etc.  In extreme cases, much older wealthy men like former Clippers owner Donald Sterling can continue to marry (or keep as a mistress) very young Thai supermodels and the like, even if no one is fooled about the reason why. But for older women, they have much less to compensate with, especially in light of the fact that those social reform movements pressing men to behave differently have not yet borne that much fruit. Christian women, especially highly educated ones, have it even tougher because Christianity skews female and there are more women than men generally with college degrees these days.

I’ll reprise some math from Masc #11. Imagine a 35-year-old single professional Christian woman in New York City or similar global city places. How many men in NYC are there who are a) age 33 or older? 2) single 3) straight 4) Christian 5) of a compatible theological/denominational background 6) of same or higher social status? Now do the math if she’s a 40-year-old. That’s a tiny pond to be fishing in. And that even includes men who are divorced (possibly with kids), physically unattractive, low desirability, etc. Filter those men out and you are practically looking for a unicorn.

One subtext that’s often not explicitly called out in these pastors’ Man Up! sermons are the age of the people in question. I see a lot of single women in churches who are 30+ or even 40+ who desperately want to be married and have children but do not have men asking them out at all, certainly not by anyone of quality. This is not an exaggeration. There are a lot of women like my college friend who appears to be getting zero interest from men (never asked out on dates) except by the dregs of society, guys looking for cheap casual sex, etc.

One person who did note the age of the woman in question was the now infamous Mark Driscoll in a Washington Post op-ed. He wrote, “She was smart, funny, interesting, successful, attractive, kind, in her 40s, and still single. After my wife Grace and I spent some time with the woman from our church, we could not fathom why no one had married her.” Our attraction model here helps explain what happened to this woman, who, despite all of her positive qualities, is now older (notably beyond child-bearing years) and surely far less attractive to ht opposite sex than she was two decades ago.

This new reality hits the majority of women right as they gain meta-awareness of the future story arc of their life and suddenly start to emotionally connect with what it would mean to live life alone. Thus it can be a double-whammy. A woman from my church recently talked about her apprehension about what it would mean to grow old and die without any support from a husband and children. She’s still got a long way to go and the door to marriage is far from closed for her, but she’s thinking about things she probably didn’t think about when she was younger. I can relate. I had the exact same fears when I was older and single. Honestly, once you’ve had them, they don’t seem to go away no matter what happens in life.

Because of the cultural line on these matters, women often don’t feel free to acknowledge how personally devastating it can be to fail to marry and have children. But sometimes we do see something of it.  Here’s what Bethany Jenkins, a public figure in the faith and work movement who is a now 41-year-old single, childless Christian woman, wrote about her situation in a review of the book Seasons of Waiting:

I have lamented my lot in overseeing spiritual children, not biological or adopted ones….At 39 years old, I’m still single, and it has become increasingly hard to pray for marriage. And I’m not alone. I asked my 35-year-old single friend the other day if she prays for marriage. She said no, that she has asked her friends to pray for it. For her, it’s too hard to continue praying for something that God has not seen fit to withhold year after year. I understand. I struggle, too.

Before I was married I personally dated women in this age range and found it a profoundly emotionally distressing experience. The things I heard from these women about their loneliness were bone-chilling. To be clear: that’s not everyone, but it’s common. When I moved to New York, virtually every Christian married man my age I connected with immediately wanted to fix me up with someone. Whether they will admit it publicly or not, they are very, very worried about these women.

Also to be clear, most women still end up marrying. This graph posted to Reddit went viral. It shows the percentage of never-married women by age in 1980 and 2015:

A graph from Reddit showing the percentage of never-married women

In 2015, only 20% or so of women had not married by age 40, with another drop to 15% by age 45.  Some percentage of those women surely did not want to be married and wanted to continue living the cougar lifestyle, so no loss to them. But overall this metric is still triple the rate in 1980. And deep in mind that it doesn’t include those who were previously married but got divorced without remarrying.

But all of those 40-45-year-olds in 2015 were Generation X. If you look at the Millennials, say around 30, you see very high percentages of never marrieds. It looks like around 42% of women age 30 in 2015 vs. only about 12% in 1980. It may well be that they will largely pair off later in their 30s, but we will have to see on that. Apparently, Pew is predicting that a quarter of Millennials will never marry. And again there will be additionally divorced but never remarried folks on top of that.

This landscape is a difficult one for women to navigate. I mentioned in Masc #17 that Sheryl Sandberg had written the following in her #1 bestseller Lean In.

When looking for a life partner, my advice to women is date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them. The things that make the bad boys sexy do not make them good husbands. When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious.

Why did she write this? Her bio offers a potential clue. She married at age 24 and was divorced a year later. She married her second husband at age ~35 and by all accounts had a wonderful marriage until his recent tragic death.  Did Sandberg marry the bad boy and regret it? Regardless, she got married early and it was apparently a disaster. By contrast, she was able to land a good man at age 35 for a successful marriage. No wonder she reps this model of life.

The lesson of Sheryl Sandberg is that going for early marriage comes with its own set of risks. You can often do better if you wait. But Mark Driscoll’s case study, Bethany Jenkins, my college friend, and many others show that you aren’t guaranteed to land the plane if you try that. And, because meta-awareness of the story arc of your life, your ability to project the trajectory of your future and emotionally connect to it, doesn’t set in until around 35, the vast majority of women often don’t realize the full consequences of this for themselves until it’s too late. Men face similar math, but because of the differential drivers of attraction and their ability to father children indefinitely have a much longer runway to work with. (Many men also fail to marry, however, and often face bleak circumstances, as a rule literally dying younger than those who do marry).

In short, women have much less room to maneuver than men when it comes to getting married. That may indeed be unfair, but unless and until feminist social reforms fully take hold and the biology of childbearing changes, it also is what women genuinely face.

There’s no easy answer and I refuse to give women life advice because of the skin in the game principle. It’s their life, not mine. They have to live with the consequences, good or bad, of their decisions, and so rightly they need to take responsibility for making them. (I’m also not invested in anyone’s life failure. I hope my friend and Bethany both find the husbands they seek, and would happily celebrate if they did).

But it is critical for society, including the church, to have the courage to lay this out so that women can make informed decisions of how to live in a world that many of them would deem unfair.

I see no indication that the church has done this. Instead, what I see are pastors and other Christian leaders ranting at men about how they ought to be marrying these unhappy singles and/or change what they find attractive in a woman. (For example, see “Real Men Love Strong Women” on John Piper’s Desiring God site).

In this, they are doing a huge disservice to the women as well as the men in their pews by not leveling with them about the truth and teaching what they wish were true as if it actually were true.

If they don’t adjust their teachings to match reality and find the courage to deliver some real talk on that reality to both men and women, I would not expect the singleness and unhappiness they are so frustrated with to ever materially improve.

What’s even worse, when those folks in the pews do find out the truth – whether it be from hard life experience, the pick-up artist community(PUA), The Manosphere, Jordan Peterson, Rollo Tomassi, etc. – they are going to be extremely angry that they’ve been fed lies by the church. These types of events are “the red-pill” for many men. As with other failed church teachings like purity culture and Mark Driscoll (see Masc #7), this may cause some of them to even abandon the church.

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