03/20/2012 11:48 am ET Updated May 20, 2012

Sex: Why Earning Power Equals Sexual Power for Women

Why is it so hard to accept the idea that women are sexually advantaged by having education and earnings? We know that high-earning women are empowered in terms of financial decision-making, household purchases, and getting domestic help from husbands -- why not sex as well? Interviewing for my book on female breadwinners, I was struck by how many women didn't appreciate that their achievements make them more -- not less -- sexually attractive. Women, even young women, seem to think they need to downplay their affluence to appear feminine and pleasing. But a growing body of research shows that men are attracted to successful partners. Thanks to decades of hard work, women can exert more bargaining power not only in their relationships, not only in the economy overall, but in their sex lives as well. Make no mistake: Having intellectual and financial resources is a good thing for women, sexually, not a bad one.

That people still don't accept this is owing, I think, to a very old cultural narrative which has long encouraged the idea that too much education -- too much anything, really -- makes a woman undesirable. Back in the 19th century, Harvard physician Edward H. Clarke argued that excessive book learning rendered women infertile, diverting energy from their wombs to their brains, giving them "monstrous brains and puny bodies." The modern version of this idea is more elaborate but no less discouraging. Taking note of the fact that women now outnumber men on college campuses, a number of academics have perpetuated the image of the lovelorn co-ed by arguing that numerical advantage -- high female-to-male ratios -- puts women at a sexual disadvantage. The argument depends on several dubious notions. First, that women don't like sex as much as men do, and, second, that when women do have sex, they are not so much having it for pleasure as they are proffering it with the hope of getting something in return, namely commitment. (Economists call this "exchange theory," which for a long time posited that women trade beauty and sex for financial security; now that women earn more, bargaining theory can work both ways.) Seen this way, so-called collegiate hookup culture is driven by women offering themselves to a dwindling pool of similarly credentialed men, who can flit from one appealing woman to another, never having to settle down.

The fact that we buy into this so easily seems to spring from a deep cultural need to believe women deserve comeuppance for the hubris of outdoing men on campuses. We want, somehow, to believe that a well-educated young woman will be an unhappy woman, bitter and lonely -- and sexually unsatisfied. We seem to find comfort in the image of today's supercharged undergraduate sitting in her dorm room, eating chocolate ice cream straight from the carton, regretting all those AP courses she took in high school. We like this idea of her wishing, in vain, for a man to come along and offer her a hasty marriage. But my interviews suggest that this is far from the truth. Those women I interviewed, even as they took some pains not to flaunt their earnings, also spoke of desire that was strong and sex lives that were fulfilling. "I think women typically treat their sexual lives differently because of their success," reflected one engineer in her mid-twenties. In her experience, hookup culture was more a function of girls having the same kind of fun guys have been able to have all along. "It's more okay to do things and be more like a man, because you're more in a man's world." She spoke over brunch at a table in Atlanta, one of many American cities where single childless women ages 22 to 30 outearn their male peers.

In truth, today's college graduate is by no means hoping the next guy she has sex with will be willing to settle down with her. Marriage rates for Americans in their twenties have plummeted; in some cases women aren't getting married at all, but in the case of college graduates, what they are doing is waiting longer, until the right guy comes along. In the meantime, they're experimenting. The Atlanta women spoke of wanting to "test drive" men on their sexual performance as well as their qualities as human beings; will they do dishes, will they support a wife's career, will they chip in? "I feel like I will have very thoroughly investigated my options when I do settle down," is how one put it.

I would hardly suggest that money and education absolve women of body image anxieties, but it was also heartening to hear women talk about how their resources liberated them from having to doctor their appearance to please a man, freed them from the physical complaisance that the old version of exchange theory demanded. The women in Atlanta were well-groomed and good-looking. They highlighted their hair, they worked out, they made an effort. But they were united in the sentiment that, as one put it, "this is as good as it gets." One recalled a boyfriend she had in college, a med student, who told her she was pretty but would be prettier if she lost 15 pounds. "I was just like -- are you serious? Are you serious?" she hectored him, saying, "I, too, will be making a lot of money one day! I, too, will be really successful one day! I don't need you!"

Nor would I suggest that earnings alone can turn a bad relationship into a good one. My interviews confirmed that in the face of women's rising economic power and autonomy, some men will react badly, some men will be jealous; some men will lash out. Thing is, those guys were never princes to begin with, and now, women have a choice: leave. "It was so much easier to dump him since I didn't depend on him financially," is how another woman put it, after her ex-boyfriend was verbally abusive. In pretty much all circumstances, bad and good, economic empowerment is an asset, not a liability. We've tried economic dependence, ladies. Did that work out so well? If these aren't the glory days for women, sexually, when exactly were the glory days? As it happened, I was on the Princeton campus back in the 1980s, when men outnumbered women something like three to one; in my experience, if a man was by nature an entitled jerk, he felt fully empowered to act like one, even when the gender ratio odds were against him. And the nice guys were always nice.