david_m_buss's picture
Professor of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin; Author, When Men Behave Badly
Discrimination in the Mating Market

Hundreds of stories are reported every year about discrimination, bias, and prejudice against women, minorities, and those who are different. But there's a more pervasive, universal, and possibly more insidious form of discrimination that goes on every day, yet lacks a name or an organized constituency-discrimination on the mating market. Although there are important individual differences in what people want (e.g., some like blondes, some like brunettes), people worldwide show remarkable consensus in their mating desires. Nearly everyone, for example, wants a partner who is kind, understanding, intelligent, healthy, attractive, dependable, resourceful, emotionally stable, and who has an interesting personality and a good sense of humor. No one desires those who are mean, stupid, ugly, or riddled with parasites. To the degree that there exists consensus about the qualities people desire in mating partners, a mating hierarchy is inevitably established. Some people are high in mate market value; others are low. Those at the top, the "9's" and "10's" are highly sought and in great demand; those near the bottom, the "1's" and the "2's," are invisible, ignored, or shunned.

Being shunned on the mating market relegates some individuals to a loveless life that may cause bitterness and resentment. As the rock star Jim Morrison noted, "women seem wicked when you're unwanted." Discrimination on the mating market, of course, cuts across sex, race, and other groups that have names and organized advocates. Neither men nor women are exempt. For those who suffer discrimination on the mating market, there exists no judicial body to rectify the injustice, no court of appeals. It's not against the law to have preferences in mating, and no set of social customs declares that all potential mates must be treated equally or given a fair chance to compete.

But it's not just the rock bottom losers on the mating market that suffer. A "4" might aspire to mate with a "6," or "7" might aspire to mate with a "9." Indeed, it's likely that sexual selection has forged in us desires for mates who may be just beyond our reach. The "7" who is rejected by the "9" may suffer as much as the "4" who is rejected by the "6."

People bridle at attaching numbers to human beings and making the hierarchy of mate value so explicit. We live in a democracy, where everyone is presumed to be created equal. Attaching a different value to different human beings violates our sensibilities, so we tend not to speak in civilized company of this hidden form of discrimination that has no name. But it exists nonetheless, pervasive and insidious, touching the lives of everyone save those few who opt out of the mating market entirely.