The Inequality of Romantic Relationships

The distribution of romantic partners amongst straight men mirrors the distribution of wealth in some of the most unequal countries on Earth. Just as a small percentage of people at the top have access to most of society’s wealth, it seems that only a relatively small number of straight men have access to more than a few romantic partners (Tuckfield 2009). This inequality in itself is not unjust. Women, as part of their bodily autonomy, have the right to date whomever they please. However, the injustice arises when height (Yancey and Emmerson 2014), age (Hayes 1994), facial symmetry (Rhodes Et al. 2001), and race (Fisman Et al. 2008) become factors that determine attraction. The problem here is that these characteristics are innate and therefore the benefits that flow from them are underserved.  What is particularly unique about this issue is that any distributive theory of justice that attempt to compensate citizens for undeserved disadvantages will violate the bodily autonomy of women by forcing them to become romantic partners to men they find unattractive. Therefore, a new theory of justice is required to address the underserved advantages that some men have.

If we use the number of likes a user receives as the equivalent of currency in an economy, we can attempt to quantify how unequal the distribution of romantic partners amongst straight men and women is. As it turns out, according to data provided by “Hinge”, a popular dating app, “heterosexual females faced a Gini coefficient of 0.324, while heterosexual males faced a much higher Gini coefficient of 0.542” (Tuckfield 2009). This indicates that while the distribution of partners is not equal in both genders, the difference in the degrees of inequality is particularly interesting. The distribution amongst women is similar to that of an economy “with some poor, some middle class, and some millionaires” (Tuckfield 2009; 1). In contrast, the distribution amongst men is similar to that of highly unequal countries (i.e. South Africa during the Apartheid regime), with certain people at the top controlling the majority of the country’s wealth. If these data and insights are true then it implies that most women are only interested in engaging romantically with a small minority of men, while most men are willing to engage romantically with most women.

A highly unequal distribution alone, however, is not enough to explain an injustice. Women, as stated, above poses bodily autonomy, which gives them the right to choose who to engage with romantically. In other words, they own their own body and what they do with it should not be anyone’s business. However, part of what determines attraction amongst heterosexual women is height, facial symmetry, age, and race. This means that some men possess underserved assets that give them advantages over other men in the dating pool. These underserved assets are the reason why the distribution is unjust. Indeed, one should reward or punish individuals based on the choices he or she made and the effort he or she puts in. If, for example, a white student wins a science fair contest by virtue (partly or otherwise) of his skin color, we would deem the judges to be unjust and the student underserving of the reward, since they are rewarding someone not on the basis of effort, but something innate and out of his or her control. In other words, to reward someone is to recognize his or her achievement. Innate or unchanging characteristics are gifts (or sometimes curse). Therefore, to reward someone for their gifts or underserved assets is unjust. If we take this line of reasoning and apply it to the issue of dating, we would conclude that rewarding our love to someone on the basis (partly or otherwise) of innate or unchanging characteristics to be unjust.

It is important to note that men too engage in the unjust practice I have just outlined above. Indeed, they, much like women, have preferences for height, age, facial symmetry, and race. However, it seems as the data above suggests, most men are willing to deviate from their preferences (within certain margins), thereby resulting in a more equal distribution of partners amongst women (Tuckfield 2009).

To address this problem, a standard approach to the theory of distributive justice, which aims to compensate people for undeserved disadvantages would produce another form of injustice in its attempt to equalize the distribution of romantic partners. Take Rawls’ difference principle and Dworkin’s hypothetical insurance market. The former argues that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged” (Rawls 1971; 266). Applied to the issue of dating, the difference principle implies that increases in romantic engagement of men occupying the top of the hierarchy should increase romantic engagement of men at the bottom. This can only occur if the state assigns female romantic partners to men who could not find one. Such an endeavor would violate women’s bodily autonomy and is therefore unjust, since, presumably, the women participating have no consent in whether to engage with the male partner assigned to them. A Dworkinian hypothetical insurance market would produce a similar result. Men would pay taxes to the government to hedge against the probability that they might not be born with the right height, face, or race that women find attractive and if they are, the state would assign to them a female partner, which as pointed above is unjust.

To be fair to be Rawls and Dworkin, none of them suggested that the state should re-distribute love or compensate people for underserved disadvantages when it comes to dating.[1][2]. However, considering how much love and sex play into our overall happiness as human beings, it should trouble any egalitarians that some men and women possess innate advantages in acquiring the two. This is why there is an imperative to conceptualize another theory of justice to address this specific issue.

I believe that a formulation can be found in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which put forth a model of love based not on innate characteristics but attainable virtues. Indeed, when the main character of the book, Elizabeth Bennet, receives a marriage proposal from the handsome and rich Mr. Darcy, she not only rejects him but also proudly asserted how he is “the last man in the world whom…[she] could ever be prevailed on to marry” (Austen 1813; 135). To him, Mr. Darcy is an arrogant and cruel aristocrat who ended her sister’s planned marriage. In other words, England’s most eligible bachelor, with all his inherited (undeserved) wealth and looks failed to impress the young middle-class woman that is Elizabeth Bennet. However, when she manages to rid herself of her prejudice, she began to see Mr. Darcy’s true virtue of generosity that is often hidden beneath a façade of pride and arrogance. As such, when Elizabeth receives a second proposal, after knowing who Mr. Darcy truly is, she bestows him her romantic affection.  What Austen is presenting here is the idea that we should reward our love to those who manage through his or her effort to obtain the virtues we admire. By doing so, we are recognizing someone’s achievement and not his or her birthright gifts.

Nevertheless, even if this model of love becomes prevalent, it may not necessarily make the distribution of romantic partners amongst men more equal. It might be the case that the majority of them would fail to obtain the virtues most women admire. However, under such a circumstance the distribution will at least be just since it is based on qualities that can be acquired through effort.

I recognize that realistically the preference for height, age, facial symmetry, and race may not completely disappear. People may not find the moral case against such preferences compelling enough to actively modify the way they select romantic partners.  However, there are still are systematic steps that a society can take in order to promote the Austenian model of love that I have just outlined. For instance, the state can make it illegal to list height or race in dating profiles. We can also create pieces of literature and cinema glorifying men and women who fall in love for the virtues their beloved possesses. The point is that the theory of justice I am proposing should not be treated as a mere individual ethos, but a moral principle that should guide society’s perception of romantic relationships.

Ultimately, in an ideal world, instead of being swoon over for their height, age, facial symmetry, or race, people would be loved for their kindness, courage, nobility, and other forms of admirable virtues. Here, everyone, at least, stood a chance of being loved by somebody else.


Tuckfield, Bradford. (2019). Attraction Inequality and the Dating Economy. Quilette.

Yancey, George and Emmerson, Michael (2014). Does Height Matter? An Examination of Height Preferences in Romantic Coupling. Journal of Family Issues, volume: 37 issue: 1, page(s): 53-73.

Hayes, Andrew (1994). Age Preferences for Same- and Opposite-Sex Partners. Journal of Social Psychology, volume: 135 issue: 2, page(s): 125-133.Rhodes, G Et al (2001): In Search of Biologically Based Standards of Beauty. Perception. 2001;30(5):611-625.

Fisman, Raymond Et al (2008): Racial Preferences in Dating. The Review of Economic Studies. 75, 117–132

Austen, J. (1995). Pride and prejudice. New York: Modern Library.

Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978­-0674000780

Dworkin, Ronald. 1981. ‘What is Equality? Part 1: Equality of Welfare’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 10 (3): 185-246.

Dworkin, Ronald. 1981. ‘What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 10 (4): 283-345.

[1] Rawls believe in equalizing society in terms of primary goods, which does not include love and marriage.

[2] Dworkin did not discuss an application of his hypothetical insurance market to the case of romantic relationships.

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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