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The College Gender Gap Has Created a Monster: Golden Penis Syndrome

Sarah Lawrence students have a term for guys who let their sexual good fortune go to their heads. We spoke with an expert — economist Jon Birger — about how our nation’s undersupply of college-educated men has jostled modern dating

When Kerri Detmer, a pseudonymous, chatty 19-year-old from a small East Coast city, entered Sarah Lawrence College, she knew the lopsided gender ratio would give guys the upper hand when it came to dating. “It’s like they have their own free harem,” she told economics writer Jon Birger for his 2018 book, Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Game. Sarah Lawrence students even invented an expression for guys who let their sexual good fortune go to their heads: “Golden Cock Syndrome.” 

The ratio of men to women on college campuses correlates directly with hookups, according to a 2015 study in the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. In one experiment, 129 straight university students read fake articles describing their local college populations as either male- or female-dominated. Next, they took a survey on how they felt about casual sex. If students read that women were the majority, more were in favor of hookups. If the articles told an opposite story, participants were more likely to advocate for committed relationships. 

Birger says Sarah Lawrence is emblematic of a massive undersupply of college-educated men, which has led to a steady decline in marriage rates. (He offers dating solutions and strategies to help educated women beat the lousy dating odds in his latest book, Make Your Move.) I recently spoke with him about how Sarah Lawrence men have alpha-male sex lives, why threesomes are super-common on campus and how the Golden Cock Syndrome is affecting the post-college dating market.

What led you to focus on Sarah Lawrence College?, a college review website read by potential applicants, had a dating section for each school it reviewed written by current or former students. The consensus about Sarah Lawrence was that girls complain about loneliness while guys get more than they can handle through rampant, mindless, one-night stands. I wanted to see if this was accurate. 

Was it? 

Quite. The term “Golden Cock Syndrome” was part of the campus vernacular. Another saying I heard a lot from women was, “It’s not your fault, it’s the ratio.” They used Golden Cock Syndrome to describe Sarah Lawrence guys whose over-the-top success with women had gone to their heads. They thought it was all about them, not the ratio, and that they were deserving of the attention from women. They truly believed they had the golden cock. 

Any good specific examples? 

A man I call “Jake” seemed like a pretty normal college kid. But when we started talking about his sex life, it was shocking. One of the first things he said to me was, “Sometimes it feels like you can have anyone you want.” He had this story about his first day on campus, at orientation, some girl coming up to him and saying, “You’re going home with me tonight — got a problem with that?” 

His stories got crazier and crazier. At one point, I stopped him and said, “Jake, I’m just curious, within your current circle of friends, how many of the women have you had sex with?” His answer: “Oh, I’d say at least 20.” He said it so matter-of-factly. But he saw the shock on my face, so he then added a qualifier that he thought would make the number seem a little less shocking: “But that includes a lot of threesomes and foursomes.” 

You write that Sarah Lawrence men don’t have to look or act like alpha males in order to have alpha-male sex lives. Can you explain why this is? 

A big theme of Date-onomics involves exploring how lopsided sex ratios affect dating behavior. Sarah Lawrence is obviously an extreme example, but for the past 25 years in the U.S. — and in other Western countries, too — there have been four women graduating from college for every three men. This has spilled over into the post-college dating market, where, in the U.S., there are now about 30 percent more women than men among college-educated people under 40. Obviously this wouldn’t matter if we were more open-minded about whom we date and marry. But at the same time campus sex ratios have been skewing female, there’s been a significant increase in assortative mating, which is a fancy way of saying that college grads only want to marry other college grads.

But back to your question, I don’t think anybody needs a study to know that singles become more choosy when they have more options and less choosy when they have less options. Jake was a beneficiary of this. But I don’t want to give you the impression that Jake was ugly. He wasn’t. But he certainly was no Steph Curry. His looks were more John Lennon circa 1969, except even more malnourished looking — wire-rim glasses, unkempt beard, baggy clothes. My Jewish grandmother definitely would have wanted to feed him. 

Are there other examples of where Golden Cock Syndrome is evident in the U.S.?

Sarah Lawrence’s gender imbalance may be extreme, but if you talk to women and men at other colleges that have more women than men — and these days that’s most — you’ll hear similar stories. The lopsided gender ratios on campus spilled into the post-college dating pools years ago. 1981 was the last time that four-year colleges in the U.S. graduated more men than women. Ever since, women have been leaving men in the educational dust. 

How did higher education’s sex ratios become so skewed?

One theory is that the college man deficit is the unintended consequence of fixing an old problem in American education. Fifty years ago, there was much hand-wringing in the educational community about disparities that existed between girls and boys in public school. Schools were setting the bar too low for female students and were doing an especially wretched job teaching them math and sciences. Discriminatory admissions policies at colleges and universities reflected a narrow-minded belief that college was often wasted on women, who supposedly went to college not to prepare for careers but get their “MRS.” And college enrollment figures reflected the inequalities: In 1960, men graduated from college at nearly twice the rate of women. 

The passage of Title IX in 1972 helped level the playing field. By 1982, the number of full-time, female undergraduates surpassed the number of males for the first time since World War II. But rather than plateau at 50 percent, female enrollment just kept rising. Women were seeking their entry to the middle class by attending college. By 2012, the college gender gap had doubled to 34 percent more women than men, and the gap was even wider at America’s private colleges and universities, where women outnumbered men by nearly 50 percent. For example, New York University’s ratio is 61:39; Boston University’s is 62:38, as is Tulane’s. 

What happens when those with Golden Cock Syndrome graduate?

Sarah Lawrence men may sound a lot like some single, 35-year-old college-educated men you know. I interviewed a lot of New York City guys who seemed to be suffering from Golden Cock Syndrome, too. Or should I say “benefiting from”? Not sure. The sex ratios among college-educated, hetero singles in Manhattan is approximately three women for every two men. And so, I interviewed a lot of men who were continuing to take advantage of that imbalance.