How cheap sex changes religious practice

Jared Staudt

Catholics understand sex as a mutual giving of self, which should express the love and fruitfulness of marriage. The mutual giving that occurs in sex has led some to speak of the “economics of sex,” which regulates the exchange that occurs between the couple. Sex was “expensive” when it required a serious commitment in return, but recently has become “cheap,” with very few strings attached. Mark Regnerus’ Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (Oxford, 2017) describes how this change occurred. He details how the combined impact of contraception, pornography, and online dating have changed dramatically how we think about and experience sex.

Regnerus uses extensive research to present a picture of changing sexual practices and their impact on marriage. He describes his core argument as follows: “Cheap sex is both an objective fact and a social fact, characterized by personal ease of sexual access and social perceptions of the same. Sex is cheap if women expect little in return in return for it and if men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition, or fidelity in order to experience it” (28). People now expect easier access to sex, but do not experience the depth of intimacy and happiness that comes from the commitment of marriage.

Why should Catholics care about the book? The book confirms much of what we’ve been hearing about the decline of commitment among young Americans. It can be difficult to read at times, both because of the depressing state of relationships and also because of the explicit nature of the testimony of some of his interviewees. Nonetheless, the book provides an important narrative that links the major factors that are quickly and fundamentally changing marriage and family life. Also, although it’s not his primary focus, Regnerus also draws some important connections between changing views of sex and religious practice.

This religious impact can be seen in two ways. First, “porn use . . . deadens religious impulses,” leading to diminished “religious/spiritual aspirations” and “growth in religious doubts and declining personal importance of religion” (127; 128). Why? It seems that “ease of sexual access—real or virtual—has, if anything, deadened men” in general (127). This includes lower motivation for work, for the difficulty that come from relationships with real people, and less interest in God. This general diminishment of masculinity has led to a decline of marriage and fertility, as men do not mature and do not invite confidence from successful women.

The second major impact of cheap sex on religion comes from declining church attendance. Regnerus tells us that “married persons comprise 68 percent of all weekly attenders between 24 and 35” (185). As few younger people marry and prefer to cohabitate, they also “drift away from religious participation.” In fact, cohabitation “is toxic to religious behavior,” while cheap sex in general “has a way of deadening religious impulses” (185; 187). The more young people engage in new sexual practices the more likely they are to turn away from Christian values and to embrace gay marriage and other more permissive positions. In fact, Regnerus argues that religious practice in America has gravitated toward a more individual-centered spirituality that matches views on sexuality.

The greatest concern for Christians may come from undermining of the very nature of sexuality and marriage. Regnerus talks about how many young people are still interested in marriage, but nonetheless “are taking flight from” it (191). Sex has become an ineffective vehicle for pursuing personal fulfillment, drawing our country more deeply into secularism and loneliness. More sex does not equal more happiness, but precisely the opposite. Marriage is good for people and it draws them more deeply into the Christian life of sacrificial self-gift. Ironically cheap sex erodes even the natural foundation for sex itself, as it pushes men and women further apart, leads into virtual unreality, and undermines the genuine good of eros, our natural sexual desire.

“Better sex costs more” (105). It should cost everything—drawing us into a complete and lasting gift of self to another. Cheap sex is self-defeating, as it leads us away from the genuine happiness we find in loving others and also in God.

COMING UP: The splendor of love banishes darkness

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

We live in a culture that is very confused about love, particularly the sexual aspect of love. This confusion, combined with our fallen human nature, is deeply hurting many people, but God’s love and his plan for human sexuality shines a brilliant light into this darkness. To share these beautiful truths and to help guide the people of northern Colorado, I have published a pastoral letter called The Splendor of Love.

This coming July will mark 50 years since Blessed Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae and the aim of The Splendor of Love is to celebrate the gift of that teaching and to affirm the great beauty of the Church’s consistent teaching throughout the centuries on married love.

Since Humanae Vitae was published 50 years ago, American society has experienced both positive and negative developments.

On the positive side, the Church’s teaching on human sexuality has been deepened by the insights of Humanae Vitae, St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and advances made in Natural Family Planning.

On the negative side, we have witnessed the fulfillment of Blessed Paul VI’s predictions about how widespread use of contraceptives would lower moral standards, harm relationships between men and women, and be used as a coercive tool by governments. We have also experienced things that the Holy Father didn’t foresee: a spike in abortions, the spread of STDs and a decline in birth and marriage rates. More recently, the widespread availability of pornography and a hook-up culture facilitated by improved communications methods have contributed to further turning our sexuality into a kind of consumable product or form of entertainment.

It is precisely for such a wounded and distorted world that Jesus was born. In Christ, the love of God became incarnate and illuminates our lives today, radiating through our families and into society.

The Church’s teaching on human sexuality changes lives, as I experienced when I was Bishop of Fargo. One day I received a letter from a young woman which said:

“I am writing to you today to thank you and to ask you a question. I have never met you. When I was told that we would have to take a full course of NFP over a 3-4-month period for our marriage preparation, I was not happy. However, after the course, which included the Theology of the Body, I was filled with joy, and the question I have for you, bishop, is: Why did I not receive this valuable teaching in high school? It would have saved me much heartache and confusion in my college years. I have shared the teaching with my younger sister who is in high school so she doesn’t make the same mistakes I made.”

The message she received was that her sexuality is a gift, and that properly used, it reflects the love of the Trinity, giving her great dignity. Furthermore, the “language” of the marital act communicates to her spouse that her love involves her whole being, it holds nothing back, is faithful and is fruitful.

Although the secular culture says that there is no objective truth, we are made for the truth, even if living according to the divine truths about sexuality is challenging. In the Gospel, Jesus teaches us, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Many in our culture consider the Church’s teaching to be bad news, a burden and source of repression, but we must help them see by the witness of our joy and true freedom that it will help them overcome the many burdens and wounds that follow from broken families and sexuality. Jesus desires our happiness and asks us to share it with others.

None of this is possible without first knowing and experiencing the love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We must fortify ourselves with the grace he gives us in the sacraments and prayer and seek ongoing conversion. With this solid foundation, the splendor of God’s love can shine even more brightly in our hearts and enable us to imitate the generous, sacrificial love found at the heart of the Trinity, and at the heart of the Cross. It gives us the grace to live like Christ, to embrace our sufferings by uniting them to his cross, and to find true happiness in giving ourselves away in love.

May God give you courage, perseverance and joy in living out his plan for married love and human sexuality!

To read Archbishop Aquila’s pastoral letter visit: archden.org/archbishop/pastoral-letters.