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.