Q&A: Cheap Sex and why today’s young people are postponing marriage

It doesn’t take much to realize that young men and women are waiting longer to get married. And although some of the most common reasons given tend to be “lack of responsibility,” “disbelief in marriage” or “desiring freedom,” Mark Regnerus says that in America, it’s mainly due to what he calls “cheap sex,” and he has evidence to back it up.

Regnerus, professor of sociology at University of Texas at Austin and senior fellow of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture spoke with the Denver Catholic about his new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy, highlighting his research, in anticipation of his talk at the John Paul II Lecture Series in Denver Sep. 4 on the same topic.

Denver Catholic: In your book you mention that many young men and women still want to get married but are postponing marriage more than ever because of what you call “cheap sex.” Can you talk about this term and what you found in your research?

Mark Regnerus: As I describe it in the book, cheap sex is characterized by personal ease of sexual access and social perceptions of the same. Sex is cheap if women come to expect little in return for it and if men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition, or fidelity in order to experience it.

The reality of this tends to slow down marriage and make the process to get there more strewn with failed relationships, deceptions, and unmet expectations. Some people, typically men, object to this and tell me that sex seems very difficult for them to experience today. But I make the argument that digital pornography has brought the experience of realistic, “virtual” sex to the masses. It, too, is cheap sex — the cheapest really. And its wide use has made real relationships more difficult, as I would expect it to. After all, it is “competition” (to real persons) and competition tends to drive prices down.

The research is sociological — I focus on three quite different technologies that each contribute to the declining “price” of sex in America: contraception, pornography and online dating. Lots of Catholics are okay with critiques of the first two, but it’s inarguable that online dating — which can be used for good purposes — is part of the problem.

Too many options lead to choosier people who aren’t patient enough to navigate early relationship challenges. The speed of online dating certainly doesn’t train us to solve problems.

DC: Is this also the case among young Christians or is there a different reason?

Regnerus: It’s certainly the case among many Christians, if only by degree. The problem is that no one gets to opt out of the social environment in which this is happening. It’s not as if Christians look for a spouse in an alternative marriage market, like Mormons and Orthodox Jews tend to do. Hence the influence of cheap sex in the wider “market” affects Christians, too.

Christians are typically less enthused about this, and increasingly frustrated that sexual expectations characterize the commencement of new (and hence unstable) relationships. So yes, the same dynamics are operative among them. For example, I have heard many times that Christian online dating services often disappoint people who expected much better behavior from the people who are using the service. Sometimes it works out well, though.

DC: Many saw the invention of the Pill as something that gave women the equality and same liberty as men in society. You have mentioned that the American “mating market” is still dominated by men’s interest. How have the roles of men and women really changed and remained the same with regards to sex since?

Regnerus: In one sense, very little has changed about men and women, especially in their relationship preferences — what they are looking for. Those are old. What’s changed dramatically is the new terrain in which they do the looking. Women need marriage much less than previously, which will make them more selective. And they received a boost from the Pill here, enabling them to have relationships without fear of pregnancy.

I like to say that women got fertility control in exchange for men getting much more say over the timing of sex in relationships and over their progression toward marriage. After all, she won’t get pregnant. Why wait? Hence the road to marriage — which is still a very big deal, maybe bigger than ever — slowed down. No more shotgun marriages, which means we should be making better matches. But there’s a lot more cohabitation, which is not nearly as stable as marriage, and tends to blur our ability to see clearly, and adds constraints (like pets, bills, and a shared residence) to a relationship that may still be quite immature in lots of ways.

All of this tends to look better to men than to women. They get more time to “try out” relationships. Women, on the other hand, can be more certain about a man than in the past, but they’re being asked to wait longer and longer, which is a signal of his control over the future of the relationship. It is surprising today how many very successful young women feel like they cannot transfer their success into their romantic relationships.

DC: You performed a study in 2012 in which you concluded that the children of parents in same-sex relationships were more likely to develop a series of problems compared to those with parents in opposite-sex relationships. An academic complaint was filed against you, criticizing your methods. What was your experience going through that process and what would you say in that regard?

Regnerus: More than one complaint, actually, and it wasn’t simply about methods. Critics were firing in all directions. It was a difficult experience, and it unfortunately never leaves you. Enemies have long memories. But every time I formally defended the work, I’ve been successful. I was just recently promoted to full professor at the University of Texas. But the pathway to get there was painful. I like to use the imagery of a soldier who’s made it through a battle alive. You’re grateful, but you look around you and the terrain has been scorched and altered. Unfortunately, that study was not the only thing that critics have disliked about my research. Many have little love for this new book.

DC: On the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, how do you appreciate the document?

Regnerus: Paul VI understood something of the economics of sexual exchange, and worried about the Pill’s effect on relationships and sexual decision-making. In Humanae Vitae, he wrote, “Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings — and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation — need incentives to keep the moral law…” He’s saying that this is obvious to human observation, that it’s easy to see how this works.

His logic here could be taken a step further, though. In the era of the Pill, men and women increasingly need incentives not just to keep the moral law, but now even to marry. Marriage rates are tanking everywhere.

And something Paul VI didn’t predict is that men’s increasing irreverence toward women would become mutual over time. Men may reduce women to instruments, but women learn, too. Both men and women have become more adept at using each other. This is not the way love is meant to be.

 

St. John Paul II Lecture Series

Date: Sep. 4, 2018

Time: 7 p.m.

Place: St. John Vianney Refectory

Visit archden.org/lecture to RSVP

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.