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