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

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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: Despite no Masses, you won’t believe what parishes are doing

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Despite no Masses, you won’t believe what parishes are doing

Livestreamed Masses, drive-through confession and more are sustaining the faithful during quarantine

Aaron Lambert

Nothing like creativity and some humor to make a tough situation a little easier to endure.

“It took generations, but they have succeeded where the rest of us have failed. Children, of all ages throughout the world, have successfully given up school for Lent,” St. John the Baptist Parish in Longmont posted on its Facebook page April 1. Quite a few “Haha” reactions ensued.

The post, of course, refers to the fact that because of the coronavirus pandemic, students are not attending classes in-person and are instead learning from home. This homebound engagement is true for pretty much every other public institution, including Catholic churches. Parishes across the Archdiocese of Denver are having to adapt to a temporary reality where Masses are empty.

Thankfully, that aforementioned creativity, strong communities and a little help from the internet are making it possible for parishes to still serve the faithful in plenty of ways. For many parishes, this means something as simple as livestreaming Masses for the faithful to participate in from home.

While it’s impossible to replace being physically present in the Mass, many seem appreciative and grateful for the opportunity to still engage with the sacred liturgy from afar.

“So grateful to have a Parish Staff that has responded to the current situation and found ways to continue offering sacraments and ministry,” wrote Jodee Hinton on Our Lady of the Valley’s Facebook page. “It was very special and much needed for my family to watch Mass today. My kids loved being able to see what actually happens on the altar.”

“Thank you Father, miss you and sharing Christ with you in person, but we will be with you soon with the help of Jesus Christ. Stay strong and safe,” wrote Judith Ann Aerne on Holy Cross in Thornton’s Facebook page.

Parishioners in their cars line up in the parking lot of Queen of Peace Parish in Aurora to have their confessions heard. Parishes are finding creative ways to offer the sacraments to the faithful while stay-at-home and social distancing orders are in place. (Photo provided by Queen of Peace)

Other parishes are also finding ways to continue providing other sacraments to the faithful. Queen of Peace Parish in Aurora, for example, has launched drive-through confessions on Saturdays to ensure people still have the chance to receive to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and they’re not the only parish to do so. It’s just one of the ways that they’re able to stay connected to their parishioners while their doors are closed.

“Since they can no longer gather here, we’ve tried to go to them,” said Queen of Peace pastor Father Felix Medina. “We’ve stayed busy. We livestream at least three liturgies a day: Morning Prayer and Adoration in the morning, English Mass at noon and Spanish Mass in the evening.

“I think it’s important for people to know that the Church is still open and it’s more present than ever before, that we will not be silenced, that we won’t stop reaching out to people now,” Father Medina said.

And by reaching out, Father Medina doesn’t mean that figuratively. Queen of Peace and other parishes such as Assumption in Welby and St. John the Baptist in Longmont have been calling their parishioners one-by-one to check in on them and see if they can help with anything.

“We’re essentially asking three basic questions: one, how are you doing; two, do you need anything; and three, can we pray with you?” Father Daniel Ciucci of St. John the Baptist said in an interview with Fox 31.

Volunteers at St. John the Baptist make phone calls to check in on parishioners. Outreach from parishes has taken on a whole new meaning during the coronavirus outbreak, and they’re finding ways to rise to the occasion. (Photo provided by St. John the Baptist)

“As priests, we’ve maintained a life of prayer, but we’ve also been calling our parishioners,” Father Medina said. “We each try to call 50 or 100 a day. They’re very happy to hear us checking in on how they’re doing and how their family’s doing and whether they need anything – especially because we know some of them are lonely and are having a hard time.”

Of course, there’s a whole lot more that parishes do besides offer Mass, and they’re finding ways to keep those things going too. Nativity of Our Lord in Broomfield is offering assistance to parishioners who need it, whether it be delivering groceries or seeing a priest; Risen Christ in Denver is continuing its partnership with Food Bank of the Rockies and doing drive-up food distribution; youth ministers across the archdiocese are doing virtual youth group nights via Zoom. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The parishes of the Archdiocese of Denver will continue to find innovative and creative ways to serve the faithful through all of this. However, they need the vital support of their communities to do so. Many parishes have online giving portals set up through their own website, but you can also visit passthebasket.org to give to any parish in the Archdiocese of Denver.

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez contributed to this report.