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: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]