The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Marriage has been on a steep, decades-long decline in the United States. Some have worried about this decline; others have simply attributed it to inevitable changes. Marriage is outdated, they say, soon to be replaced by cohabitation or other forms of companionship.
But the reality is that many, many young Americans still claim they want marriage—eventually, and with the right person—but that it seems ever further out of reach. Why? Much has to do with the state of American men. As Hanna Rosin has pointed out in The End of Men, the American male is, compared to American women, undereducated, underemployed, and unwilling to commit to a lifelong partnership. What happened?
What few are willing to say outright is the simple truth that Mark Regnerus, no stranger to conflict, is more than happy to point out in his latest book, Cheap Sex. Regnerus writes, “My central claim in this book is that cheap sex is plentiful—it’s flooding the market in sex and relationships—and that this has had profound influence on how American men and women relate to each other, which in turn has spilled over into other domains.”
This is controversial stuff, because we like to believe nowadays that men and women are essentially the same. Men like sex, and so do women, just as much and some even more. Regnerus argues that this idea of sameness, particularly in the pursuit of sex, is a delusion. There was once such a thing as the “marriage market,” in which men valued attractiveness and sex, and women valued stability, commitment, and earning potential. Sex was the “bargaining tool.” It used to be that the only way to legitimately access sex was within the bounds of marriage, because sex outside of those bounds was too risky. It brought shame, social stigmatization, disabling diseases, but most importantly, babies. And no one condoned childbirth outside of wedlock.
In this market, sex was a powerful motivating factor for men in particular, who will sacrifice a great deal to get it. Regnerus says the “exchange model” (women give access to sex, in return for commitment and security) he highlights here may have been more obvious in the past, but still exists and is not likely to change anytime soon. As evidence of this reality, he points to the fact that culturally, men are still expected to propose to women, and not vice versa. The media may highlight a few exceptions to this as a new “norm,” but it simply isn’t the case. Marriage originates with men. If the exchange model were to be truly broken,
men would no longer be known (and socially rewarded) for seeking sex, while women would begin to seem more commitment phobic. More men would be longing for emotional satisfaction and validation, while more women would pursue bedding complete strangers. Men would pine to stay at home longer with their infants. Women would play fantasy football. All unlikely scenarios.
But this exchange model, though it still exists, received a major and unalterable shock with the advent of artificial birth control in the 1960s. Contraception “altered the playing field.” Without the pill and other forms of hormonal contraception, the “pure relationship”—defined as one based not on economic necessity or tradeoff but on emotion alone—could not have emerged. And the pure relationship model, in which feelings of love, closeness, self-worth, etc. are considered the only legitimate reasons for marriage, now dominates the marriage market and dictates what men and women seek in a mate. “Marriage,” writes Regnerus, “is still widely considered to be expensive, by which I mean that it is a big deal, not entered into lightly, and is costly in terms of fidelity, time, finances, and personal investment. Sex, meanwhile, has become comparatively cheap. Not that hard to get.”
To make his case that sex in America is relatively cheap and easy to access, Regnerus and his colleagues review available data and also conduct detailed interviews of young Americans. They find, to begin with, that sex is indeed far easier to access today than ever before. As an example, Regnerus examines the modern dating market through the lens of the dating app. When the “hookup” app Tinder came into being, Regnerus predicted it would fail because it didn’t provide a way for women to evaluate a man’s economic position or earning power. “I was wrong,” he writes, signifying “that increasing numbers of women don’t really need men’s resources anymore, and that they outnumber men in the market for committed relationships. . . . when the supply side rises to meet demand, the price of anything—including sex—will fall.” Women felt compelled to participate in the hookup market, because men no longer needed marriage to access sex, and sex was the way they could attract a mate. Also among his findings are that the top 20% of women and men account for 80% of sexual activity—in other words, most Americans are not “gaining” from the advent of cheap sex. Also, the advent of first sex has become startlingly early. The greatest percentage (about 25% of men, and a little over 20% of women) of young Americans report that first sex occurred “after we met, but before in a relationship.” (“After we got married” accounts for about 12% and 11% for men and women, respectively, but this number doesn’t account for previous sexual relationships. Regnerus estimates the premarital virginity rate to be about 6%, at the highest.) He also reports that more frequent sex has not led to more satisfying sex, primarily for women.
The cheapest of cheap sex is, of course, pornography and masturbation. Porn is now easier to access, more culturally accepted, and more explicit than ever before. Might this affect how the marriage market operates? Regnerus believes so. First, he demonstrates that yes, indeed, more young people today are using porn as a vehicle for cheap sex than ever before—46% of men below age 40 view porn weekly. (His team’s interviews reveal that for the most part, users of porn still tend to be men, although even that is changing.) Also still true is that for the most part, women don’t like the fact that men view porn, and they particularly don’t like that their partners do so. What has developed in recent decades is a “culture of tolerating pornography among men’s sexual partners—the interviews confirm this—including those that vehemently dislike it. . . . it’s the new cost of doing business with men.” Sex is cheap, marriage is more expensive, and one of the “costs” of finding a marriageable partner is tolerating his porn habit. Interestingly, porn use actually seems to shape political opinion. Regnerus finds that “Regression analyses . . . confirm that last pornography use is a (very) significant predictor of men’s support for same-sex marriage in the full sample, displaying a linear association even after controlling for other obvious factors that might influence one’s perspective.” Although, he admits, correlation does not mean causation, he speculates that causation wouldn’t run the other direction—that is, support for same-sex marriage wouldn’t cause more porn use. He speculates instead that the correlation exists because “pornography typically treats gazers to a veritable fire-hose dousing of sex-act diversity, and presses its consumers away from thinking of sex as having anything to do with love, monogamy, or childbearing—all traits that most Americans long equated with marriage.”
Regnerus and others speculate that cheap sex may even have something to do with the “decline of men” noted by Hanna Rosin and others. The labor market has been “screaming out,” writes New York Times Binyamin Appelbaum, that to succeed, Americans need more education. Women have responded to this cue; men, increasingly, have not, and have in fact been dropping out of the labor market in startling numbers. This is an economic mystery, which other scholars suggest may have something to do with men’s ability to access cheap sex without the bother of attaining economic success, a career, an education, or other markers of being a good provider. “Climbing the corporate ladder for its own sake may still hold some appeal,” writes Roy Baumeister, “but undoubtedly it was more compelling when it was vital for obtaining sex.”
Regnerus closes by highlighting that people still want what marriage has to offer. “Cheap sex,” he says, “does not make marriage unappealing; it just makes marriage less urgent and more difficult to accomplish.” There are clear losers in the new system. Among lower socioeconomic status women, for example, marriage has become far more elusive than it has among higher-income and more educated women. A stark class divide has emerged. And “children, too, are losing out,” as the stability of the two-parent home, presence of siblings, and exposure to intergenerational communities are all eroded. Regnerus closes with eight predictions for 2030, a couple of which, at least, are somewhat encouraging. He predicts that demand for same-sex marriage will recede, and that “efforts to de-gender society and relationships will fall short.” He also makes some somber predictions, not least startling of which is that age of consent laws will become a relic of the past, enforced only in the most egregious of infractions.
But in the end, he believes, changing attitudes and politics and even behavior can only do so much to uproot biology. Regnerus writes that he has become convinced
the Genital Life we are adopting is misanthropic, ultimately anti-woman, and not sustainable. The exchange relationship, on the other hand, is old. It is deeply human. It fosters love when navigated judiciously. And it remains the historic heartbeat, and the very grammar, of human community and social reproduction.
May nature prevail.
Nicole M. King is Managing Editor of The Natural Family.