Article Oct 16, 2017

Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy

How do young adults find romantic partners?  What are their patterns of behavior in romantic relationships?  Why is there a decrease in the number of young adults who are marrying? How does technology affect romance? These are some of the questions that Mark Regnerus’s new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy, seeks to describe.  

An associate professor of sociology at University of Texas-Austin, Regnerus analyzes the transformed landscape of romantic relationships and sexual ethics in which all young adults (believers and non-believers) find themselves. This work builds on his two previous related titles: Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (2007) and Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying (2011).  What follows are his responses to questions posed about his current research and this shifting environment for young adults.

1. The subtitle of your book is "The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy." However, the Daily Wire asserts that you position women as the "gatekeepers of sex." So do you see this as a transformation of men because of changes in women? Or is there a simultaneous transformation occurring in this marketplace of relationships?

I don’t “position” women as the gatekeepers of sex. They simply are, in consensual relationships. Except in tragic cases where sexual assault occurs, without her “yes,” sexual activity does not happen. While the title talks of a transformation in men, there is no less of a transformation going on among women. But it’s fair to say that the mating market shifts first affected women, and in turn the same among men. And now it’s a self-sustaining cycle for both.

2. What are the rising perceived barriers you have in mind in the Washington Post opinion piece to marriage? Further, how is this phenomenon the result of factors that may be beyond the control of these 20–30 year olds?

Many of the same dynamics that affect the wider population of young Americans is affecting Christians, too, since Christians do not inhabit a distinctive “mating pool.” Most of the factors I describe are beyond the control of individuals—yes. We may control what we do, but we can’t control what’s going on around us, such as the rising median age at marriage and the declining share of Americans that are marrying. And those certainly affect Christians, whose patterns aren’t quite the “national average,” but they’re not radically different, either.

3. What effect do you see this transformation of marriage and sex having on society in the long term? Especially in regard to sexual norms but also in terms of education, economic levels, etc.

Minimally, the flight from marriage—especially among the poor and working class—will only exacerbate inequality in the country. And we’ll see it across domains, including education and the labor market. The poor will get poorer, by being alone, while the wealthier marry at higher rates and combine assets. At a more personal level, we’ll see a growing distance between men and women, increasing coarseness in their (shorter) relationships, less trust, more loneliness. It’s not that there won’t be marriages, but they’ll be less common. And those who want to marry won’t understand what it takes to accomplish it.   

4. You talk about the easy availability of pornography and other tech based sexual behaviors as a way that sex has been transformed. Does this mean that these tech-based approaches to relationships are inherently flawed or is there a use for them romantically (I'm thinking here about online dating or dating apps)?  Also, how do you see the new advances in AI and sexual robots being a factor in the future?

Online dating can be used for good ends, but its underlying logic—which objectifies persons, reduces them to a handful of key traits, and makes sifting through them an efficient process—cannot really be reformed. So yes, they are inherently flawed, but that doesn’t mean people of good will and intentions can’t “override” that. They can, but it’s not as ideal as meeting someone naturally in the social environment. I think most people would agree with that. As for “sex robots,” I see very little standing in the way of their becoming more common. Mass production will make them less expensive, and—like with pornography—it will further cheapen “real” sexual intercourse between persons, undermining women’s “gatekeeping” power. In a very real sense, this is what happens when free-market capitalism turns its attention on the home and on our most intimate relationships. Nothing is sacred to the unscrupulous today.

5. In the face of this shift away from cultural incentives to marry, does the uncertainty around issues pose the possibility that young adults might be convinced of the benefit of traditional practices/timeline? You seem skeptical of this in the Washington Post article. Why? 

I very much believe that young adults desire traditional practices—like marriage—and on sensible timelines. But our attitudes toward these things do not drive our behavior like one might rationally expect. I tell a story in Chapter 5 about Nina, a 25-year-old from Denver. She wants something good—to begin a relationship with a close friend, to marry him, and raise a family with him. But she just does not know how to get there. Her past experiences with men have drained her emotionally, as well as taught men that sex is cheap. As I said in the book, “When she looks around her, she knows something is wrong while perceiving normative (but problematic) behavior patterns in others and in herself.” Young people long for the good, the true, and the beautiful, but they have lost sight of what it takes to get there: discipline, restraint, patience, boundaries, and sacrifice. And they’ve forgotten that we’re in this together—not to compete with each other—but to help each other get to where so many still want to go, that is, to stability, love, and marriage.

6. Do you see any implications for this on an individual level in terms of how people, specifically Christians, are interacting with one another and should navigate this shifting cultural landscape with regard to dating, romance, and relationships?

I do. I think many Christians know what it takes to marry, and they know what behaviors promote marriageability. In other words, they get how this works. And yet Christians can be prone to “poaching” on both sides. By that I mean they can rush things—committing too early to the first decent person who agrees to a date, for fear that it’s their only chance. And on the other side, Christians can readily succumb to the sexual dynamics of the modern dating scene, hopping into bed too quickly. We’re often not as strong as we think we are. There tends to be wisdom in navigating the relationship “market” with the help and advice of friends and parents. They can often see things we cannot.

7. How do you see your research being useful for a local pastor or church leadership seeking to offer guidance to a congregation considering this transformation in these areas of romance and relationships?  

The primary reason I wrote the book is to explain our situation, not to map the way out of it. I don’t have good advice about what can solve this. However, I think the book enables us to “see” the situation, which can be extraordinarily helpful, because what is ailing young adults here is often invisible to them. They know there’s something wrong. They tend to blame themselves, or “the men,” or “the women,” or to criticize “the culture.” But we didn’t get to this point without the technology—the Pill, porn, and online dating—that has made sex easier and hence “cheaper.” Seeing how it happened is a good first step toward helping each other navigate the relationship scene more prudently and chastely.