Family scholar Mark Regnerus has attracted a lot of interest as well as some controversy with his recently published book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy. The author, a sociologist from the University of Texas at Austin, expounds on the work and addresses some criticisms of it in this interview with Tracey O’Donnell of the Social Trends Institute.
Many people have heard about this book but haven’t read it. Can you summarize what it’s about and what it covers?
The book covers a fair bit of territory, accomplishing several things: (1) it documents the rise in “cheap sex” since the advent of artificial contraception, as well as several other forms of sexual technology; (2) it explores how this comparatively new ease in sexual access has stalled relationships and delayed marriage—in part by boosting women’s career fortunes while undermining men’s marriageability; and (3) reviews how prescient social theorist Anthony Giddens’ predictions were in his 1992 book, The Transformation of Intimacy, by providing an overview of modern sexual relationship behaviour and decision-making.
Critics have squabbled with you about your claim that “cheap sex” is contributing to a decline in marriage. They say it’s largely about men’s declining wages, which are apt to make them less marriageable. You say you’re sceptical that wages are the key piece of the puzzle. Why?
I’m not sceptical that men’s wages matter for their marriageability. I believe it. Men and women alike consider men’s earning prospects a key measure of marriageability. That’s very old. I just don’t think men’s wages have fallen or stagnated strictly because of economic forces outside of their control. I think cheap sex—that is, easier access to sexual experiences—is a de-motivator for men.
Men, I hold, have historically done whatever it takes to make themselves desirable to women, due in no small part to their higher (average) sex drive. But that’s just not necessary anymore, in the era of easier sex, high-definition pornography, and online dating. And yet, ironically, men seem to dominate this new “mating market” more than ever, in part because women decreasingly need to marry—but many still want to marry—and that makes a big difference.
Women can now be choosier, and hence marriageable men—who are less common than before—will have more power to call the shots in their significant relationships. That’s how power works when marriageable men are outnumbered by marriage-minded women. That’s why we see relationships becoming sexual earlier than most women would prefer, because women are now in a position of competing for men rather than vice versa. It’s an ironic byproduct of their newfound economic and career success. Some think it’s a “paradox.” On the contrary, it’s exactly what one should expect.
Some critics—especially women—have labelled your arguments as “misogynistic”, while others—primarily men—think you have singled them out as being at fault. Why such divergent perceptions and is there anything to such claims?
I disagree with both claims, obviously. Neither women nor men are somehow “to blame” for the situation we now find ourselves in. This book is a work of sociology through and through, which means that I situate the problem as an unintended consequence of technology altering social structures.
To be sure, these technologies didn’t come from nowhere. The birth control pill was intended. High-definition, “realistic” pornography is created by people. Online dating sites are constructed and used. And yet each of these has side effects, if you will. They make sexual experiences—which men are more apt to pursue single-mindedly than women are—easier to achieve. That has consequences.
Women, who are sexual “gatekeepers,” whether they wish to be or not, feel more pressure now to woo men, rather than the other way around. Men, in response, feel less need to treat women well, respect their dignity, etc. And yet despite all this, love still happens, and that is a wonderful thing. But “cheap sex” never really disappears; its temptations remain, and prompt the collapse of many marriages. Some men, typically in hindsight, perceive marriage as a “bad deal.”
Is there really so much to fear in a society that features fewer marriages? Some European countries are almost there already, and they seem okay. Mightn’t you be fear-mongering?
It’s not so much that there is something to actively fear here. It’s that “negative externalities,” as economists call them, should be expected when marriage recedes. Genuine, life-affirming love between men and women is less apt to flourish when relationships are fragile, when partners are prone to being “poached” by outsiders or by the siren call of pornography, and when parental divorce prompts uncertainty about the possibility of life-long fidelity among young adults. Children come to feel less secure and more anxious in a world where more parents split. (Sociologists finally seem willing to admit this.)
People long for permanence and stability—mature, settled love like that in stable marriage—even if they don’t know how to get it. But in this emerging era, people will become more transactional about their relationships (as Giddens predicted in 1992), more guarded, less open to being hurt, and more “atomistic.” It appears emotionally safer to them, but it’s not. Such societies will survive, but their inhabitants will be lonelier. We will have to depend more on the good will of outsiders, and the State, to replace what spouses and children long did for us. But while a State can provide services, it cannot love.
You talk about the easy availability of pornography and other tech-based sexual behaviours as one way that sex has been transformed. Do you see the new advances in artificial intelligence and “sex robots” being a factor in our future, or not really?
About artificial intelligence and the development of “sex robots,” I see very little standing in the way of their becoming more common. Women loathe this possibility, but I see little standing in the way of it. Mass production will make such things less expensive, and—like with pornography—it will further cheapen “real” sexual intercourse between persons, undermining women’s “gatekeeping” power. This is what happens when unregulated capitalists turn their attention on the home and on our most intimate relationships. Nothing is sacred to the unscrupulous today.
Why do you think media attention has largely overlooked the repeated attention the book dedicates to discussing same-sex relationships and behaviour? What are your key claims about them?
I am frankly surprised that the same-sex relationship angle has been covered so little. It may be in part because many critics haven’t really read the book—only about the book. It also may be because there is not much controversial about what I document about them. Male and female same-sex relationships tend to be distinctive in their sexual behaviour patterns, and I argue that “sex” differences—that between men and women—are more powerful predictors of sexual behaviour than sexual orientation is.
For example, gay couples are much more apt to report additional partners outside the primary union, and I describe why this is not because they’re gay but because they’re men. When men are in a relationship with women, such behaviour is rarely tolerated and almost never offered. The most important distinction in the domain of sexual behaviour is between men and women, not gay and straight. I think now that gay and lesbian Americans have secured particular legal relationship goals, the “atmosphere” for discussing their relationship conduct has relaxed some.
You largely avoid offering solutions to the problems you outline in your book. Why?
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 situation. What has emerged is a social problem not readily amenable to personal actions or decisions. I don’t really know what can make the mating market friendlier to women’s interests.
That said, I think the book enables readers to see reality here clearly, which can be extraordinarily helpful, given that mating market dynamics are often invisible to them. They know there’s something wrong. They tend to blame themselves for problems that arise, or fault “the men,” or “the women,” or to criticize “the culture.” But we didn’t get to this point without the technologies—the Pill, “streaming” porn, and online dating—that have made sex easier and hence “cheaper.”
Seeing how this happened, and what has resulted, is a good first step toward helping “conscientious objectors” navigate the modern relationship scene more prudently and chastely. Young people long for the good, the true, and the beautiful, but when they look around them, they see little of what it takes to help each other 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.
Are you as pessimistic about things as you sound?
I’m a short-term pessimist, and a long-term optimist. Here’s why, to quote directly from the book’s last chapter: “In the end, the exchange relationship is heteronormative, and that will not change. While marriage is in the throes of deinstitutionalization, the essence of the union itself will survive. It will not be deconstructed, because it is not a mere social construction, despite convictions and legal moves to the contrary.”
In other words, I think the global situation for marriage will get worse before it gets better. But marriage is around to stay, even if it becomes only a minority practice and structure. Moreover, marriage isn’t as malleable as most sociologists think. We can mess around with it for a time, but we’re not really free to remake it however we wish. At some point we’ve then created something else. We can call it marriage, but it’s a misnomer. If you think expectations of fidelity, permanence, children, sacrifice, and self-giving are all negotiable, then you’re ultimately not talking about marriage anymore.
Some of your more vocal critics point out that you’re Catholic, suggesting that that matters here. Does it?
Being Catholic matters insofar as it means that I, like any other analyst of data, have particular personal ideals and attitudes about the content I study. That’s no different than anyone else. Nobody approaches a topical matter without interests. Does Catholicism shape what I conclude about social reality? No. I can’t really see how it would matter. It does, of course, shape what I think is good. But everyone has conceptions of what the good is.
Or perhaps they think I’m more prone to ignore more traditionally “sociological” factors here—like men’s wages and their influence on marriage rates—in favour of “moral” factors like religiosity. (I actually think a living wage is a good thing, but as I already remarked, I think wages are not independent of technologies that have cheapened sex.) Some think I’m prone to skewing results or lying about data, seeking somehow to “protect” Church doctrine. (That would be quite a task.) Nonsense. I’m not above making mistakes on occasion—none of us are. But altering data? No. I want to know reality, not hide it.
What’s next for you?
My next project is to study the marriage-market experiences of young-adult Christians in eight different countries. So I’m going back to my sociology of religion roots a bit, and blending them with my interest in how people come to fall in love and marry (or not). Christianity is a global faith, and so I want to know how Christians outside the United States are navigating the kinds of challenges I wrote about in Cheap Sex. I’m interested in both what they share in common, across oceans and miles, and where they differ.
And I’m also interested in documenting ideas that seem to work well in fostering marriage and marriageability—practices, policies, and organizational structures—as well as those that seem problematic. So in some ways this next book project is concerned, in part, about solutions. Whether good ideas and practices can travel across borders, however, is another story.
Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy (Oxford, 2017)