Sex Economics 101
No News Flash: The West is facing an economic collapse whose effects will stretch on for decades. News flash: The West is also facing a challenging marketplace economy in sex and marriage, at least according to Mark Regnerus. "Neither a strong gender constructionist nor a strong gender essentialist, but a sociologist" (at the University of Texas-Austin), Regnerus describes the traditional marriage economy this way: Most men want sex more than do women and have traditionally gained access to sex via marriage. In turn, most women have given sex for marriage, which has brought economic security and commitment.
Now, says Regnerus—whose 2009 "case for early marriage" in Christianity Today made quite a splash—women are expected to commence sex early, with little promise of commitment. And this hurts everyone, but especially women. Speaking with CT associate editor Katelyn Beaty, Regnerus explained this and other findings from his new book, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying (Oxford University Press), coauthored with Jeremy Uecker.
You frame your research using sexual economics theory: Sex is a transaction in which men pay, via economic stability or education or as little as dinner, to get access to sex, while women pay with their sexuality to get goods that men can offer. Describing sex this way seems pretty cynical. Why use this theory to explain your research?
Because it's accurate. There are lots of lenses to use to evaluate how people make decisions about sex and relationships. Some of them are far more idealistic than realistic. I find the economic theory [developed by psychologists Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs] to be remarkably astute in its general description of how people make such decisions. My students—who can spot a pathetic argument on this stuff a mile away—almost always confess that this way of understanding relationships is consonant with their experience.
People will cringe to listen to it, but when they think about it, it's remarkable how accurate it can be. It works because it's rooted in basic differences between men and women and basic different interests in sex, marriage, and long-term relationships. As a Christian, none of it surprises me or discourages me. There's an inherent good and functional tension between men and women in this domain. Historically, sex was a key motivator for men to marry. Try to reduce that tension, that function, and all hell breaks loose—which is what we are witnessing.
That tension has been reduced, in part, by the fact that women now have much greater chances to pursue higher education and financially support themselves compared with 50 or even 20 years ago. But you say that women's education and the sex ratio imbalance it's created on college campuses comes at a cost.
Relationships that form under the current conditions of imbalance tend to become sexual more quickly than when they form under more balanced gender ratios, or when there are a lot more desirable men than women. Because whoever is the minority gender, so to speak, has more power, and especially in this sense, because women want marriage more than men do. So when there are more women in the pool, it lends itself to women competing for men rather than the other way around.
The imbalanced ratio indicates remarkable achievements for women's continued push for social and economic equality with men. But it spells something altogether different for their romantic relationships with men, which have become considerably more difficult to generate and maintain. As women who are highly educated and successful outnumber men, this drives down the "market price" of sex. There are plenty of women who are in sexual relationships that they aren't crazy about, who would like to be legitimately asked out, but they feel like they can't get it. He texts, and they "hang out." How lame is that?