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?
The gender imbalance is a big problem on many Christian college campuses. Lots of young women will never meet a mate there. Or—and I think this is more likely—the relationships they have there never mature, because the terms favor men.
This is not to suggest that men can't commit. They can, but they have to do so today in an environment of such rich choices. It makes it difficult for them.
So would you argue for teaching men to "court" women—to pursue them with marriage in mind?
Courting freaks men out, so I don't ever use that language. But teach them how to behave appropriately as a gentleman and ask a woman out. Take her to dinner. Learn about her and have interesting conversations. Meanwhile, you see plenty of people who don't date, yet they know what each other looks like naked before they know what each other's religion, politics, and everything else are—which is ridiculous.
Optimally we wouldn't be talking about who has more power in relationships and why. That's not how relationships were intended to be. As a couple becomes more in love, self-sacrifice generally emerges. That's good. But when the conditions in which relationships develop change—as they have—it's foolish to expect that relationships won't change with them.
How does pornography change the sexual marketplace, for women as well as men?
It takes power away from women as a group, because it provides men with another sexual outlet. Some will say that Playboy has been around a long time, but today's porn is not like that. It puts one bedside in high definition. Individual women notice it in their relationships, especially in marriage. But even before marriage, it's still at work, eroding the value of what she has that he wants. Now she has to compete with virtual sex partners as well as other women.
I used to think young women would have the last laugh here—that men would come to understand that sex is not like porn. I'm not so sure about that anymore. Speaking as a sociologist, you can't form enough accountability groups to erase the effects of porn on the relationship pool. It's not just about helping Joe Christian steer clear of this thing he'd like. It colors more than we think.
We hear a lot in the media about the prevalence of hookup culture on college campuses. Yet you report that for today's adults ages 18-23, serial monogamy is the dominant sexual narrative.
Right. Overall there is still the belief that if you are with one person, you should stay faithful to that one person. Yet the relationships don't last long. There is a lot of jumping from one monogamous sexual partner to another. It's fair to say that the hookup culture isn't as prevalent as it's often reported to be. It's certainly true and alive and well, especially among fraternities and sororities, but there are large segments of young adulthood for whom it's just not something they do.
What's changed is not that we don't have exclusive relationships. We do, but how they start, how long they last, and what they look like is different, and from my perspective, worse—especially for women—than 20 years ago.
What else has changed in the sexual marketplace among emerging adults?
The most significant difference is in the declining overlap of the sexual and marriage markets. Many young adults are content to remain in the sex market for years. Marriage can wait. Now is the time for fun. Their relationships, while romantic and exclusive, are silently understood to have an expiration date.
Others—especially but not only Christians—are in the marriage market. But since what they hope for—chastity in a spouse—is becoming increasingly rare, the average Christian is spending more time on the marriage market, and making more sexual compromises along the way, than in previous generations. They may or may not want to wait to marry, but they are waiting. However, it's hard to want one thing (marriage) and find yourself doing another (having sex outside of marriage). So many young adult Christians are making peace with premarital sex—some because they wish to, but many because they feel they have little choice, that to delay sex puts the relationship at risk. That's how male-centered romantic relationships have become.
In the book you use the word script to describe the narrative structures that make certain behaviors and attitudes seem plausible. Given all these disheartening findings, what script should churches be telling about sex and marriage?
When I get asked these questions, it's usually, "What new thing can we do?" What we have—that marriage is a covenant helpmate thing—is good. What I tend to see is we don't teach it much to our children. And since it [good marriage] is becoming rarer in our own lives, the lives of 40- and 50-somethings, we're not going to teach kids something that didn't work out for us. The more family brokenness occurs inside the church, the less powerful the narrative about the goodness of marriage and the covenant between God and his people is going to be.
But I think churches need to be active in a few things. First, impress upon teenagers and young adults that marriage is a developmental priority, not an afterthought. This doesn't mean they have to marry—and singles hate me for saying this—but marriage is the default in the church, and men especially need a good justification for not marrying. A second priority is helping Christian young people meet each other. I set people up on dates. Most of them don't take, but hey, some do.
Third, churches should challenge men to woo women, because the early relationships of many men are ones in which they hold all the cards. I remember wooing women. It was painful! Today's young men don't, so we have to turn over the dominant narrative and say, "It shouldn't be like this."
I'm optimistic about individuals' chances. Always. But collectively I'm not optimistic. I'm in the "marriage is deinstitutionalizing" category. I'm not pessimistic about people's ability to marry. I'm pessimistic about women's ability to marry without making compromises and waiting as long. People get married. It just can be a lot later than they wish, with a boulder-strewn pathway to get there.
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Regnerus spoke at the Q conference in 2010 about "Saving Marriage Before It Starts" (video), which included many of the points he raises in this interview.
Previous Christianity Today articles on sex include:
How to Teach Sex | Seven realities that Christians in every congregation need to know. (February 9, 2011)
Female Sex Addict: Not an Oxymoron | Marnie Ferree's No Stones: Women Redeemed from Sexual Addiction challenges easy assumptions about who gets addicted and why. (April 26, 2010)
My Top 5 Books on Sex | Compiled by Lauren F. Winner, author of Real Sex. (August 8, 2007)
Let's Talk Sex | What Christian books on the topic are, and are not, communicating. (June 1, 2004)
Holy Sex | How it ravishes our souls. (October 1, 2003)
The Truth About Sex | Even Christians get seduced by the sexual lies our culture proclaims. (November 12, 2001)
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