Sociologist Mark Regnerus’ new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, carefully and thoroughly draws a map of sexual practices and preferences among 25- to 34-year-old Americans. To do so, he relies heavily upon well-accepted databases, researchers, and studies, as well as personal stories collected from qualitative research—all of which provide readers with the most reliable resource we have, so far, on this issue.
Efforts to understand and address various phenomena observed in the territory of sex, marriage, and parenting are plentiful these days. Many of us are troubled by these trends, while others regard them as neutral or positive, needing only to be managed properly in order to preserve sexual choice while avoiding harm. These include the decline of “dating,” more casual sex, increasing cohabitation, delayed marriage, high rates of nonmarital childbearing, and high rates of porn usage. Whether one is worried about these developments, or simply wishes to manage them to secure a particular notion of freedom, Regnerus’ book is required reading.
The importance of the book is further strengthened by the remarkable fact that its first “endorser,” is Anthony Giddens, the most celebrated sociologist of the 20th century, and author of the landmark, The Transformation of Intimacy. Regnerus relies upon Giddens’ masterwork, which in 1992 described and predicted altered sexual relationships in a world where sex is unlinked from procreation. At the same time, Regnerus documents further alterations and their causes and—unlike Giddens—pays careful and sustained attention to the present and future negative fallout of the new sexual dispensation.
In Cheap Sex, Regnerus’ thesis is that sex acts have become “cheaper”: more “widely accessible, at lower ‘cost’ to everyone than ever before in human history,” because (via contraception and abortion) sex can be rendered infertile or the pregnancy can be ended before birth. Furthermore, men have to do less “wooing” to access sex, and solitary sex—masturbation—“is now able, by use of digital pornography, to mimic coupled sex more realistically than ever before.” He proposes that three technological advancements have facilitated cheap sex: contraception, pornography, and online dating (which makes acquiring cheap sex more “efficient”). He concludes that cheap sex is “flooding the marketplace” and having “profound influence on how American men and women relate to each other, which in turn has spilled over into other domains.”
This thesis, in turn, depends upon the claim that men and women engage in “exchange” behavior regarding sex. He documents this exhaustively, showing that men and women have different sexual drives, preferences, and permissiveness, with men, on average, wanting more sex than women. One telling example he gives: women generally never pay men for sex. Women have what men want in this regard, and are therefore the “gatekeepers” of sex; in a consensual relationship, sex begins when women decide it should. Previously, when women depended upon men’s economic provision, women generally tended to withhold sex in order to secure commitment and marriage. Today, with women making up at least 50% of the labor force and more than 50% of college graduates, there is less reason to withhold sex. Sex simply becomes “less consequential.” In fact, because women are more scarce in the “market for sex,” they can command a higher “price,” and feel very desired and appreciated—at least for a short time. They also increasingly perceive that if they want a longer romantic relationship and eventually marriage, perhaps they had better consent to sex to get the process started. In the “marriage market,” then, men are more scarce, especially because they do not have women’s fertility constraints.
Regnerus then examines the relationship between contraception, porn, and Internet dating, and the modern mating market. He explains how contraception bifurcates sex from thinking about marriage. Because of sex differences, this means that there are more women in the marriage pool and more men in the sex pool. These “ratios” mean a scarcity of women in the first market and of men in the second market, which affects “prices.”
Regarding pornography, Regnerus points out that in an age of digital flat-screens and surround sound, porn is closing the gap between real and fake sex. It is also regularly accompanied by masturbation, especially by men, which is cheap sex in the extreme. He estimates that pornography may be responsible for nine to 15% of men’s retreat from the mating and marriage markets, increasing men’s scarcity there even more. Some men are substituting porn for intercourse, and some feel unready or unworthy for marriage because of their porn addiction. Women may also refuse to partner with men who use porn.
Regnerus identifies the most important aspect of online dating as its “enabling [of] people to sort through sexual and romantic ‘options’ more efficiently.” In practice, it has become a “remarkably efficient cheap sex delivery system…It’s like a platter of people.” Consequently, it discourages investment in any partner who seems imperfect, and fosters overlapping sexual partnerships and keeping options open.”
Some of the victims and consequences of cheap sex are familiar even in the public mind: 1) women who want to marry earlier, 2) children—because parents’ partnership stability is closely associated with long-term flourishing, and 3) marriage generally, insofar as it is associated with economic, emotional, and various social goods. What will prove far more controversial are Regnerus’ claims about the additional possible effects, for which he provides empirical indications and cautious analysis. These possible effects include: the possibility that a difficult mating market is causing more women to try same-sex partnerships; a reduced drive among men to achieve better education and employment; and reduced religious affiliation. Both here, and in his description of the new mating market, he is always careful to acknowledge the benefits that some perceive regarding both the practice of cheap sex and its possible effects.
As for the future? Regnerus proposes that sex will continue to be perceived as very central to human happiness and freedom and likely grow even “cheaper.” He also believes that marriage will continue to decline and that polyamory, though not polygamy, may grow. He does not believe, however, that efforts to “de-gender” society or to eradicate the terms of the male/female sexual exchange will succeed. He insists that these remain deeply embedded as a matter of nature, and are not mere cultural artifacts.
For those happy with the new mating market, he has good news: “don’t worry, the new [relational realities] aren’t going anywhere.” For religions and reformers hoping to increase the price of sex, however, the news is difficult. While practicing believers avoid cheap sex more, they are far from united in their adherence to religious teachings. The Christian churches, he claims (relying in part on the work of sociologist, Andrew Cherlin), suffer from poor catechesis, the tendency toward therapeutic expressive individualism, and a new emphasis on supporting versus challenging members. This is unlikely to stem the tide of cheap sex.
Furthermore, he argues, women—the sexual “gatekeepers”—find themselves in a classic “prisoners’ dilemma,” whereby their individual motivation to reject cheap sex is severely weakened. They have no means of coming together to form an agreement about how to increase the price of sex so as to achieve their preferences more often.
Porn and Internet dating show no signs of disappearing either. And more recent personal standards for entering into marriage—including higher standards for income, and for emotional and sexual compatibility—are widely held.
It is very difficult to dispute Regnerus’ map or his cautious assessments of future trends. For those hoping to curb cheap sex and its negative effects, the book is a framework for future action. Religion—which he identifies as the last institution standing against cheap sex—would have to acknowledge the relational realities facing church members, and speak more frankly and more directly to them. Women opposed to cheap sex would have to find a way to cooperate with one another and speak out more often (I will have more about this in a future piece). Men—advantaged in the short run by cheap sex, but disadvantaged over time—would have to adapt their behavior. Advocates for children—whose later family structure is regularly established at the moment of sexual intercourse—would have to find a way to again make child-centered thinking part of thinking about sex. Lawmakers in our free-market society would have to craft an acceptable and constitutionally sound approach to curb pornography and reform sex education and contraception programs so as to provide truly informed consent. Every one of these tasks is large and daunting.
Regnerus concludes by acknowledging that not everyone will agree that cheap sex means that “some important things have been lost or are receding.” But he hopes that “we can all agree about what is going on in human social and sexual life.” This book is the most important attempt to date to honestly depict the phenomenon of cheap sex in American society and thus the framework for any path forward.
Helen Alvare’ is a Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law, and the co-founder of Women Speak for Themselves.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.