- Wolfinger and Perry join a long line of left-wing sociologists who critique 'Cheap Sex' by attacking what they think is in the book rather than what I actually wrote. Tweet This
- I maintain that cheap sex is best measured by the timing of first sex in relationships and the relational investments required for sex, matters left utterly unexplored (or even acknowledged) by my twin critics. Tweet This
- Cheap sex is about timing and investments more than partner numbers. And given the ubiquity of pornography, there is no question that the cheapest sex is on the rise. Tweet This
It’s nearing 12 years since I first laid out my case that sex has become cheap. The fundamental idea behind my subsequent book, Cheap Sex, is that accessing sex now requires much less by way of an emotional and financial investment, not to mention a wedding ring, than it once did. And that the widespread availability of cheap sex was one reason—among several—that marriage has been cratering. Much has happened since then to suggest that I was onto something. A year later, Tinder was created. Ten years later, the app can boast of over 65 billion “matches” made worldwide. That so many successful swipes have yielded so little ought to tell us something—namely, that this most efficient method for meeting is better for mating than for marrying.
Not so fast, I’m told. Cheap sex is not to blame for the marital downturn, sociologists Nick Wolfinger and Sam Perry assert in a recent Family Studies blog post about their new study. Appearing in Social Science Research, their paper purports to undermine a claim I’ve never actually made—that no one buys a cow when they can get the milk for free. Such admittedly derisive terms appear nowhere in my book but do so repeatedly in caricatures of it, which is what Wolfinger and Perry have produced. Cheap Sex, instead, offered an assessment of sexual behavior patterns among young adults and a ranging evaluation of the contemporary mating market, including color commentary on the same from 100 interviewees.
Wolfinger and Perry join a long line of left-wing sociologists who critique Cheap Sex by attacking what they think is in the book rather than what I actually wrote. They hold that cheap sex is best measured by the number of sexual partners and maintain that my argument is that an increase in sex partners is what has driven the marriage rate down. Elsewhere, Perry claimed I insist that cheap sex means men don’t want to get married. There is only one problem: I made neither of these arguments in my book.
Their big new finding is that “premarital sex indeed reduces the chances of marriage, but only in the short term,” and hence “(y)our full sexual history doesn’t matter.” In other words, today having lots of partners leads young adults to postpone but not forego marriage. But in the process of reporting this they acknowledge that taking the multi-partner path increases your odds of being unhappy in your marriage as well as your chances of getting divorced. All this makes for rather complicated relationship advice.
So, Wolfinger and Perry measure cheap sex by partner count. I do not. I maintain, and still do, that cheap sex is best measured by the timing of first sex in relationships and the relational investments required for sex, matters left utterly unexplored (or even acknowledged) by my twin critics. The data on timing for the many men and women who have far fewer partners remains very relevant to the question. If you’re 30 and have had three partners in 10 years, I still think timing matters. Did you wait a few months? A year for one and six months for the others? Or until the third date? Were any expressions of love or an ability to bring resources to the table in the mix? Cheap sex is about timing and investments more than it is about partner numbers. And given the ubiquity of pornography and the rising frequency of masturbation in men and women, there is no question, as I note in the book, that the cheapest sex is on the rise.
Finally, the two push their central—but utterly unsurprising—finding that having “anything other than one partner in a given year leads to much lower odds of marriage,” and that the lowest probabilities of subsequent marriage are among those with no recent sexual partner. This, too, is obvious: unmarried Americans in a stable monogamous relationship are certainly at greater risk of marrying soon than are unmarried Americans who aren’t in a relationship at all. What remains unavailable in their data, meanwhile, is anything resembling a measure of the desire to marry. A real test of their alternative thesis would suggest they employ a better measure—any measure—of marital desire, rather than using a low recent partner count as a proxy for it.
Wolfinger and Perry measure cheap sex by partner count. I do not. I maintain, and still do, that cheap sex is best measured by the timing of first sex in relationships and the relational investments required for sex, matters left utterly unexplored (or even acknowledged) by my twin critics.
Cheap Sex included no proclamations about the chaste inheriting the earth. And yet neither Wolfinger nor Perry can tell us here about the odds of chaste relationships predicting marriage for those couples who pursue it. There are, however, hints about this in their observation that women with six or more partners marry at a median age of 32 or higher, while women with two or fewer partners marry, on average, by age 25.
The pathway to marriage has only lengthened since the publication of Cheap Sex in 2017. Hanna Rosin, progressive columnist and author of The End of Men, labeled it the “long sexual arc” through which many emerging adults now move. I think it’s best understood as the road of relational wreckage that most women, and a fair number of men, would prefer to avoid if they could. Nothing about Wolfinger and Perry’s data analyses could suggest I’m mistaken. As a result, the marriage market suffers.
No need to take it from me, though. Economist Marina Adshade describes what to expect:
When marriage markets do not clear efficiently, the end result can be lower overall fertility rates, a higher percentage of births to unmarried women, and higher expenditure on fertility treatments as men and women delay marriage into their 30s and 40s, or never marry at all.
Indeed, Steven Ruggles, a 2022 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grants,” predicted that one in every three persons now in their early 20s will never marry.
Three things are certain. The cost of sex, as measured by ease of access to desirable sexual experiences, has not risen. Pornography use—hardly a marital accelerator—shows no sign of slowing. And marriage rates are dropping. Cheap Sex is not a controversial book. It’s a thoughtful book whose critics dislike what it reveals about us—namely, that our sexual decision-making matters.
Mark Regnerus is professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and president of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.