In his bold, challenging, and controversial new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, sociologist Mark Regnerus seeks to chart and explain the rapidly changing terrain of contemporary relationships. By complementing extensive national survey data (Regnerus privileges the 2014 Relationships in America survey project, which had 15,000 participants and he oversaw himself) with detailed in-person interviews with 100 representative young people, Regnerus explores the connection between larger cultural shifts and the factors that shape the actions and thinking of particular individuals.
Regnerus engages with the arguments of Anthony Giddens’s 1992 book, The Transformation of Intimacy. Regnerus maintains that Giddens’s perceptive analysis, bolstered by the apparent prescience of many of his predictions, can help us understand the forces that have created our social situation 25 years later. Giddens emphasized the effect that the mass uptake of contraception would have on human relationships and sexuality, maintaining that it
meant more than an increased capability of limiting pregnancy. In combination with the other influences affecting family size . . . it signaled a deep transition in personal life. For women—and, in a partly different sense, for men also—sexuality became malleable, open to being shaped in diverse ways, and a potential “property” of the individual. Sexuality came into being as part of a progressive differentiation of sex from the exigencies of reproduction. (cited, 7)
Regnerus analyzes this transformation of coupled sexual behavior in terms of market-like forces. Three key technological developments have made sex “cheap”:
(1) the huge uptake of the pill and the radical normalization of infertile sex it has resulted in (2) the proliferation of easily accessible and high-quality pornography (3) the development of websites and apps for easy dating and meeting
When sex can be enjoyed without risk of incurring the immense costs of pregnancy, childbearing, and rearing, when willing sexual partners are far more easily sought out, and when a glut of masturbatory material exists to sate the sexual appetites of even the losers in such a sexual economy, sex no longer controls a high “price.”
Regnerus draws our attention to the readily demonstrated (yet controversial) fact that the mating market is naturally asymmetrical. In the relational dance, men are primarily pursuers, while women are primarily the “recipients of sexual pursuits” (53). Men naturally have a more pronounced sexual appetite than women (there are exceptions to this pattern, and women clearly want sex too, but the pattern of greater male sexual appetite is a clear and crosscultural one), while women naturally bear the greatest costs of procreation. Women historically had great need for men’s protection and provision, while men needed women to have children and satisfy their sexual appetites.
While women formerly controlled access to sex—collectively keeping its “price” high in order to defray the costs of bearing and raising children and to select for provident and committed husbands and fathers—with the advent of contraceptive sex, the price of sex no longer has to be high (this article by Timothy Reichert helpfully describes some of the “market” dynamics at work). Contraception proved to be a great trade-off: women gained the means for greater economic independence from men and increased sexual autonomy, while losing their power as sexual gatekeepers as the price of sex plummeted. “Women want men but don’t need them, while men want sex but have more options now” (60).
Many women today complain that while their careers are advancing to an unprecedented degree, they’re increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of their personal relationships: men don’t seem prepared to commit, men set the terms of the sexual culture, and the men with whom they do have relationships consistently prove unmarriageable.
Yet the current privileging of men in the mating market is, Regnerus argues, the result of increased egalitarianism, rather than something that has occurred in spite of it. “In the domain of sex and relationships, men will act as nobly as women collectively demand” (177). Regnerus remarks on the unrealistic but understandable hope of many women he interviewed that some man will come along who will sacrifice for them, be faithful to them, and woo them, even while they’re engaging in uncommitted sex with other men.
As contraception has lowered the price of sex, it has transformed the natural dynamics of “sexual exchange” in men’s apparent favor. Men don’t commit, not because they can’t, but because they no longer need to. Following Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, however, Regnerus argues that this situation doesn’t actually advantage men or society.
As contraception has lowered the price of sex, it has transformed the natural dynamics of sexual exchange in men’s apparent favor. Men don’t commit, not because they can’t, but because they no longer need to.
When sex is “cheap,” men no longer have the same powerful motivator to be responsible and marriageable. This leaves everyone losers in different ways. Men, Regnerus suggests, are “deadened,” sapped of drive and starved of meaning and purpose. Unmotivated men can become a burden on society, whereas previously they might’ve been driven to build it up.
Women, for their part, face a much greater struggle to establish and maintain self-worth in a society where their value to men has greatly decreased and where they’re pressed into more intense competition with other women over appearance and sexual openness.
Yet despite such downsides, since the sexual and economic liberation of women rests in no small measure on contraception, even if the existence and costs of such trade-offs were really recognized, it would be unlikely to alter actual practice.
Cheap Sex takes readers on an extended tour inside the American mating market, and highlights key patterns that characterize young adults’ experience today, including the timing of first sex in relationships, overlapping partners, frustrating returns on their relational investments, and a failure to link future goals like marriage with how they navigate their current relationships.
Drawing upon several large nationally representative surveys, in-person interviews with 100 men and women, and the assertions of scholars ranging from evolutionary psychologists to gender theorists, what emerges is a story about social change, technological breakthroughs, and unintended consequences.
The result of this transformation is a movement of companionate (or romantic models of) relationships to one of “confluent” love:
With confluent love in the “pure” relationship, contingency is its foundation, equality is its organizing principle, taste and emotion are its barometers, discovery is a key goal, and while the dyad—the couple—is the basic structure to the union, it is never to usurp the individual’s primacy and will. (9)
Such a “confluent” approach to relationships decreases both the appeal and also the strength of marriage.
The privileging of individual interests, coupled with the ease of access to sex outside of marriage and women’s greater economic independence, mean that marriage is less likely to involve a deep intertwining of lives in mutually committed interdependence.
Neither sex needs the other in the same way anymore, and each is increasingly concerned to protect individual interests and potential independence from being jeopardized by the union. When women no longer have the same need for marriage, they’ll have a much lower threshold for dissatisfaction within it. As Regnerus shows, women—whether in male-female or lesbian marriages—are considerably more likely to divorce than men are.
Our current situation could be compared to that of an astronaut going into space and leaving the gravity of the earth’s surface. Removed from the earth’s gravity, terrestrial objects and bodies start to behave strangely or to suffer damaging consequences. Water floats eerily in wobbling globules, bodies become disoriented, and muscles deteriorate. As sex is removed from the natural gravity of procreation, relationships start to take odd and unnatural forms, persons become sexually disoriented, and the muscles of virtue weaken.
For instance, sex increasingly becomes a form of play within which we explore our identities and express ourselves. Heterosexuality, as Giddens observes, can become “one taste among others” (60). Anna Mussmann writes:
Modern sex is not supposed to be part of the same cycle as aging and death. Instead, it is part of a strangely innocent, oddly desperate attempt to deny death’s power over our sexy, tanned, and well-toned lives. (cited, 80)
One result of the weakening of procreation’s gravity is a rise in sexual fluidity and experimentation, with both men and women pursuing “the genital life” in diverse sexual experiences and displaying much more sexual malleability than in the past. The body is principally a means of sexual consumption, rather than procreative production.
Why persevere with any specific woman or work to repair a weak or ailing relationship when there are thousands of other partners in your region alone you could match with online?
The quest for self-realization through sexual exploration is aided by online dating, which allows men in particular to access much more sexual variety, more easily identify sexually open partners, and minimize the costs of pursuing relationships. Why persevere with any specific woman or work to repair a weak or ailing relationship when there are thousands of other partners in your region alone you could match with online? Within such a context of proliferating choice and disposability, partners can more readily be regarded as consumer goods.
Regnerus also discusses porn use and masturbation levels among both men and women and the differing ways these relate to and shape their broader sexual behavior, tastes, and values. He explores the rising levels of porn use among young women, the pressures that porn places on relationships, and the way that the “episodic sexuality” of porn use among men can produce listlessness and the compartmentalization of sexual activity from the “decidedly non-episodic rhythm of relationships” (126).
Sex and Religion
Cheap Sex isn’t a Christian book (though Regnerus is a Roman Catholic, he’s writing as a sociologist), but its exploration of the connections between sex and religion is illuminating. Support for confluent models of relationships rises with increased secularization, and it’s growing stronger among young cohorts in religious traditions:
Cheap sex has a way of deadening religious impulses. We overestimate how effective scientific arguments are at secularizing people. Narratives about science don’t secularize. Technology secularizes. And sex-related technology does so particularly efficiently. (187)
Tensions over sexual ethics in many denominations will only grow as Christian sexual ethics become ever more foreign to those outside the church.
Stubborn Gender Differences
An underlying theme of Cheap Sex is that, although we’re navigating mating environments that have been transformed beyond recognition through technological and social innovations, we come to these environments with the same male and female psychologies. While sexualities may be more fluid, sex differences in socio-sexual behavior are stubborn (even the degree of malleability we’re currently witnessing in women may result, in no small measure, from their conforming to the preferences of men).
The highly gendered behavioral patterns of same-sex couples illustrate this point, whether it’s the much lower levels of sex and higher levels of divorce in lesbian partnerships, or the fact that gay men have considerably more sexual partners: gendered tendencies are consolidated, not moderated. The sexual double standard—whereby men highly value sexually accessible women as short-term partners, while disrespecting them as potential long-term partners—is another example of the persistence of these psychological predispositions. As is the research suggesting that women tend to find men less attractive when those men do traditionally female work. J. Richard Udry observes:
Humans form their social structures around gender because males and females have different and biologically influenced behavioral predispositions. Gendered social structure is a universal accommodation to this biological fact. Societies demonstrate wide latitude in this accommodation—they can accentuate gender, minimize it, or leave it alone. If they ignore it, it doesn’t go away. (cited, 213–14)
Regnerus concludes his book with a series of predictions about the shape of relationships in 2030. For the most part, he believes current trends won’t be reversed, as sex is only going to become cheaper. The purpose of his book isn’t to offer solutions, but to describe and understand the contemporary mating environment. Most readers will be left with more pressing questions than answers, but they’ll have gained a surer grasp of the character of our problems.
From previous acquaintance with sociological discussion of our sexual culture, I was braced for some disappointment, knowing that the accumulation of data can often function as a substitute for true understanding.
However, this was where Regnerus most impressed: his book is a sustained and frequently deeply perceptive exploration of the forces that give rise to our sexual landscape. His analysis is alert and attentive to human nature in ways that set it apart from many other works in the genre. His instinct for the human dynamics that give rise to larger cultural patterns can be seen in several interviews where his insightful yet gentle questioning elicits minor epiphanies for the participants.
There were times when I questioned Regnerus’s analysis and predictions, but the infrequency of such occasions surprised me. While he does make strong and, to many, controversial claims, the strength of his argument is that he demonstrates the explanatory power of these claims in relation to empirical research. He needn’t force his conclusions on his readers: anyone who rejects them—and, given their controversial character, many will—has the challenge of coming up with better explanations for the evidence.
As a book written by someone engaged in extensive firsthand research in the field, Cheap Sex stands apart from many other books laypeople might read on the subject. Further, the fact that Regnerus’s primary intention is description and understanding, rather than social commentary and prescription, means that his book will be much more thought-provoking for those who reject Christian sexual morality.
For Christians interested in understanding the shape and driving forces of the present sexual landscape, this is a book I highly recommend.
While it was an understandable omission, Regnerus’s arguments might’ve been strengthened by more cross-cultural analysis. For instance, comparing the shape of sexual modernity in the United States with that of a non-Western country such as Japan—which is also witnessing dramatic shifts in sexual behavior in different cultural conditions—would’ve been illuminating. Such comparison would’ve been especially helpful for discussion of the degrees to which male and female sexuality are malleable.
At a couple of points, Regnerus might not pay enough attention to the influence of differences between men and women. For instance, although he draws attention to the familiar point in the literature that men’s libido is stronger than women’s, perhaps no less significant are the qualitative differences between the sexes in this area. In a New York Times interview, female-sexuality researcher Meredith Chivers remarks:
One of the things I think about . . . is the dyad formed by men and women. Certainly women are very sexual and have the capacity to be even more sexual than men, but one possibility is that instead of it being a go-out-there-and-get-it kind of sexuality, it’s more of a reactive process. If you have this dyad, and one part is pumped full of testosterone, is more interested in risk taking, is probably more aggressive, you’ve got a very strong motivational force. It wouldn’t make sense to have another similar force. You need something complementary. And I’ve often thought that there is something really powerful for women’s sexuality about being desired. That receptivity element.
Such differences between the forms of male and female desire find evidentiary support in, among other things, the many firsthand accounts of transgender persons’ experiences on hormone therapies. They might also help more fully to explain some of the phenomena Regnerus explores in the area of gay and lesbian experience.
A sexual exchange or economics model is integral to much of Regnerus’s analysis; yet, although he gestures in the direction of such changes at points, I would’ve appreciated closer attention to ways marriage downplays dynamics of exchange in relationships between the sexes, while contemporary society has the effect of foregrounding them. The conceptual usefulness of a sexual economics model may itself be contingent on the degree to which the society being analyzed has conformed to a confluent love model of relationships.
In the Christian teaching that the married couple are one flesh and in the unilateral vows of a wedding ceremony, we’re presented with a different sort of relational logic—one that may resist much analysis driven by sexual economics models.
In this marital vision we don’t have two autonomous agents trying to strike a mutually agreeable relational bargain with various trade-offs and varying bargaining power. We have two persons laying down their lives for the other and together becoming part of a new shared reality that exceeds either’s individuality. While dimensions of exchange remain, much of its competitive logic is subverted.
Although this book’s descriptive focus is narrower than many Christians might be looking for, I highly recommend it. It’s a sobering and often depressing read, yet an invaluable guide for anyone seeking to understand the prevailing sexual environment and the developing technological and social forces continuing to transform it.