The Remarkably High Cost of Cheap Sex
Last year, Oxford University Press published the book Cheap Sex by Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor who’s gained a reputation for “politically incorrect academic research.” I finished reading it earlier this month—on my iPad, of course. I don’t know that I’d have the fortitude to publicly engage such a blush-inducing title without the anonymity of an e-reader. Technology you see has changed the way some of us read books, but it has changed the way all of us interact with sex—whether we realize it or not.
For anyone who values human flourishing, Cheap Sex is not a happy read. We can wrangle over solutions, but there’s no denying the fact that Americans have never been less happy with the quality of their relationships than they are right now. According to Regnerus, three technologies have fundamentally changed sex in America: the birth control pill, streaming pornography, and online “dating” apps. All three have dramatically reduced the financial and social cost of having sex—and all three seem to be destroying marriage in the process.
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By making sex more easily attainable and sustainable outside the confines of a marital relationship, this ternate technology is leading an unprecedented number of Americans away from the altar. Over the last 13 years, Cheap Sex reports, the marriage rate among 25-to 34-year-olds has declined by 13%, with no signs of letting up. Some young adults are postponing marriage indefinitely; others are foregoing it altogether. And for those who do get married, these modern technologies make cheating or abandonment more practical and appealing than ever before. Though some consider the demise of marriage a net gain, believing it to be archaic and patriarchal, the correlation between marriage, longterm happiness, and social stability is well established. Regnerus, who is meticulously pragmatic, describes the problem this way:
Technology is increasingly separating sex from love, from fertility, and from meaningful human connection. And the human society that results from wide uptake of this will be filled with orgasms, but will be relationally less pleasant and lonelier... [These technologies] drive the cost of sex down, make real commitment more “expensive” and challenging to navigate, have created a massive slow-down in the development of long-term relationships, especially marriage, put women’s fertility at risk—driving up demand for infertility treatments—and have taken a toll on men’s marriageability.
How does cheap sex impact men’s marriageability? According to Regnerus, by eliminating “the sexual incentives for men to sacrifice and commit.” Said differently, cheap sex gives men what they want—sex—without making them marry for it. That may sound crude, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Historically, most American men had to exert significant effort and demonstrate serious commitment to gain access to a naked female body. Today that is no longer the case. Hookup apps deliver willing partners with remarkable efficiency, and internet pornography has become “good enough” for countless young men who have come to prefer the idealized bodies they find online to the less perfect (and accommodating) specimens they find in real life. Regnerus explains male motivation by quoting social psychologist Kathleen Vohs:
Nowadays young men can skip the wearying detour of getting education and career prospects to qualify for sex. Nor does he have to get married and accept all those costs, including promising to share his lifetime earnings and forego other women forever. Female sex partners are available without all that.
Ironically, while the economic advancement of women—aided by the widespread embrace of birth control—has made women less dependent on men than ever before, this newfound independence has not yielded the relational gains many expected. In fact, it is men who have benefited the most in this new sex economy. “Women are learning to have sex like men,” Regnerus notes. “But peel back the layers, and it becomes obvious that this transition is not a reflection of their power but of their subjugation to men’s interests.” He explains that “an oversupply of unmarried women in a community or group gives men therein considerably more power in romantic and sexual relationships, which translates into lower levels of relationship commitment, less favorable treatment of women by men, and a more sexually permissive climate wherein women receive less in exchange for sex.” Feminist author Naomi Wolf points out that pornography’s near-ubiquitous hold on society further diminishes women’s sexual bargaining power. College coeds feel “they can never measure up,” Wolf writes, “and that if they do not offer what porn offers, they cannot expect to hold a guy.”
Though plenty of men are quite happy with the current arrangement, it does real damage to their future prospects—both economically and emotionally. This is because cheap sex “does little to stimulate the ‘laggards’ of our modern economy toward those historic institutions—education, a settled job, and marriage—that created opportunity for them and their families.” We wonder why such a large preponderance of young men seem to lack ambition, content to live with their parents, smoke weed, and play an endless loop of video games. It may simply be that they’re able to get the sex they want without having to grow up. There is zero evidence, Regnerus tells us, to contradict the general principle that “men will do whatever is required in order to obtain sex, and perhaps not a great deal more.” They’ll become pillars of the community, if that’s what’s required of them, but if they can get the milk for free—as the saying goes—so much the better!
Regnerus takes it for granted that birth control reliably prevents conception (it actually doesn’t), but he still recognizes that there is a significant social downside to separating sex from fertility. Though many scholars are loath to admit it, birth control has not been a neutral bystander in the sexual revolution. In large measure, it has been driving the ship. Society associates birth control with diminished risk, Regnerus points out. “But it is not a simple inverse function of risk.” Prior to the advent of the birth control pill, the risk of pregnancy functioned as a natural deterrent to casual sex. Now, it doesn’t—though it still should. By making promiscuity relatively less risky and commitment relatively less important, is it any wonder we’ve ended up with so much more first-date sex and so much less relational longevity? "What’s wrong with that?!" many men (and some women) will ask. The problem is, it’s a recipe for disaster.
According to the national survey data, men and women (ages 18–60) who report having had lots of sexual partners are:
twice as likely to be divorced
three times as likely to have cheated while married
substantially less happy with life
twice as likely to report having had an abortion
more likely to be on medication for depression
three times more likely to have an a STI
Whether you’re studying individuals, families, communities, or nations, happiness and stability are hard to come by without a foundation of committed marriages holding it all together. When sex is stripped from marriage and relationship, Regnerus warns, the resulting “society will require a more vigilant public health system, a more active security state to protect its citizens—especially women—and a more aggressive social welfare system, since invested fathers will continue to recede.” Though monogamous marriage has not been the historic norm for most societies around the globe, it has been the norm for the “vast majority of the more successful and flourishing ones.” Those taking up the fashionable claim that it’s unnatural for human partners to mate for life ignore a simple truth, which Regnerus articulates quite well:
The new turn away from monogamy was made possible not because we figured out that we were still animals but because we figured out how to effectively prevent pregnancies or end them prematurely, freeing us up to pursue the art of sexuality—the body as a tool of consumption rather than production... To assert that what has happened in the domain of sex was anything but a concerted accomplishment of synthetic technology undermining nature in the service of human consumption is to say something that is untrue.
Monogamy wasn’t done in by our ancestral DNA. It was done in by modern birth control—just as so many physicians and social commentators predicted it would. Even Margaret Sanger, the greatest birth-control evangelist the world has ever known, recognized the threat birth control posed to marriage. That’s why, disingenuous or not, she consistently insisted that Planned Parenthood would never make birth control available to unmarried persons. Why? Because she knew better than to publicly assert that birth control would have a negligible effect on the sex habits of those not married.
“In the era before contraception,” Regnerus tells us, “roughly equal numbers of women and men in the marriage market meant that men and women roughly split the gains from trade that stem from marriage.” But in the postcontraceptive era, all that has changed. Once birth control jumped the divide, so to speak, and became the practice of unmarried couples, American men began their steady exodus from the marriage market. Today, far more American women desire marriage than their male counterparts—which places them at a relational disadvantage in their search for a husband. Regnerus writes:
If women were more in charge of how their relationships transpired—more in charge of the “pricing” negotiations around sex—we would be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts by men, fewer hookups, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on. In other words, the “price” of sex would be higher.
Birth control has dramatically reduced marital frequency in the United States, but it has not reduced the frequency of single-parent births. Think about that for a moment. Men are still getting women pregnant; they’re just not marrying them any more—or at least not as often. “What a society cannot handle for long,” argues economist George Gilder, “is a culture of the ‘unmarried male,’ that is, when long-term commitments are undermined by short-term opportunistic philosophies.” One of the reasons that gendercide-driven sex imbalances are such a ticking time bomb is because of the glut of unmarried men. In much of the world, men can’t find a wife. In America, it seems, men no longer want one.
Those who don’t like Regnerus’ conclusions insist that his methodology is flawed, or that he’s trying to confirm a personal bias. Such criticisms don’t account for the actual data, and they fail to recognize how intuitively predictable the results actually are. Birth control separates sex from commitment. Pornography separates sex from a partner, and dating apps separate sex from problem solving—by making it all too easy to trade out one “relationship” for another. All three have an anti-marriage profit motive, and all three are destroying this historic institution with surprisingly little publicity.
In the 2014 Relationships in America survey, “sex before the relationship begins was the modal.” In other words, the most common point at which the respondents first had sex with their current partner was before they were in a relationship. This is a feat that is only possible because of the unnatural and unprecedented influence of modern sex technology. We shouldn't be surprised then that, “young Americans appear to be having more sexual experiences, more partners, and more time to ‘try them on,’ but seem less stable in, and less content with, the relationship in front of them.” Cheap Sex has nothing to do with moral prudery; it has everything to do with practical reality. Consider it the secular case for not sleeping around.
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