June 30th 2018


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MUSIC Contrary emotions: Following and leading the beat

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BOOK REVIEW Commitment at risk of obliteration

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BOOK REVIEW
Commitment at risk of obliteration




News Weekly, June 30, 2018

CHEAP SEX: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy

by Mark Regnerus

Oxford University Press, Oxford
Hardcover: 262 pages
Price: AUD$53.75

Reviewed by Howard Wells

In this ground-breaking book, Dr Mark Regnerus draws on several large, population-based surveys to provide a representative overview of what Americans think and do with regard to sexual relationships, supplemented by stories from in-depth interviews with 100 young adults aged 24 to 32 conducted by his research team in five different parts of the United States. The picture that emerges is one in which young Americans appear to be having more sexual experiences with more partners, and yet they are less stable in, and less content with, the relationship in front of them.

Dr Regnerus is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, specialising in the areas of sexual behaviour, family, marriage and religion. Throughout this title, he interacts with the thinking of Anthony Giddens and his notions of “the pure relationship” and “confluent love”.

In Giddens’ own words: “Unlike rom­antic love, confluent love is not necessarily monogamous, in the sense of sexual exclusiveness. What holds the pure rela­tionship together is the acceptance on the part of each partner, ‘until further notice’, that each gains sufficient benefit from the relation to make its continuance worthwhile. Sexual exclusiveness here has a role in the relationship to the degree to which the partners mutually deem it desirable or essential.” (p178)

While Giddens was keen not to object to the changes in patterns of sexual behaviour that he perceived, Regnerus is not so complacent and highlights some of the adverse consequences that have flowed from the Sexual Revolution. In spite of their differences, Giddens welcomes this title as “a magisterial study of the changing sexual landscape today” and predicts that it will become “a standard work of reference in the field”.

Central message

The central message of the book is that sex has become cheap, both economically and socially. It is now more available and at a lower cost than ever before in human history. In previous generations, when intercourse carried a higher risk of conception, men had to prove themselves marriageable and demonstrate a capacity to support a wife and provide for a family in order to access sex.

It is not so much the case that men today are afraid to “man up” and commit; they simply don’t need to.

In the words of 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 … Sex has become free and easy.” (p149)

Regnerus comments: “Sex is cheap if women expect little in return for it and if men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition, or fidelity in order to experience it.” (p28) The upshot of giving young men easy access to sexual satisfaction is that society is deprived of a way to motivate them.

Technology

Cheaper sex has been facilitated by three distinctive technological achievements:

  • The wide uptake of the contraceptive pill and the mentality flowing from it that sex is “naturally” infertile.
  • Mass-produced pornography, the cheapest form of sex: accessible, affordable and anonymous.
  • The advent and evolution of online dating services.

Together, these three factors have created a massive slowdown in the development of committed relationships, especially marriage, and they have put the fertility of increasing numbers of women at risk, subsequently driving up the demand for fertility treatments.

Now that conception can be avoided or artificially generated, Regnerus observes, heterosexuality is at risk of becoming “one taste among others”. Women want men but don’t need them, while men want sex but have more options.

While cheap sex has made diverse sexual experiences more accessible, it has made other things more difficult, such as sexual fidelity and getting and staying married, which Regnerus notes has long been “a predictable pathway to greater economic, social and emotional flourishing”.

The sober truth is that those who self-report more than 20 sexual partners in their lifetime are:

  • Twice as likely to have ever been 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 or anxiety.
  • Three times more likely to have been told they had a sexually transmitted infection.
  • More likely to have tragic sexual histories. (p89)
  • As Regnerus observes: “Cheap sex is having a tough time creating lasting love.” (p100)

Cultural lag

Many people are continuing to marry because they are following the cultural practices of their parents. But, as historically compelling reasons for marriage – babies, financial and physical security  – lose their hold, marriage is in the throes of deinstitutionalisation. Declining marriage rates suggest that that “cultural lag” is nearing its end.

With the advent of increased economic egalitarianism, women no longer need what men historically offered in marriage. Some men have therefore concluded that “marriage is a bad deal for them, and that cheap sex is a welcome shift from expensive promises that can, in the end, leave them alone and with a child-support tab to pay”. (p163)

This is an insightful and illuminating volume. Policymakers would do well to heed Regnerus’ call to acknowledge the reality of cheap sex and its consequences, instead of recasting it in a positive light. He warns: “Societies that disregard monogamous norms undermine their own long-term interests.” (p182)

But the reader who comes to this book seeking solutions and a plan of action to change men’s attitudes and behaviour, and to recover marriage and monogamy, will be disappointed. That is not its purpose. Regnerus describes his book as “a documentary, an assessment of where things stand and an argument about how we got here, with some space at the end donated to educated guesses about what happens next”.

Howard Wells is director of the Family Education Trust, a non-partisan educational trust in the UK that researches the causes and consequences of family breakdown. This review first appeared in the Bulletin of the Family Education Trust in April 2018.


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