How ‘Cheap Sex’ Is Changing Our Lives – and Our Politics

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Perhaps nothing is more central to the American culture wars than sex. This should come as no surprise: As members of a sexually reproducing species, we have a natural interest in the act of reproduction. Little wonder, then, that sex and its offshoots —abortion, contraception, teen, pre- and extramarital sex, pornography, and now gender identity — are so prominent in our partisan bickering. Red America hates women, Blue America kills babies. Sex gets the people going.

Yet for all of its prominence in our politics (and regardless of how much importance we attach to it in our individual lives), our understanding of sex is often remarkably narrow. It’s not that we know nothing — we know a lot — but the nature of our knowledge is limited: the mechanics of the act, the social rituals and expectations surrounding it, and maybe various pop theories for why men and women act the way they do. Only rarely, however, are we aware of the structural forces acting on our romantic lives in the same way that the pressures of supply and demand influence the price of coffee.

These structural forces and their consequences are the topic of Mark Regnerus’s book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, published in September. Regnerus, a conservative Catholic sociologist at the University of Texas, provocatively explores how changes in technology and American society more broadly have reshaped intimacy in recent decades, creating a world in which sex is low-effort and abundant, marriage is late, and relationships tend to be fleeting. Cheap Sex has already become a cult hit on the right for its author’s pessimistic take on these developments, but it is a book that should be eye-opening even for those who reject its author’s normative commitments. Grounded in abundant sociological research, a wealth of in-person interviews, and creative borrowing from critically minded left-wing theorists such as Anthony Giddens and Eva Illouz, Cheap Sex is an important, if at times partial attempt to understand the way we live and love today.

The title of Cheap Sex gestures at the thesis. When Regnerus says that sex is cheap, he means it as a technical distinction rather than a moral judgment. The idea that sex has a “price,” and can therefore be cheap or low-cost, comes from an economic theory called the “sexual exchange model,” which posits that sex is a good that women possess and men pursue. “Sex is cheap,” Regnerus writes, “if women do not expect much in return for it and men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition, or fidelity in order to experience it.” This doesn’t mean that women don’t desire sex as well, only that they are usually the gatekeepers within the sexual relationship — with consensual sex first happening in a straight relationship when the woman decides it should. (In homosexual relationships, one partner will adopt the gatekeeper role.)

For those sensitive to gender stereotypes or charges of “essentialism,” the sexual exchange model can sound jarring. But it is crucial to understanding how our present differs from the past. For much of the 20th century and before, sex was heavily bound up with marriage — long understood as the normative goal of romantic relationships — and therefore family and childrearing (it was, as Regnerus puts it, about “production” of the next generation, rather than “consumption” on the part of the married individuals). Marriage in turn was anchored both by relatively stable male-female preferences as well as by what the economist Gary Becker referred to as “gains from trade.” Men, then and now, wanted sex, but they also needed a partner to raise their children and run their household while they earned a breadwinner wage. Women, then and now, on average preferred relationships to casual sex, but prior to achieving economic autonomy also needed someone who could provide them with resources while credibly promising not to abandon them in the future.

Both sexes, that is, had something the other needed, which tended to drive them together and make marriage a more stable arrangement. Since sex was one of women’s primary bargaining chips in this exchange relation, they had both a personal incentive to hold out for male demonstrations of commitment, as well as a collective interest in preventing individual women from selling sex too cheaply. (Women who did so were therefore stigmatized as unmarriageable.) The high price of sex, in turn, presented men with a certain set of incentives. Although illicit sex could often be purchased, men’s best shot at socially legitimate sex was to make themselves an appealing partner through achievement and social respectability. The fuckboy lifestyle — in which a man can be basically worthless yet sexually successful — was simply not viable.

Regnerus, though at times seeming nostalgic for this older arrangement, does at least acknowledge its more oppressive features: It required sexual double standards and tight restrictions on female sexuality; it was very difficult on those who made bad marriages; and it was often brutal toward sexual minorities. Sexual freedom was limited to the rich or Bohemian. The real value in Regnerus’s depiction of this older system, however, is to point out that our move away from it is not simply a tale of progress but of different sets of tradeoffs. A system that produces incentives for stable relationships and prosocial male behavior might do so at the cost of individual sexual autonomy, and vice versa.

This is precisely what Regnerus thinks has happened over the last few decades as the price of sex has collapsed in the face of a few overlapping trends, notably the increased economic and social autonomy of women, which has allowed them to pursue sex for its own sake rather than trade it in exchange for men’s resources. But Regnerus is most interested in how three technological developments have driven this change. The first and most important of these is contraception, which has separated sex from reproduction and allowed people to seek it for pleasure and self-expression. The second, the rise of online porn, has provided people — mostly men, though increasingly women as well — with an easy, low-cost alternative to sex. The third and final development is the advent of online dating sites such as OKCupid and apps such as Tinder. These have shifted the emphasis in early relationships toward sexual attraction while vastly increasing the efficiency of cycling through potential partners, not only making sex cheaper (because easier to find) but increasing the opportunity cost, in terms of foregone sex and relationships, of remaining with one person for any serious length of time.

These downward pressures on the price of sex, Regnerus argues, have essentially scrambled the incentives that used to promote the formation of stable, monogamous relationships. Instead, cheap sex has produced a new equilibrium in which, for the college-educated at least, the norm is low-commitment sexual exploration in one’s 20s before stable marriage in the mid- to late-30s (for the poorer and less-educated, it is more often serial relationships and unplanned pregnancies). Women no longer need to demand a high price for sex because they can obtain money and status on their own, and would have trouble demanding a high price even if they wanted to, since men can get sex elsewhere. As the material incentives for marriage have vanished, moreover, relationships have become (in Regnerus’s term) “consumptive,” geared toward the emotional and sexual satisfaction of the individuals within them. This is what Regnerus, borrowing from Anthony Giddens, refers to as the model of the “pure relationship” —one in which “a social relation is entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another; and which is continued only insofar as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it. ”

As a result, Regnerus writes:

The relationship histories that young Americans tell us about are growing increasingly predictable: plenty of sex, starting early (before expressions of love but not necessarily before feelings of and hopes about it), underdeveloped interest in sacrificing on behalf of the other (especially but not exclusively discernible in men), accounts of ‘overlapping’ partners, much drama, and in the end nothing but mixed memories and expired time.

It is among men, however, that Regnerus sees the most serious drawbacks of cheap sex. Some, of course, have benefited tremendously. Since there are far more college-educated women than men, the latter are often in a strong position to be choosy about when and with whom they settle down. The most attractive and socially skilled are able to rack up dozens of partners with ease, and even those who are less lucky now have access to sexual stimulation, in the form of pornography, to a degree almost unprecedented in human history. “Men,” Regnerus writes, “can see more flesh in five minutes than their great-grandfathers could in a lifetime,” and they can do so without giving up much in return.

Yet this seeming benefit is actually the core of the problem, as Regnerus sees it. “Virtually no one,” he says, “is happy with the state of maleness today, and yet the male behavior we witness today seems a rational, if short-sighted, response to their circumstances.” That is, by giving men too much of what they want in the short term, cheap sex is arresting their long-term development. Of course, sex is not the only motivation for male achievement, but it has traditionally been an important one. As long as sex was mostly bound up with marriage (or at least long-term relationships), the best way to access it was to demonstrate economic independence and emotional maturity. Regnerus believes, in essence, that cheap sex has removed one of the chief incentives for men to grow up, resulting in the plague of perpetually adolescent men that have become a fixture of the American dating landscape. And because he believes, following Giddens, that male sexuality has a latent tendency toward addiction and compulsion, he predicts that men reared on cheap sex and porn will develop habits and expectations — regarding female beauty, sexual variety, and the superfluity of sacrifice — that will be hard to break later in life.

Here as elsewhere, Regnerus is somewhat speculative. Although he deploys statistics wherever possible (one in four American men under 40 looked at porn yesterday or today) some of his most interesting assertions, such as that porn may be sapping men’s motivation to work and pursue real relationships, make intuitive sense but have only sketchy evidence one way or the other. Another criticism can be made of Regnerus’s relative disinterest in economics or political economy. It’s bad form to chide an author for not writing a different book, yet if we are attempting to explain why millennials are failing to settle down and start families, surely it pays to factor in economic insecurity, employment precarity, student debt, and the ballooning costs of raising children.

Finally, while Regnerus is up-front about his own politics and does his best to strike a tone of scientific neutrality, the moral commitments framing the book are unavoidably conservative and Christian. This is not a criticism, per se, but it does mean that for more liberal and secular readers, many of Regnerus’s concerns — that marriage is declining and men are failing to grow up — might seem like non-problems, or at least minor inconveniences compared to the conformity and oppression of yesterday. Is it really a crisis if some men watch porn every other day, or people cycle through more partners than they used to? Regnerus might say that many men report wanting to reduce their own porn use or that most people still want stable relationships and families. But ultimately, it depends on what you think humans are made for.

But even for those skeptical of marriage and monogamy, Cheap Sex hints at some reasons to be uneasy with the way things are headed. Regnerus spends little time discussing the political implications of cheap sex, other than to note a strong correlation, especially among women, between secularism, political liberalism, and high levels of unmet sexual desire, which he provocatively attributes to their searching for transcendent meaning in sex. Make of that what you will. But the real reason to panic may be that the contemporary relationship market is producing two things in great abundance: highly educated single women and less-educated, low-status single men. This trend is not caused by cheap sex — the real culprit is more likely women’s relative rise and men’s failure to adjust to the new economy — but has been exacerbated by cheap sex’s devaluation of marriage and fertility.

Why does this matter? Single college-educated women are among the most liberal constituencies in America and are becoming more so. A recent study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that 41.1 percent of college freshmen women consider themselves liberal or far-left, the highest percentage ever recorded — and with the largest-ever gender gap. That gap raises the possibility that in the future, our already fraught relations between the sexes may continue to deteriorate under the pressure of ideological hostility and mutual suspicion. At the same time, unattached, low-status men are a nightmare for civilization. They are more likely to kill, rape, steal, drink, and use drugs, and they provide ideal recruits for extremist movements of all kinds, whether fascism and communism in 1930s Berlin or ISIS and the alt-right today. Indeed, the prototypical white nationalist is the NEET — an acronym for those “not in education, employment, or training.”

Monogamy, for all its flaws, was a social technology for dealing with this problem — if everyone gets one partner and sticks with them, there are more partners to go around. Today, that balance may be breaking down. And as Ed West and others have suggested, much of contemporary political extremism is, among other things, an exaggerated form of stereotypically feminine (in the case of the far left) and stereotypically masculine (in the case of the far right) behavior. Americans used to talk about the “war between the sexes.” The most frightening reading of Cheap Sex may be that the real war is yet to begin.

Park MacDougald is a staff editor at Foreign Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @hpmacd.

How ‘Cheap Sex’ Is Changing Our Lives — and Our Politics