Cheap Sex and the Decline of Marriage
Recently I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, entitled, “Cheap Sex and the Decline of Marriage.” The author is Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He seeks to answer the question as to why marriage is in retreat among young people in the United States. Statistically marriage is in decline. Looking at the census data, married 25 to 34 year olds outnumbered their never-married counterparts by 55 to 34%. By the 2015 census, these numbers turned around dramatically. Now never-married adults 25 to 34 year olds now outnumber their married counterparts by 53 to 40%. His answer is one that I have believed for a long time.
So what is his answer? Regnerus first takes out a couple of common answers that are not true. He demonstrates that it is not the decline in wages for young men in the US. The idea here is that if young men made more money, they would be more inclined to marry, but the research does not support this. Another hypothesis he dismantles is that young men have more fear of commitment. So what is his answer? It has become much easier for men to have sex with women without the commitment of marriage, or really any level of commitment. To put it as my mother used to say, “why buy the cow when the farmer is giving away the milk.”
He illustrates the point by speaking of a man named Kevin. Let me quote from his article’s account of this:
“Kevin, a 24-year-old recent college graduate from Denver, wants to get married someday and is “almost 100% positive” that he will. But not soon, he says, “because I am not done being stupid yet. I still want to go out and have sex with a million girls.” He believes that he’s figured out how to do that:
“Girls are easier to mislead than guys just by lying or just not really caring. If you know what girls want, then you know you should not give that to them until the proper time. If you do that strategically, then you can really have anything you want…whether it’s a relationship, sex, or whatever. You have the control.”
Kevin (not his real name) was one of 100 men and women, from a cross-section of American communities, that my team and I interviewed five years ago as we sought to understand how adults in their 20s and early 30s think about their relationships. He sounds like a jerk. But it’s hard to convince him that his strategy won’t work—because it has, for him and countless other men.”
Regnerus puts forth more detail about his explanation for this, “My own research points to a more straightforward and primal explanation for the slowed pace toward marriage: For American men, sex has become rather cheap. As compared to the past, many women today expect little in return for sex, in terms of time, attention, commitment or fidelity. Men, in turn, do not feel compelled to supply these goods as they once did. It is the new sexual norm for Americans, men and women alike, of every age.”
I think his view is right on the money. He goes on to point out a couple of reasons why this is true. One is the availability of effective birth control. It has boosted their educational and economic status and has made women less dependent on men. As the risk of pregnancy has been dramatically reduced, sex no longer has many of the social and personal costs that once encouraged women to demand commitment prior to becoming sexually intimate.
Regnerus continues with additional reasons and observations which I will simply quote from the article: “Online porn has made sexual experience more widely and easily available too. A laptop never says no, and for many men, virtual women are now genuine competition for real partners. In the same survey, 46% of men (and 16% of women) under 40 reported watching pornography at some point in the past week—and 27% in the past day.
Many young men and women still aspire to marriage as it has long been conventionally understood—faithful, enduring, focused on raising children. But they no longer seem to think that this aspiration requires their discernment, prudence or self-control. When I asked Kristin, a 29-year-old from Austin, whether men should make sacrifices to get sex, she offered a confusing prescription: “Yes. Sometimes. Not always. I mean, I don’t think it should necessarily be given out by women, but I do think it’s OK if a woman does just give it out. Just not all the time.”
Kristin rightly wants the men whom she dates to treat her well and to respect her interests, but the choices that she and other women have made unwittingly teach the men in their lives that such behavior is noble and nice but not required in order to sleep with them. They are hoping to find good men without supporting the sexual norms that would actually make men better.
I would also add that the current myth that 50% of marriages ends in divorce also has contributed to the retreat of marriage. Why get married if we only have a 50% shot a making it, or should we live together first before making that commitment? The problem with this is twofold. First, the divorce rate in the United States is nowhere near 50% Among the general population, the rate of divorce is approximately 23%, and among couples who are actively engaged in their faith and church commitment, it is approximately 17%. The other problem with living together prior to marriage according to the research is that couples who do this actually have a higher rate of divorce.
Unknown to Renerus, he is advocating for a biblical view of sex and marriage. God puts sex in the context of marriage to protect us from harm, and to provide the best place for it to be enjoyed. From what harm is God seeking to protect us. This includes such things as guilt and shame, sexual comparisons from reruns of prior sexual experiences during a current sexual experience, sexually transmitted diseases, and from being used for another person’s sexual gratification. So he provides the best possible place for sex to be enjoyed, the unconditional marriage covenant between a man and woman for life.
As with anything in life, but especially sexual intimacy and marriage, God’s way is always the way that works, because He is the creator of both.