Comment 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. 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. 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.
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. In homosexual relationships, one partner will adopt the gatekeeper role.
But it is crucial to understanding how our present differs from the past. 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.
Women who did so were therefore stigmatized as unmarriageable. The high price of sex, in turn, presented men with a certain set of incentives. 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. 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.
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. 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.
The relationship histories that young Americans tell us about are growing increasingly predictable: 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.
Yet this seeming benefit is actually the core of the problem, as Regnerus sees it. 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. 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. 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: Why does this matter?
Single college-educated women are among the most liberal constituencies in America and are becoming more so. 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 s Berlin or ISIS and the alt-right today. 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.
Park MacDougald is a staff editor at Foreign Affairs. Follow him on Twitter hpmacd.