It’s an old saying but most of us have heard it — “Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?” That’s a phrase that’s both dated and sexist, so to hear it re-branded as “cheap sex” — aka casual sex — and purported to be the reason why men aren’t committing and marrying is something I would have thought we wouldn’t be discussing in 2017. And yet, here we are, thanks to sociologist Mark Regnerus and his new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.
Regnerus (the same sociologist behind a controversial study of how children of same-sex couples fare) says cheap sex — sex with little cost as far as time or emotional investment — is behind a host of societal ills, from fewer people marrying to the rise of unmarriageable men to more people living together to more children being born outside of marriage — well, you get the idea. And it’s all because women are giving men sex too easily and quickly, thanks in part to the Pill, and without demanding anything in return. Like putting a ring on it, or least some sort of promise that they’ll stick around.
It’s true that fewer young people are marrying nowadays. It’s true that more young people are cohabiting nowadays than ever before, which sometimes leads to marriage and sometimes doesn’t. It’s true that the pervasiveness of porn has changed the way men and women think about and engage in sex. And it’s true that there’s a lot more sex outside of marriage. But to say that the only reason men are avoiding committed relationships and marriage is because women are spreading their legs and giving it up too soon (bad, women, bad!) is shaming, blaming, judgmental and — as it happens — not even accurate.
In a 2011 article in Salon, no doubt the beginnings of his book, Regenerus writes:
(W)hat many young men wish for — access to sex without too many complications or commitments — carries the day. If women were more fully in charge of how their relationships transpired, we’d be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on. … while young men’s failures in life are not penalizing them in the bedroom, their sexual success may, ironically, be hindering their drive to achieve in life. Don’t forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today’s young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year’s book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, “Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy.” They’re right. But then try getting men to do anything.
What Regnerus seems to forget or ignores is that some women — not all, but some — would actually like to have casual sex so they can focus on other things besides a romantic relationship, which takes time and energy away from other interests. He also seems to be saying that if men don’t have to work hard for sex, they’re not going to work at anything. Really? I know lots of men who are doing lots of things — working to make the world safer from nuclear weapons, helping poor farmers in developing countries increase their crops so they can feed their families, investigating fraud, fighting for justice …
Oh, wait, that’s not what he means; he means getting them to woo a woman properly — to commit and marry. Because that’s the only thing that matters — committed romantic relationships and marriage. For men like Regnerus, it’s true: they see marriage as a way to make men become respectable members of society, a way to “tame” them. But do today’s men really need to be tamed? And, if so, is it a wife’s responsibility to do that? Don’t women have enough on their plate?
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