Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A landmark new book entitled, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy by Mark Regnerus, proposes that three technological advancements have facilitated cheap sex: contraception, pornography, and online dating.
Writing for the Institute for Family Studies Blog, law professor and Women Speak for Themselves founder Helen Alvare, calls the book “the most reliable resource we have so far” on the sexual practices of young adults ages 25 to 34.
“In Cheap Sex, Regnerus’ thesis is that sex acts have become ‘cheaper’: more ‘widely accessible, at lower ‘cost’ to everyone than ever before in human history,’ because (via contraception and abortion) sex can be rendered infertile or the pregnancy can be ended before birth,” Alvare writes.
“Furthermore, men have to do less ‘wooing’ to access sex, and solitary sex—masturbation—’is now able, by use of digital pornography, to mimic coupled sex more realistically than ever before’.”
This, in turn has vastly changed how men and women relate to one another, particularly in regard to the kind of “exchange behavior” that exists between men and women. This is currently based upon the idea that men and women have different sex drives, preferences and permissiveness with men, on average, wanting more sex than women.
“Women have what men want in this regard, and are therefore the “gatekeepers” of sex,” Alvare writes. “In a consensual relationship, sex begins when women decide it should. Previously, when women depended upon men’s economic provision, women generally tended to withhold sex in order to secure commitment and marriage. Today, with women making up at least 50 percent of the labor force and more than 50 percent of college graduates, there is less reason to withhold sex. Sex simply becomes ‘less consequential’.”
Regnerus goes on to examine the relationship between what he believes are the three main drivers of the new trend – contraception, porn, and Internet dating.
“He explains how contraception bifurcates sex from thinking about marriage. Because of sex differences, this means that there are more women in the marriage pool and more men in the sex pool. These ‘ratios’ mean a scarcity of women in the first market and of men in the second market, which affects ‘prices’,” Alvare continues.
The pornography boom has also been a major factor in the cheapening of sex. As Regnerus points out, we live in an age of flat-screens and surround sound which makes “fake sex” (porn) seem almost real. In his book, Regnerus estimates that pornography may be responsible for nine to 15 percent of men’s retreat from the mating and marriage markets. Some of these men are substituting porn for intercourse and some may feel unworthy for marriage because of their porn addiction. This is complicated by the fact that women may refuse to partner with someone who uses porn.
As for online dating, it enables people to “sort through sexual and romantic options more efficiently,” Regnerus says, making it into a “remarkably efficient cheap sex delivery system . . . it’s like a platter of people.”
The “cheap sex” trend is here to stay, Regnerus says. As sex continues to be perceived as very central to human happiness and freedom, it will continue to grow ever “cheaper.” This means marriage will continue to decline and polyamory (which is the practice of having multiple lovers) will rise, although polygamy (the practice of having multiple spouses) will not.
He also does not see a future for efforts to “de-gender” society or eliminate the terms of the male/female sexual exchange because these remain deeply embedded as a mature of nature.
“It is very difficult to dispute Regnerus’ map or his cautious assessments of future trends,” Alvare concludes.
“For those hoping to curb cheap sex and its negative effects, the book is a framework for future action. Religion—which he identifies as the last institution standing against cheap sex—would have to acknowledge the relational realities facing church members, and speak more frankly and more directly to them. Women opposed to cheap sex would have to find a way to cooperate with one another and speak out more often (I will have more about this in a future piece).”
For their part, men who opt for the short run advantage of acquiring cheap sex but become disadvantaged over time would have to adapt their behavior. And advocates of children would have to find a way to make couples more child-centered in their thinking about sex, Alvare says.
She also calls upon lawmakers to craft an acceptable and constitutionally sound approach to curb pornography and reform sex education and contraception programs so as to provide truly informed consent.
“Every one of these tasks is large and daunting,” she says, but nevertheless possible.
As Regnerus says, women are the “gatekeepers” of sex, which is why we can play a pivotal role in bringing about a better society.
Just as the Vatican fathers predicted more than 50 years ago when they called upon women to “hold back the hand of man, who, in a moment of folly, might attempt to destroy human civilization,” the time for woman is now.
Johnnette Benkovic founded Women of Grace® for this exact purpose, to build up society, one woman at a time, through education and the forging of a sacred sisterhood that keeps us bonded and supportive of one another. And the Young Women of Grace program, which brings the same vital message to girls ages 13+, many of whom will soon be on the front lines of the “cheap sex” trend.
As daunting as this task might sound, always remember that this is precisely the kind of struggle Jesus was talking when He told the apostles, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26).
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