When it comes to having a career and education, women have more opportunity than ever. But their chances of finding a stable, long-term relationship have actually declined, argues Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. In his new book, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying (co-authored with Jeremy Uecker), he says that the “price of sex” is at an all-time low.
Q: What do you mean by the “price of sex”?
A: Sex is, at bottom, an exchange between a man and a woman. One can use this exchange in [homosexual] relationships, but I didn’t go there; it would double the size of the book. It’s not a simple pleasure-for-pleasure exchange: men and women tend to seek different things from the act of sex. They often mean different things by it. This isn’t to suggest that women don’t like sex or that they don’t gain pleasure from it. We know that they do, but there’s more to it than that. Women tend to prefer sex that comes with commitment, attention, conversation, love and, sometimes, material gifts. As the price of sex diminishes, that commitment becomes harder to get.
Q: What’s driving down the price of sex?
A: Part of the story is women’s success: they make up the majority of college students today. When you look at the college campus, 57 per cent of American college students are women. In Canada, it’s comparable. And that’s a big imbalance.
Q: You argue that when women outnumber men on campus, it gives men more power to dictate the terms of sex. Your book notes that virginity, for example, is more common on campuses where men outnumber women.
A: Isn’t that interesting? When men outnumber women, women tend to get more commitment in exchange for sex. And women tend to like to marry someone of a comparable education status. But I don’t know how that’s going to happen 10 or 15 years from now. If the college imbalance remains stable, there will be a large oversupply of college-educated women interested in marriage, and there won’t be enough college-educated men. So they’ll have to marry down, and I know some who have. It’s not that it can’t work, but it is a little bit different.
Q: In your book, you talk about young women prepping for law school or med school while the boyfriend is glued to the Xbox.
A: That was a real person, and that seemed like a gross imbalance to me. She was nursing him along. She eventually dropped him, and I was happy for her. One thing I see at the University of Texas is college women dating men who are not in college. It’s not like they’re not productive. But I think in the future, women will find themselves doing a lot of explaining about their boyfriends.
Q: Is it possible that high-achieving women are looking for a mate who can stay at home, just like the stereotypical businessman might have done a few decades ago?
A: I don’t think that’s happening yet. People talk about [how] maybe there will be a move to stay-at-home fathers. This is a bit speculative, but on average, I think women like the idea of the stay-at-home dad in theory, and they prefer an egalitarian orientation. But I think the average woman isn’t there yet. Will they get there, I don’t know. I don’t think the tables will turn such that women will marry a domestic man who will stay home and raise their children, but some people think so.
Q: What about “hooking up” on college campuses? Is that impacting the price of sex?
A: Hooking up is more common in fraternities, and it’s more common in elite universities. This sort of makes sense. College students are more stressed today than ever: they have a gun to their head from kindergarten these days, it seems like, in terms of achievements. So, you get to an elite college, and there’s tons of pressure, but you’re also entering the most sexual years of your life. There’s biological urges pushing people together—but there’s also all this achievement pressure that says you cannot spend time on expensive relationships, expensive in terms of time. So the impulse is to give your hormones their due, but to compartmentalize it: do it on the weekends because you know you can’t afford the time it takes to actually nurture a real relationship.
The average college student is not in a fraternity at an elite university. The average sexual act is occurring in some form of relationship, but the definition of what counts as a relationship, and how long it lasts, does seem to be comparatively brief. People talk about friends with benefits. Those happen, of course. They tend to be short-lived, generally because it gets awkward. Like this new movie that’s out, No Strings Attached—that doesn’t work well long-term. Long-term friends with benefits, long-term being a year, account for about one per cent of all sexual relationships that are going on. By their nature they’re very unstable: they either move into a romantic relationship, or break up.
A lot of young adults tend to segment the early adult years completely away from when they have to “settle down” and get married. But settling down is easier in concept, I suspect, than in reality. If men get used to accessing sex cheaply, it makes it harder for women [who are seeking commitment] to turn around and say, this time it’s going to be expensive.
Q: You find that, for most people in their twenties, marriage remains a goal.
A: Marriage offers several obvious benefits, like the pooling of resources, emotional support, and a secure relationship for child-bearing and child-rearing. Generally speaking, we see better mental health—even more so for men than women. Marriage tends to pay more benefits to men than women. I think the long-term trend is that we’re going to see a further delay of marriage. But it’s not necessarily about people saying, I don’t want to get married. It’s about market expectations of what you think you can get at a certain age. One interesting finding is that 30 per cent of unmarried young women said they’d like to be married right now, and 20 per cent of men said the same thing. Cohabitating men and women were the most likely to say that. We’re seeing the emergence of an almost institutionalized approach to cohabitation: starting cohabitation at the age we used to get married, 20 or 22. So it’s not like we’re not fashioning relationships, but they’re less secure, less committed. Cohabitation seems to me to be a concession to marriage in some cases—it’s the kind of commitment we can get when we’re in our mid-twenties. I think you’ll see people continue to delay marriage because they think they can’t find what they want in their twenties.
Q: Why are they holding off marriage?
A: The parents say, oh, don’t rush in. Travelling is a big narrative, too. Some of this, I suspect, is about what young adults think they’re supposed to do in these years. But if you stand back, none of those should inherently block marriage, if you want it. You can travel together—it’s more fun. And you’ll accumulate cash faster when you combine incomes. I didn’t have a dime to travel until I got married and got a job.
Q: What’s the impact of porn on the price of sex?
A: Playboy‘s been around a long time, but porn is just different today. It puts you bed-side. Classically, women have been concerned about whether [her mate will] be able to relate to a real woman. But economically, it seems more likely that here is another thing that diminishes the value of what she has to offer him. In terms of the cost of sex, if he can satisfy himself cheaply, online, he’s less motivated to woo a real woman. And she feels like she has to compete with this virtual woman and, in some ways, that’s true. That’s what we see: women doing things [sexually] they’d sometimes rather not. It can put them in a position of a lack of power.
Q: It sounds like you’d argue the sexual double standard is alive and well.
A: The sexual double standard always has negative connotations, and I’m not going to give it a positive one. But it’s just permanent: men and women experience sex differently. Basically, until men and women feel the same about sex and until men can get pregnant, there will be a double standard, because we’re different kinds of creatures. I don’t see any evidence of men becoming more like women, looking to commit early, being very emotional about the relationship. No, we don’t see that at all. We see women being more like men, and trying to have sex like a man.
Q: Aren’t you assuming that most women are looking for a committed relationship, and most men are looking for sex?
A: I’m not saying men aren’t interested in commitment. I’m saying they are interested in sexual activity, generally speaking, more so than women. Women tend to prefer sex within some kind of relationship.
Q: So what motivates these particular women to engage in casual sex?
A: Because they look around, and they feel like if they don’t compete for men on men’s terms, they will not have a relationship with a man. I actually don’t think it’s true, but the perception makes complete sense to me.
Q: Do you see the price of sex rising again?
A: None of the structural indicators would suggest that it’s happening. I do think that some things are more tweakable, one of which is: we can work to bring men back into college, even if we have to do an affirmative action program for men, which sounds kind of funny. It’s better to have balance. When I look at the rates of men in college, I think: where are all the missing men?