Book Review

Cheap Sex: The Transformation Of Men, Marriage, And Monogamy

Mark Regnerus
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0190673611

Book CoverHere we have a detailed sociological study of the sexual practices among 25-34 year old Americans. The basic findings are not surprising: more casual sex, more cohabitation, less marriage, more contraception and more pornography. And yet the work is important: the well-known author of The Transformation of Intimacy, Anthony Giddens calls this a "magisterial study". His own work recognizes the significant impact of contraception on contemporary social life.

What does it mean when we talk about "cheap sex"? Sex has become increasingly accessible to those who want it and at less cost and certainly less commitment. The ultimate reason for this is the severance of sex from procreation. Contraception is widely available and when that fails we have abortion, a procedure as morally complex as having one's bunions removed, at least according to the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

We do have to ask what motivates a man like Harvey Weinstein? Is it at least possible that powerful men have come to the belief that women who are dependent on them for career advancements should be willing to be at their beck and call now that they have been chemically blessed with sterility? 

Apart from contraception and its social consequences, Regnerus looks at the impact of digital pornography as well as on-line dating. Digital porn offers a "realistic" alternative to sexual relationships and those who view porn are more tolerant of non-heterosexual behavior. The burden of commitment is also absent. On-line dating too makes the acquisition of cheap sex ever more organized.

What is of great interest in this age of alleged gender fluidity is the evidence provided in favor of gender difference: men want more sex and are prepared to pay for it. Women generally do not pay for sex. In years gone by, women were economically dependent on men and withheld sex until given reasonable guarantees that the relationship was intended as long-lasting. Now women make up more than 50% of college graduates. There is less need for permanence. And women are more likely than before to engage in casual sex. Is this not a consequence of contraception? Surely the three strands (on-line dating, contraception and internet porn) feed off each other?

Regnerus concludes that between 9 and 15% of men have retreated from marriage because of pornography. If an increasing number of men become dependent on pornography and women choose not to have them as long-term partners, what will become of marriage? The experts who at one time claimed that pornography can enhance marital relationships increasingly admit that pornography does more harm than good.

Regnerus has already famously demonstrated that unstable adult relationships psychologically harm children. What he suggests here is that such instability may lead some women to prefer same sex relationships. Perhaps there are other here factors that need to be taken into account: endorsements of same sex relationships and the"coming out" of female celebrities? It has almost become tediously normal for supermodels to claim anything other than heterosexual monogamy. 

Who are the real winners of the sexual revolution? Is it possible that they are rich and powerful men? The death of Hugh Hefner and the demise of Harvey Weinstein have led to much soul searching. If Regnerus is correct, they will continue to be the victors until women give up their love affair with contraception.

Regnerus predicts that there is nothing to stop sex from becoming ever more cheaper. Marriage will continue to decline and polyamory will become hip. But he also believes that the current experiment in making men and women the same is destined to failure.

What of the churches? Will they challenge contemporary sexual attitudes? Highly unlikely, given that the current archbishop of Canterbury is unsure of the moral status of same sex acts. And "who am I to Judge?" There is growth in "feel good" religion and not enough pursuance of the commandments. Women are unlikely to act as gate-keepers given their widespread use of contraception. The future is not looking too great for women who want to marry and have children.

This book has the same message as George Gilder's Men and Marriage which came out a couple of decades back. Men are only going to be willing to become husbands under certain social constraints. Those constraints are currently in a state of collapse.

Is this book unduly pessimistic? No, it is quite realistic...and a much needed wake-up call.

Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevathasan