Culture

Sex Is Cheap

(Photo: Martin Antoniodiaz/Dreamstime)
A new book explores the economics of modern mating.

In 1960 came the Pill, which disconnected sex from childbearing. In the 1990s and 2000s came widespread Internet connections, which facilitated easy access to both pornography and dating sites. And in the 2010s came smartphone apps such as Tinder, which made it even easier for men and women looking for casual sex to find each other. Put that all together and the “cost” of finding sexual gratification is far lower than it used to be.

That is the theme of Mark Regnerus’s Cheap Sex, and he stresses that low prices are not always good. Women have traditionally benefited from being the gatekeepers of sexual access — but now that men don’t have to work very hard to access women’s bodies, well, they don’t. And to paint his picture of the modern mating market, Regnerus draws extensively from the 2014 Relationships in America survey, which he helped to create, as well as from detailed interviews that he and his team conducted with young adults from around the country.

***

I highly recommend this book, but I’d like to begin with a caveat and a bit of a digression: Because Regnerus relies heavily on a single survey and recent interviews, he gives somewhat short shrift to trends over time. Such trends were the focus of the psychologist Jean Twenge’s iGen earlier this year (which I reviewed here), and readers of Cheap Sex will benefit from some of Twenge’s findings. I am not implying that Regnerus contradicts these facts — indeed, he explicitly mentions some of them — but I do think iGen’s long-view approach provides important context to Cheap Sex’s current-decade surveys and interviews.

Few would deny that the Pill was a nuclear bomb detonated above the sexual marketplace, or that the fallout has continued for decades in the form of delayed marriage and childbearing and rising rates of women working. (What got nuked, of course, was a mixture of good and bad.) But more recent changes seem to be having far smaller and more nuanced effects, with some trends even running against the notion of progressively “cheaper” sex. Americans are actually losing their virginity later than they used to, for example, with the typical teen waiting until eleventh grade; for Generation X, tenth grade was the norm. Twenge estimates that sex-partner counts are falling too, with those born in the 1980s adding notches to their belts more slowly than those born in the 1970s did, and with those born in the 1990s racking ’em up even less rapidly.

An important possibility is that while kids these days are waiting longer to get started, they’re catching up during an extended “early adulthood” that lasts until age 30 or so. (Twenge’s core finding is that teens are growing up more slowly than they used to, and Regnerus tells us of a 32-year-old subject who didn’t lose her virginity until age 22 but has had about 20 sexual partners since.) Those born in the ’90s and later — iGen’s focus — won’t start hitting 30 for a few years yet. But so far, at least, the trends don’t seem all that significant for Americans who’ve made it past early adulthood, either.

The General Social Survey provides an easy way to investigate questions like this. It’s the survey Twenge used for her sex-partners analysis, and for nearly three decades it has repeatedly asked Americans how many partners they’ve had since age 18. Looking at the data myself, I couldn’t find any trend for men in their thirties: Their median number of sex partners was six in the 1989–98 surveys (which I combined to boost the sample size a bit), six in the 2000–08 period, and . . . six once again in the four most recent surveys, conducted between 2010 and last year.

Women’s median has climbed from three to four over the same period, though it’s hard to tell if they’re actually having more sex or if they’re just more willing to admit it these days. After all, sex-partner surveys are notorious for producing the mathematically impossible result that men are having more sex with women than women are having with men. But whatever the case, the difference is far from overwhelming. (The GSS is a large, nationally representative survey done mostly through in-person interviews. My results are broadly consistent with CDC data since 2002 covering a wider age range.)

Sex might be easier to get than it ever has been, and the modern mating market may be dysfunctional in any number of ways — but it’s not clear that the typical person has become more promiscuous.

Basically, sex might be easier to get than it ever has been, and the modern mating market may be dysfunctional in any number of ways — but it’s not clear that the typical person has become more promiscuous, notwithstanding the best efforts of Tinder and Ashley Madison (former slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair.”). It’s especially surprising not to see more movement in reported sex-partner counts given that Americans are spending a lot less of their young adulthood married than they once did and are more socially accepting of promiscuity than they used to be. More broadly, when sifting through Regnerus’s modern stories and data, readers should be careful not to assume that things were all that different a generation ago.

***

That said, Regnerus’s interviews and survey data, both of which involve some incredibly personal questions, offer a remarkably detailed overview of the current mating market. If you’re curious what people are doing with their genitals these days — and let’s be honest, who isn’t — Cheap Sex is your guide.

One fascinating table reveals how quickly couples end up in bed together. When asked about their most recent sexual partner, few (about 5 percent) say sex began “the day we met.” But about a fifth to a quarter say it began “after we met, but before [we were] in a relationship.” On the other end of the spectrum, about 5 percent say it took “more than a year,” and about 10 percent say it wasn’t until “after we got married.”

A common theory about casual sex is that it happens only for the “alpha males,” who “monopolize” the few women willing to engage in it while the “beta males” are left out. But this suggests a gender imbalance that doesn’t exist: The 10 percent of men with the most partners in Regnerus’s survey reported 52 percent of the (opposite-sex) sexual partners, compared with 48 percent for the top tenth of women. It seems that a small share of both men and women participate heavily in the casual-sex scene, though it’s likely still true that more men than women would fail in that scene if they gave it a shot.

There most certainly is a gender gap, though, when it comes to pornography and masturbation. More than 40 percent of adult men but fewer than 10 percent of women say they watched porn in the past week. More than half of men 24–35 report masturbating in the past four days, meanwhile: That’s twice the proportion of women who did so.

And this is one topic where Regnerus does have a plausible longitudinal comparison. A 1992 survey suggested that 29 percent of men age 18–24 masturbated at least weekly, while the (roughly) comparable number from Regnerus’s survey is 49 percent. For women, the numbers are 9 percent and 32 percent. It’s possible some of the increase is just people being more willing to admit it nowadays, but the more obvious explanation is easier access to a wider variety of pornography — especially videos, which no longer require time alone with the family VCR. To give a sense of how prices have fallen, in seventh grade 20 years ago, “someone I know” paid a friend $5 for a small picture torn from a magazine of a woman who was only topless.

The wider availability of porn could plausibly have a variety of follow-on effects. It might make sexuality more “plastic” or malleable by exposing people to a wider assortment of stimulation, and there’s some evidence that porn users are more supportive of gay rights. Troublingly, it may reduce men’s incentive or ability to find real, live romantic partners (which could help explain why sex-partner counts are more stable than you might expect). The statistical arguments for these propositions are hardly airtight, and Regnerus does not pretend they are, but the possibilities are worth considering.

And what about all that hot “polyamory” we keep hearing about? Only 10 percent of adults say they’ve been in sexual relationships that overlapped by more than a month. The number was notably higher among blacks (17 percent) and especially highly educated black men (31 percent for those with postgraduate education). To explain the gap, Regnerus notes the gender imbalances in the black community, with educated black men in especially short supply relative to educated black women, implying that sex outside the two-person relationship is just something women tolerate to keep a high-value partner, if they know about the other relationship at all. He also notes that polyamory in the more popular hippie/hipster sense — free love, man, with no jealousy! — is premised on the existence of birth control, because children would instantly complicate a no-strings-attached multiple-partner arrangement.

***

Regnerus’s framework for interpreting all this is “sexual economics,” the notion that economic theory has a lot to tell us about how dating and marriage work. Key to this is the belief, which will come naturally to anyone paying much attention, that men want sex more than women do and will jump through hoops for it — pay a high price — if women make them.

By freeing women from the risk of pregnancy with every sexual encounter, the Pill weakened women’s position in the market.

Oddly enough, by freeing women from the risk of pregnancy with every sexual encounter, the Pill weakened women’s position in the market. Once some women took advantage of birth control and gave sex away more easily, whether to gain a competitive advantage or just because they liked it, other women responded in kind and the price plummeted for everyone. It was the fracking of sex, and women were OPEC.

The only way to get high prices back would be for women to set up a cartel, agreeing to act as if sex were still expensive. Even setting aside the implausibility of coordinating such an effort, this approach might not bear the fruit it once could have, given that women are now competing with abundant free pornography, not just one another, and they may soon compete with hyper-realistic “sexbots” as well.

Regnerus is under no illusions that previous eras were perfect or that there is any hope of returning to them anyway. Indeed, in a series of predictions in his final chapter, Regnerus foresees sex becoming even cheaper and marriage continuing to decline.

His purpose in Cheap Sex, instead, is primarily to document what is happening, and to explain that it’s the natural consequence when human nature and the economic incentives it creates collide with modern technology. He succeeds.

READ MORE:

It’s Past Time to Rethink Modern Sexual Morality

How to Rebuild a Dating Culture

Mike Pence’s Wise Family Practices Expose a Deep Divide Over Human Nature

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