Cheap Sex is the Inconvenient Truth in the end of marriage

Summary: I believe that future historians will see feminism and the gender revolution as the largest and most important revolution of our time, and consider most contemporary writings about it as exercises in refusing to see the “world turned upside down.” Here essay by Professor Regnerus is one of the few attempting to grapple with the unpredictable effects of changing the relations between the genders. Soon I will review his book. This essay provides a good introduction to it.

Percent of young Americans married and never married


Cheap Sex is the ‘Inconvenient Truth’ in the Retreat from Marriage

By Mark Regnerus at the Institute for Family Studies, 2 November 2017
Posted with the author’s generous permission.

NYU Sociologist Paula England is right.1 The retreat from marriage in America began in the late 1960s, took off in the 1970s, and continues to the present day (see the figure above). It concerns jobs — good ones — and their scarcity, especially for the less-educated men and women who have experienced the biggest declines in marriage.

But it’s not all about jobs, as she concurs in her recent essay on this blog: “Is the Retreat from Marriage Due to Cheap Sex, Men’s Waning Job Prospects, or Both?” The advent and uptake of the pill was “the biggest game-changer” for relationships and marriage in the 1960s and 1970s, as England notes, and not just for women. That which enabled women to finish college, have careers, and delay childbearing — all the while navigating relationships — gave men more say over those relationships, especially over the timing of first sex within them, and now increasingly before them. That’s one of the assertions of my book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.

But we also agree that the pill “is clearly not the whole story of why age at marriage went up…” There’s more to it — just like there’s more to my book than the brief, adapted essay, “Cheap Sex and the Decline of Marriage,” that appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. In this exchange, England and I debate the relative role that the wider “jobs” economy and the sexual economy have played in the post-1970s marriage slump. We agree on plenty, starting on page 11 of the book, where I make it clear that “men are languishing when compared with women,” in both higher education and in the labor force:

As recently as October 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that over 11% of men between the ages of 25 and 54 — about seven million people — were neither employed nor seeking work {see this Bureau of Labor Statistics article}. What are they doing, and why have they come to languish?

Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy
Available at Amazon.

We agree that the most pronounced decline in marriage is among those without college degrees. As England notes, it is estimated that between 32-41% of Millennial men without such degrees will not have married by age 40. Why? That’s the big question. I will presume from her argument (and logic) that women consider such men less marriageable — bad bets — because the prospect of future earnings still matters to women. Sociologist Arielle Kuperberg concurs, citing in the blog, Scatterplot her own study with Kristen Harknett, which concluded that “(i)f men had better job prospects, they were more likely to get married.”

Granted. I am not disagreeing with the claim that the economic woes of men have contributed to their declining marriageability. Where I disagree is whether marriage rates will bounce back, should men’s economic prospects brighten. I don’t see it happening. (I would be happy to be wrong.) In other words, I do not think the retreat from marriage in America is driven solely by economic forces.

Why am I skeptical? It’s not just because the NBER study {gated} I mentioned in the WSJ found no evidence of a fracking-driven increase in marriage rates. I’m skeptical because men seem to be suffering little “penalty” in terms of sexual access — an elemental desire that was, prior to the uptake of contraception, connected to fertility and marriage. I don’t think our grandparents married “to be able to have sex,” as England puts it. I think they married earlier because many were already having sex and had learned what it could produce. The former was the case with my maternal grandparents, and I’m sure with many others. But sex that yields babies — and then marriage — is not cheap sex.

Those days, however, are long gone. Akerlof, Yellen, and Katz famously detail contraception’s role in curbing “shotgun” marriages: “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States.”

In other words, regular sex meant eventual pregnancy, which enjoined men’s commitment and curbed women’s educational and career trajectory. No more. In the sexual exchange model — which is and will remain social reality — men now need to provide less to their partners to access sex (because it’s cheaper). And women require men’s resources less than before because the pill has enabled them to finish college and have careers. What’s happening is what we should expect when such a revolutionary technology is injected into the relationship economy. Hence, young adults can now avoid marriage without paying a sexual penalty. This, I hold, matters particularly for men, who are — on average — slower to associate sex with emotional commitments and love.

Gender Roles

The Irony of Men’s Higher Education: Less Sex but Greater Marriageability.

Ironically, what has emerged instead is that education and career — the twin achievements that make men marriageable — may exact their own penalties on sex for men. In the 2014 Relationships in America survey data — new analyses not reported in my book — 23% of men ages 24-39 who have not completed high school report having had sex at least seven times in the past two weeks, well above the 5% of college-educated men and 4% of men with advanced degrees.

What about high school graduates? Twenty-six percent of them report having had sex at least five times in the past two weeks, still above the 15% reported by college graduates. (More education is consistently inversely associated with recent sexual frequency among young men, even after obvious controls, including marital status.)

On the other hand, only one-in-three high-school graduate men report pornography use in the past week, compared with 61% of college-educated men and 46% of those with graduate degrees. (This fits the “replacement” theory of sex and masturbation I’ve written about elsewhere.) Lest we presume these are uneducated braggarts overly subject to social desirability bias, they do not report far greater numbers of lifetime sex partners: only 11% of high-school graduate men report more than 15 partners.

This fits Jean Twenge’s recent GSS-based study of declining sexual frequency in America, even while the price of sexual access sinks. And it fits my observations about the same; just because sexual access has eased and egalitarian relationships and joint careers have blossomed does not mean we should expect bedroom activities to similarly soar.

In fact, the opposite appears to be occurring. Our sexual relationships have and will become more fragile. Remember, cheap sex doesn’t just stall or prevent marriages; it’s also good at ending them. In the Relationships in America data, nearly 30% of divorcees cited spousal infidelity for why they (themselves) wanted a divorce, and just under 12% of them listed their own extramarital relationship as a reason.

Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships
Available at Amazon.

None of this means that men universally seek to avoid real, sustained relationships. Enough of the exaggerations; the data show marriage in retreat, not utter collapse. But men remain more susceptible to ephemeral and virtual relationships — to what Christopher Ryan (author of Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships) referred to as “a kind of psychosexual obesity.” Such behavior does not foster the same relational benefits that accrue to disciplined self-giving like that expected in marriage.

England’s “fear about porn is that it normalizes sexual scripts sorely lacking in mutuality.” Yes, but I think that’s just the beginning of the problems the industry now poses. At best, porn will augment — or compete with — sex, and stall marriage. At worst, sexual technology threatens to undermine coupled sex altogether. Either way, more men and women lose out on the real relationships that are most likely to lead to their long-term flourishing.

Real relationships require socialization and social learning, and I fear that men are poorly trained — by technology, parents, friends, and the women they’re sleeping with — at how to cultivate and sustain them. This, too, is a downstream effect of cheap sex’s direct and indirect influence on their development. Can I prove it? No. Do I think the evidence suggests it? Absolutely. It’s why I wrote a book about it.

Why can’t I prove it? Because no one gets to “opt out” of a social world in which contraception is readily available and sex is cheap and no longer cognitively (closely) associated with fertility. It’s the air we breathe — the culture of the mating market — and there’s no variability in that unless you opt out altogether (which is very difficult). We have a historically new system that gave women control of their fertility at the cost of men’s having a greater say over…

  1. their ability to have sex in less committed relationships, and
  2. the pace at which those unions proceed.

As marriage recedes culturally — that is, as few institutions reinforce it and respectable lives can be lived without it — I see no evidence to suggest marriage would notably and widely reemerge even if working-class men’s earnings rose. If the price of becoming marriageable in a world of cheap sex means more studying, more work, less free time, and less sex, the actions of men — especially working-class men — may be more rational than economists thought.

  1. I have found no more generous interlocutor and debater on matters of Americans’ relationship behavior than Paula England. Her intellectual curiosity is always on display, and she’s always willing to consider alternative perspectives. She is a treasure to our discipline.


Editor’s note

Social scientists often deny agency in people, assuming that the natural human being is a liberal middle class drone. Deviations from “norm” must result from distortions by economic or social forces — never by people’s individual choices. There is no need to explain why being an accountant is “better” than life as a beachcomber.

A new generation of young men will force society to justify its values. Failure to offer young men an attractive alternative to low wages in a low stress job, plus booze, drugs, sports, and video games. In other words, society must explain why men should join the rat race?

Mark Regnerus

About the author

​​​​​​Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. He’s the author of 40 articles and book chapters, as well as three books.

See his website, his Wikipedia page, and his page at the University website.

For more information

Articles about our changing family structure.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about women and genderabout feminism, about romance, about marriage, and especially these…

  1. Men are abandoning the rat race, & changing American society.
  2. Why men are avoiding work and marriage.
  3. Will young men break America’s family structure?
  4. Will today’s young men marry? America’s future depends which of these answers is right.
  5. Our society will be shaped by technology as porn and sexbots destroy 21st century marriage.
  6. For Father’s Day: revolutionary words that will forever change the American family.

See Professor’s Regnerus’ other books

Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers
Available at Amazon.
Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying.
Available at Amazon.


8 thoughts on “Cheap Sex is the Inconvenient Truth in the end of marriage”

  1. Capitalism, unmentioned. Internet, unmentioned. I don’t have the time or inclination to figure out what other ‘major factors” are unmentioned. cheers. this is a rough draft at best.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      I often wonder how many people posting comments have read the post. Many, like yours, give a critique with no apparent relationship to the material.

      (1) Nothing in this essay says it gives a full list of factors. So your “unmentioned … unmentioned” is silly.

      (2) Capitalism has been the dominant economic system in the West for centuries or millennia (depending on how it is defined). Pointing to it as a factor in the decline of marriage rates since 1960 seems a bit vague (unlike this essay, which is quite specific). Note that the author does discuss specific economic factors.

      (3) The steepest decline was 1970-1990 — before the internet became popular. The “world wide web” software was released to the public in 1991. The first popular browser, Mosiac, was released in 1993.

  2. it’s very interesting. What needs further research is the strong inverse relation between education level and male access to sex.

    I suspect there is a feedback loop. A youth with good sex access will likely be less interested in pursuing post high school education. Conversely a youth who pursues such education will experience still less sex access as a result of that choice (and we need to know why!). And sex could be a stronger incentive than money for many people!

  3. “Real relationships require socialization and social learning, and I fear that men are poorly trained — by technology, parents, friends, and the women they’re sleeping with — at how to cultivate and sustain them. This, too, is a downstream effect of cheap sex’s direct and indirect influence on their development.”

    Well, okay, but there are plenty of men who have received neither training in how to have a relationship nor cheap sex.

  4. Very interesting. Other factors to take into consideration, in which you have brought up in the past, as well as others are the following:

    the canary died, but we’re not concerned: Western men’s sperm counts plunge 60% in 40 years due to ‘modern life’.
    No one is having sex, like they were in the past: anti depressants, & other meds destroy Libido, poor diets, socially retardation, ideological: What Max Forte referred to new Victorianism prudish, guilt, shame with the threat of the state


    You also have the Economic factor (lower wage jobs) and debt which can’t be ignored as well. Increases stress (both real & perceived, with less ability to be resilient) lowers libido. it does have an effect on sexual relations esp when you couple it with all the other things that have been mentioned

    66 percent of Americans earn less than $41,212. which is $20 an hour. I think a lot of the uproar about fast food workers making $15 per hour comes from the fact that roughly 70% of the United States now makes the equivalent of a McDonalds employee in NY state. Labor also has little to leverage given recent trade deals, availability of work visas and the inevitability of automation. Not a good look for today’s economy and I don’t see either political party with any clear solutions to the problem.

    More than a quarter of young adults are unable to meet physical requirements to join the military, creating a potential threat to national security

  5. Anthropologist Lionel Tiger’s 1999 book “The Decline of Males” revealed this already ongoing trend almost 20 years ago in clear and detailed fashion.

    Another excellent and prophetic book from the same era by philosopher Christina Sommers, “Who Stole Feminism,” likewise plows many rows of this field long before our contemporary analysts published their own works.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      That’s the conventional wisdom, deep as a puddle on the sidewalk.

      Got to love this kind of making stuff up: “Removed from the process of reproduction, men have begun to feel obsolete, resulting in their unprecedented withdrawal from family systems.” How many guys do you know that feel “obsolete”?

  6. I recently through the internet found a friend from elementary school who I have seen since then. In reading over his blog posts of the last year, I saw he has never been married and has at times tried to do so. What struck me after reading manosphere material, is how a decent guy – above 5 in looks I’d guess, first a software engineer, then a lawyer and now working as a business developer, so prospects of $, couldn’t find a woman to marry. He blames himself, which is in part true. For he was looking to complete himself from without, and we must do that from within. But still, couldn’t find a woman.
    Another woman I know married finally in her early 40’s to a man she dated in her early 20’s. Then he wasn’t a good match. After 20 more years his beta was the best she had offered. I look at her and think “she fell for the lies and kept looking for better only to end up where she should have begun.” And as a result – no kids. Does she want them? maybe. But at this point it is unlikely.

    two more stories from the reality.

    I think your comment that in decreased cost of sex has made it impossilbe to marry. I forget whose book I’ve seen mentioned (it si from teh 1930s) that observes that woman in civilizations cause men to build them. They cause this by making the men prove the are worth of having sex with. So the men go out and make things liek railroads and steam engines and flush toilets. And then the women consent to marry a successful man knowing that she can have kids with him that will be provided for.

    Alas today, she can avoid those kids, and provide for herself. So she has no need to be chasted and lets herself be chassed by every PUA there is. A short term gain never looking at the long term.

    I fear for our children. What will they do when marriages are not supported? As the future belongs to those who show up, will there be one? Will there be railroads, and cargo ships, and airplane. Will there even be flush toilets. Lest you think I’m joking about the toilets, realize what killed most humans before 1900 was filth and bacteria, not anything else. that 1/2 of kids not living past age 5? mostly died by microbes.

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