The Sexual Revolution continues to inspire an outpouring of new books, not all of which present a benign picture of the consequences.
Yet it is still rare for a scholar employed at a state-funded university to weigh in on family-sexual issues with any viewpoint other than sympathy for radical left ideology, and even rarer for his work to be published by a major university press. That Mark Regnerus manages this feat makes him something of a hero to conservative Christians desperate for academic respectability. The fact that he produces quality scholarship too should not blind his admirers to the realization that such notoriety comes at a cost. This usually takes the form of scholarship that is not necessarily distorted or overtly ideological, but which observes certain politic silences. (More on this in a moment.)
Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy explores male-female (and same-sex) relations, toward which it adopts “a sexual-economics approach.” It argues that men want easy sex, and women no longer offer a serious impediment to this. “Men provide the social support for cheap sex, while women provide—on average, but far less today than in previous generations—the social control against it.” Heterosexual sex (and homosexual too, which he treats as largely symmetrical) involves an exchange relationship wherein men access sex that women provide, typically in return for desired resources. This access today, however, has gotten easier or “cheaper.”
The result is a complex and changing pas de deux that sometimes appears self-contradictory and even pointless. On the one hand, “women are the sexual gatekeepers” and “sex begins … when women decide that it should.” But the “mating market” is and always has been “dominated by men’s interests.” The contradictions are of course ambivalences, usually those of young people, and the quotations and anecdotes sometimes leave one with the feeling of listening to a midnight debate in an undergraduate dormitory.
There is a political subtext to all this. It elaborates and documents a standard conservative cliché. Throughout he emphasizes, quite plausibly, the tenacity of gender roles and their resistance to attempts to change them. On the other hand, feminists dislike this formulation because it appears to rationalize the double standard that makes female chastity the only impediment to social chaos. Though largely free of jargon and the cruder forms of “political correctness,” Regnerus does sugarcoat the pill by genuflecting to the current ideological wisdom on several items that affect his argument, including the functionality of homosexuality, and by endorsing several recently discredited myths, such as the epidemic of campus “sexual assault.”
Regnerus goes beyond clichés, however, and constructs an elaborate narrative that he purports to support with a mass of empirical data mostly from surveys (like any survey research, the result of the questions posed in his terms). There are a lot of interviews and statistics, but it is not clear what they really mean outside the narrow context in which they are cited.
For his narrative does not really lend itself to empirical proof. Ultimately its plausibility depends on the reader’s willingness to believe it, which many conservatives involved in family advocacy seem disposed to do. Certainly his narrative contains much truth. The book is lively, and many of the vignettes it relates are moving, if often depressingly so.
The problem is what is not here. As pure sociology, Regnerus’s book has the merits of its genre. But if Christian conservatives hope to make this a manifesto for political advocacy, as some are clearly inclined to do, they will be making a serious mistake.
His explanation of change is dominated by technology to the exclusion of moral, social, and political factors. Contraception, pornography, social media and other online communication—these change the bargaining leverage in the “sexual marketplace.” This in itself is interesting, and more than a sideshow. But to treat it as the main event comes close to being a confidence trick, a mesmerizing spectacle that diverts our attention while the hucksters are lifting our wallets.
The omissions are glaring. Three very basic matters in particular make almost no appearance, and one can read this entire book with hardly an inkling that these even exist:
First, children: Hardly a word about the fact that the main purpose or result of sex is children, or that both sexes want children and are dependent, in different ways, upon the other to get them. Interviews are constructed around the motivations of young people about the “economy” of sex. But allusions to the desire to procreate are fleeting—especially peculiar given extended discussions of marriage, whose main purpose is to structure child-rearing. This is closely connected to #2:
Second, the state: Almost nothing about how government policy not only creates incentives and disincentives but prohibits or now even criminalizes certain things or involves itself increasingly heavy-handedly in the relations of men and women (as we now see). This in turn raises #3:
Third, ideology: There are only passing references to radical feminist or homosexualist ideology that seeks to politicize the relations between the sexes—or (significantly) the ever-changing “genders.” (On the other hand, the book does contain a brief but scathing critique of the self-marginalization of Christian leaders.)
These three factors are all interconnected in ways that matter. Marriage and sexuality can remain the largely private concerns that Regnerus makes them, with minimal state involvement, until children appear. Then gender roles surface and become inevitable (something which in other contexts Regnerus tends to emphasize). Once children arrive, the state then claims an interest in the matter, a claim that becomes especially critical if the relationship dissolves, something that happens (always) according to terms set by the state, which immediately assumes sovereign authority and sometimes direct control over the children. For similar reasons, radical political ideology had, until recently, relatively little leverage or influence in private relationships without children, because there was little leverage for the state to enter private life. (Even these limitations may now be eroding, as indicated by recent “sexual harassment” scandals, but Regnerus does not analyze this; he simply accepts it at face value.) Along with children and a “state interest,” ideology becomes much more than cultural pressure (which is how he treats it); it then sets legal rules and allows the state to enter and regulate the private lives of people who are not criminals. Sexual relations then take place, as the lawyers say, “in the shadow of the law” and of government policy.
None of these dynamics are to be found in this book. From the standpoint of the most important crises in family and sexual relations, the result is a huge red herring. It provides a bromide for conservative family values conservatives because it effectively leaves them very little to do. Short of restoring female chastity—not impossible but not very effective in the short run either—it renders their efforts hopeless and provides an unanswerable excuse for their repeated defeats. There is, quite simply, no solution to the family crisis.
It is this apolitical stance—more than his virtue signaling over homosexuality or “sexual abuse”—that explains why the book can be published by a liberal publisher like Oxford University Press and praised by radicals like Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics. Apolitical approaches to changing family dynamics are, logically enough, politically paralyzing. They may well ingratiate us with liberal-left academia, but that merely provides cover for more policies that weaken the family and strengthen the state.
The inescapable fact that must be faced—and is not being faced—by conservatives and Christians is that the crisis of the family cannot be fully explained by appeals to impersonal forces. Its most acute and critical (but also remediable) features are the product of a political ideology and government policy, against which there is no alternative other than confrontation and conflict.