Premarital Sex in America:
How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying
by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker
Oxford, 295 pages, $24.95
A full 84 percent of unmarried Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three have already had sex. Sexual standards have disappeared, book after book argues, and young adults cohabit and hook up with reckless and frequent abandon. If we know this, why do we need another book on the subject? Because, while sexual standards have changed, they haven’t disappeared. Those wilder and looser sexual encounters are not as normal as we’ve been led to believe. Young adults don’t date like their grandparents did, but they don’t sleep around indiscriminately, either. So what, exactly, are they doing, and how can debunking myths about sexuality help young people make better choices?
To find out, sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker examined statistics on almost 15,000 young adults and interviewed almost 300. They use two theories to explain this mountain of data: sexual scripts and sexual economics.
Scripts are the plot lines on which we map our lives. Going on casual dates, progressing to an exclusive relationship, getting married, buying the house in the suburbs, having kids—that was yesterday’s middle-class American script, in which people tended to have sex within marriage or shortly before it, while society provided rules and guidelines for every stage.
Today’s sexual script looks much different. Many young adults think they will not be married for years. Although marriage remains an ideal for the young, they see it more as the end of the romantic story than the beginning. Sex, self-discovery, and freedom all end in marriage, while financial responsibility, the burden of children, and the likelihood of divorce begin there. If the desire of young adults for marriage is postponed, their desire for sex and companionship remains strong. So, though many (especially women) hope for permanence, they form temporary, exclusive relationships that last only as long as both parties remain interested.
In other words, they embrace serial monogamy. But serial monogamy has few clearly defined rules. How many partners is it normal to have over one’s sexual career? Does oral sex count as sex? Young people look for answers to these questions from their friends and popular media. Not surprisingly, therefore, their lives are guided by a triangulation of perceptions that often sharply diverge from reality.
The authors elaborate this idea in the theory of sexual economics, which explains how individual decisions—and perceptions about those decisions—about when and why people have sex affects a broader sexual “marketplace.” Of course this is an incomplete way to conceive of sex. Adam Smith does not explain the intricacies of human love. But given the decisions that millions of human beings have made about premarital sex, the authors argue, a loose sense of economics makes the most sense of them.
The first thing they note is not that new: Men and women have sex for different reasons. Men tend to be more sexually permissive than women; they initiate sex more often than women do; they refuse sex less often; and they rate their sex drive as stronger than women’s. For men, sex tends to be about satiating this drive. For women, it might be about that, but they also aim to acquire resources such as reassurance and financial benefits. Regnerus and Uecker note: “Women, on average, don’t want to have sex with. They want to be made love to.”
Second, women are the gatekeepers in the sexual marketplace, because they are more likely to refuse. In interviews, women and men agreed that women determine when sex in the relationship begins. The man doesn’t make a list of things he needs to see before he consents to have sex; most of the time, he is ready from the start. Sex is the woman’s bargaining tool—and she and her partner know it.
In many instances, this gives women the ability to gain something—whether emotional closeness, a change in behavior, or temporary commitment—before agreeing to have sex. In one study, attractive young male and female researchers approached members of the opposite sex and expressed their attraction to them. When they asked these strangers whether they wanted to go to bed that night, 75 percent of the men agreed. Not a single woman did. Who controlled the ability of those men to have a one-night stand? The women who offered. Regnerus and Uecker conclude, “Women can have sex when they wish to; men can only hope for it.”
Women may have bargaining power for when and how they have sex, but, like all economic actors, they do not fully control the price of the commodity. “Just because women control the flow of sex within their relationships does not mean they’re free to do sexually as they please.” If the sexual script sets a high price for sex, as it used to do, a woman can demand that her lover be mature and ready for the commitment she seeks before she gives him the sex he desires. If the script sets a low price for sex, she cannot demand nearly as much.
“In other words,” the authors comment, “men will work for sex. But they won’t if they don’t have to.” If women think that everyone else is having sex earlier in their relationships or that quicker sex will lead to quicker commitment, they tend to set the price lower themselves. The increasing ubiquity of online pornography further lowers prices by promoting an unrealistic picture of women and sex. As a Texan sorority-sister commented, “Men made the rules and women enforce them.”
Regnerus and Uecker offer a compelling explanation for why that price falls even lower on college campuses. Today women tend to outnumber men, and fewer men means that, if a woman wants a relationship, she has to agree to the man’s terms—in other words, she has to be more willing to have sex sooner and on less committed terms. This, in part, explains the dynamics of the much-publicized hookup culture.
However, life on college campuses is not the orgy that many have made it out to be. In fact, young adults who never go to college have more sex than those who do. Many of today’s college students spend their time studying, enjoying their friends, and pursuing romantic relationships. They may have multiple sexual partners in a series of relationships, but that doesn’t mean that they are having anonymous, nonromantic sex all the time.
Regnerus and Uecker also contrast what they call “red” and “blue” sexual habits, meaning the sexual practices common among young adults in culturally conservative and liberal states. Liberal young people are more likely to relativize or discard sexual mores. They might keep certain codes of right and wrong but, with the exception of the universal prohibition on cheating, they are reluctant to say that any rule should govern the conduct of others. Moreover, they do not attach sex directly to marriage.
Conservative young people are more likely to believe in codes of right and wrong for themselves and others. But they are also more likely to adapt those mores or exempt themselves from them altogether. It is not uncommon for young conservatives who are having sex even though they think it wrong to say, “I’m not perfect,” or “That’s just how it is nowadays.” It’s not that they’re being intentionally hypocritical, Regnerus and Uecker argue. “Rather, they feel the powerful pull of competing moral claims upon them: the script about what boyfriends and girlfriends in love want or are supposed to do for and to each other, and the script about what unmarried Christian behavior should look like. They want to satisfy both but find themselves rationalizing.”
The authors continue: “In emerging adulthood, the point of sex for most blues is enjoyment. Reds like sex no less than blues, but they feel compelled to motivate sex for reasons beyond that. For reds, sex is supposed to serve some overarching relational purpose.” What separates most conservatives from liberals isn’t that they’re abstaining from sex; it’s that they’re just following different scripts for when and how to have it.
What are the consequences of serial monogamy or strings of casual sexual encounters? Those who are virgins or those who have had only one or two previous partners and are in a relationship are the most emotionally healthy. The more serial the monogamy, the greater the likelihood of some kind of emotional dissatisfaction or instability.
In a world of changing scripts and lowering sexual costs, relationships become riskier business—especially if you’re a woman. Regnerus and Uecker close by debunking myths about sex and relationships. The idea that everyone else is having more sex than you are is a fiction, they say, but the possibility of long-term exclusivity is not. Furthermore, what one person does in his bedroom affects what others do in theirs. And just as introducing sex won’t save a relationship on the rocks, neither will cohabitation lead to a wedding ring.
If current sexual and romantic customs leave many dissatisfied, what can be done? Regnerus and Uecker shy away from prescriptions, but they note that “people pay attention to—and live out—compelling and attractive stories.” Anyone interested in telling a story about love and marriage that is not only attractive but also accurate would do well to start with this book.
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral student in theology at Boston College.