Sociologists explore changing sexual landscape among college students
While young women’s educational and career opportunities have skyrocketed over the past two decades, their opportunities for stable, long-term relationships have declined, according to the new book “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying,” by University of Texas at Austin sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker. The book, drawn from interviews and data about 18 to 23 year-olds, has already received widespread attention, including on CNN, Salon.com and The Washington Post. Regnerus, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and affiliate in the Population Research Center, recently sat down with us to discuss the book and some of its controversial findings.
You write a lot in the book about the so-called “price of sex.” What do you mean by that?
I basically mean, “What is sex worth?” Sex is often more than a simple, pleasure-for-pleasure exchange. Men and women tend to seek different things from the act, experience it differently and mean different things by it, despite appearances and assumptions that it’s the same thing for both. This shouldn’t surprise us. And it’s not a new idea, either.
If men want sex on average more than women do — and that’s a controversial statement but has tons of evidence supporting it — then it must be worth something.
So basically men like to have sex. (Duh.) He may want the relationship, too. But she typically hopes for commitment, love, affection, time or other resources. We see this when women are more apt than men to hope a relationship emerges after what appears to us as “casual” sex.
I draw from social psychologists who talk about the exchange nature of sexual relationships. The exchange is more obvious pre-maritally than after people are married. There’s this transparent give and take that you typically see. But I think it still shapes how husbands and wives relate.
So what is the price of sex today?
Less than it used to be, for a variety of reasons.
You have educational and economic advances that women have made which are praiseworthy. But I can’t get around the fact that these have altered how relationships begin and where they go, in part because, today, women derive less economic and social benefits from marrying. They still prefer to marry, but it’s not a need; it’s a want. And marriage has to be good — it has to be worth it — or else it’s a poor trade of their independence. It’s an unintended consequence of their success. It’s a side effect. There are other reasons I could talk about. Porn’s another thing that drags the price of sex lower. By definition if it siphons off some level of men’s sexual interest, that serves to undermine the value of real sex. So women have to compete with porn, which is why we heard a fair amount about porn-inspired sexual requests.
Another irony is that men have more sexual options because in plenty of places the sex ratio on campus is so imbalanced. There are now so many more women there than men.
I’ve talked to a number of attractive young women who’ve been on no dates — the real kind where he takes her out to dinner or a movie — during their entire college career. Zippo. It’s kind of bizarre, and frankly, it’s sad. Texting and “hanging out” are not as attractive to most women as are bona fide dates, complete with face-to-face conversations. Some women say they don’t want that anymore, but I suspect that’s a minority opinion.
So what’s the long term trend here?
One of the things you’ll continue to see is people delaying marriage because they can’t seem to find commitment in their mid-20s. Such commitment is just not required of men to access sex. We should witness a trend toward slightly fewer people marrying, at later ages, and the emergence of an almost institutionalized pattern of cohabitation as a concession to the commitments that are being desired but delayed. That’s my hunch, although the future is obviously unknown.
You’ve said that your book gets beyond the standard focus on the Greek system and gives a broader view of this age group. How so?
The Greek system lends itself to more hooking up. Most fraternities conspire to generate hook-ups and maximal access to sex without strings. It’s part of what they do. At the average party, all women are invited, but only the fraternity men. It’s an explicit attempt to radically (though only temporarily) alter the sex ratio in their favor. It’s no secret. Outside the Greek system — but still in the college world — there’s more talk of falling in love and finding or hoping for commitment. The book concerns all 18 to 23-year-olds, not just college students.
You also write about red state and blue state sex. What did you find?
In general, it’s not that reds and blues — conservatives and liberals — want radically different things in and from their relationships. But they tend to have very different timetables and different values around the purpose of sex and the meaning and timing of marriage.
Reds think relationship security is a big deal so marriage must always be on the table. Even if you cohabit, marriage has to be a long-term goal because that’s the point. Blues may say about marriage, “Someday, probably, but not now.” In the end, though, most have — so far — still wound up married, although I assert that may change.
Reds are quicker to commitment, quicker to securing a relationship, quicker to child bearing, quicker to marriage, quicker to divorce.
The blues delay all this stuff. On average, they’re later to have sex, slower to commit, quicker to cohabit, slower to marry, probably more selective, etc. But most eventually get there.
They all seem to like sex. As I would expect.
You’re no stranger to controversy with some of your earlier research on religion and marriage. What sorts of response are you expecting to the new book?
I don’t expect this one to sit real well with the left or right. Talking about sex and relationships will always raise eyebrows and temperatures.
The left wants to hear nothing about gender differences, inequalities, constraints on individual freedom and unintended consequences. They’re ambivalent about the institution of marriage, although marriage has been good to most of them.
The right wants to hear nothing except a romanticized vision of sex in relationships. They don’t like their own deviations from the marriage narrative, and often have trouble talking frankly about sex.
But my primary test of accuracy is giving the book to real, live young adults. If they read it and conclude that “He really gets it,” then that’s the highest praise for me. So far, so good.