Love, Economics, and Cheap Sex


According to sociologist Mark Regnerus, the birth control pill and the rise of internet porn decreased the cost of sexual access so substantially as to affect a fundamental shift from a world in which sex served higher goods to a world in which sex is the higher good.

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Last month, the Catholic Church was rocked by a grotesque reminder that things are not all right for the institution that stands, singularly and without exception, against every form of “cheap sex”—masturbation, pornography, birth control, and divorce. Ironically, the allegations against Theodore McCarrick became public just days before the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical letter that condemned the use of the pill, reaffirming the ancient teaching of the Catholic Church against contraception. For many, the revelation of sexual abuse and cover-up at the highest levels in a Church that asks its members for seemingly unattainable purity is too much to bear.

But while journalists, commentators, and media outlets scramble to make sense of the rot in the Catholic hierarchy, most would do well to have another look at the latest and most ambitious monograph from University of Texas-Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus, called Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (Oxford, 2017). Despite being better known for the controversial New Family Structures Study, Regnerus previously authored Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2009) and Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying (Oxford, 2011). Like those works, Cheap Sex mixes nationally representative survey data with qualitative interviews, presenting a vivid picture of the relationship behaviors of American adults. Regnerus’s conclusion is that cheap sex has left American men so chokingly awash in orgasmic experiences that the meaning of maleness itself is under threat. Where the biblical story of Jacob, who “served [Laban] seven years for Rachel . . . because of his love for her” (Gen. 29:18-20), once stood for male virtue par excellence, it is now merely incomprehensible.

Forget about seven years. Sex is standard on a first date—as thirty-two-year-old Sarah explains in the introduction—and men give up little to get it. Regnerus finds that American adults have a difficult time navigating a path to long-term, stable relationships, especially marriage, and he presents extensive data on the use of the pill, digital pornography, and online dating. In the penultimate chapter, Regnerus makes the case that American men have not become better human beings, and certainly not more marriageable ones, by giving up less in pursuit of a sexual partner.

But Regnerus isn’t interested in merely describing the state of affairs. At the heart of Cheap Sex is a sustained economic argument about the etiology of the crisis in men and marriage. His central claim is about technology: that the birth control pill and the rise of internet porn decreased the cost of sexual access so substantially as to affect a fundamental shift from a world in which sex served higher goods to a world in which sex is the higher good.

This is a world in which the term “sex life” has any kind of meaning (it shouldn’t), a world in which “sex is, like, a big, big, big, big part of everything now,” as one of the interviewees stated, a world in which “[s]exual expression—and how we experience it—is [understood to be] close to the heart of being human.” In this world, “quality sexual experiences are increasingly perceived to be just as pivotal to human flourishing as clean air, potable water, edible food, ample shelter, and antibiotics.” Regnerus supplies examples, but it is easy to supply more. Characteristic of his clinical tone, Regnerus groups these developments under the epiphenomenon of “The Genital Life,” discussed in his final, and perhaps most troubling, chapter.

And wherever they stand doctrinally, Regnerus tells us that churches from Jerusalem to Rome and Athens, Georgia, seem to have lost the battle against the shift toward The Genital Life. “What is happening in the wider mating market is affecting religious Americans, too, as well as their congregations and denominations,” he observes. Indeed, it has. He could have added that whatever is happening is affecting clerics, pastors, and religious leaders as brutally as it afflicts their congregations. Regnerus asks us to consider that the reason for this isn’t an insufficiency of belief, but an underestimation of the effects of sexual technologies that make what is forbidden too easy, too costless, and too secret.

In what follows, I aim first to explain why Regnerus’s book has not received the attention it deserves. Second, I present a simple thought experiment designed to illustrate what seems to be the central argument of Cheap Sex. Finally, I will return to the difficulty of a Church that rejects the pill while clinging to an ideal of purity that has been mocked from within as much as from without.

Economic Determinism and Free Will

Cheap Sex has not been read and heralded with due importance for a simple reason: its central argument is an economic argument, regardless of the narratives Regnerus brings to that case. By economic I mean that the analysis proceeds using a model of mating-market sexual exchange in which there are suppliers (women), demanders (men), and points of equilibria that “determine” the exchange price of sexual partnership. When there is an upward shock to supply—thanks to, say, decreased direct or indirect costs for suppliers (the pill)—exchange prices naturally float downward. The result is cheap sex.

And the problem with economic arguments is that they are, first of all, difficult. Rarely can an economic argument be sustained in one step. And this amounts to saying that complete economic arguments are always dynamic: first this, then this, and then this. By the third step, most readers—including academic economists—are bored, confused, or unconvinced. This also amounts to saying that economic arguments apply to movements over time. Even a “simple” supply and demand analysis requires a time horizon, since time is the currency of change.

A consequence is that isolating the effects of a single, causal variable, such as the pill, is exceedingly difficult. In the scholarly literature, in fact, economists are highly skeptical of papers aiming to show a causal claim. (For one of my own attempts, see joint work, in progress, with Andrew Beauchamp on the pill and non-marital fertility.)

And all of this difficulty, formidable indeed, comes before we get to the real problem with economic arguments, which is harder to describe than the first: Economic arguments rest on an odd sort of paradox about human behavior that is troubling to those who, in this case, might be most friendly to Regnerus’s conclusions—namely, Christians and conservatives. (See, for instance, this review at Crisis Magazine, where Regnerus ought to have been given a better read.) The paradox is that the voluntary choices of free men and women do tend to follow patterns that exhibit enough regularity as to be—not inaccurately—called “rules” or “laws.” But this feels like economic determinism, at odds with the notions of free will and personal responsibility that Christians and conservatives tend to celebrate.

Is Regnerus saying that men and women in mating “markets” are bound to act in ways that they do? Is he saying that we are determined by blind economic forces? Of course not. Yet it is difficult to ignore the similarity between what a model of sexual economics predicts and what seems to have unfolded in contemporary dating and mating markets.

Thus, men and women with free will appear, freely, to act in predictably similar ways when faced with similar pressures, incentives, costs, and expectations. And yet, for all of this, every free choice is still free. This tension threatens any good economic argument, including the one Regnerus makes.

Work: The Anti-Pill Technology

There’s no way around it: Cheap Sex is a difficult book. Though I was familiar with its central argument before it was released—indeed, a portion of my dissertation took up the implicit costs of sex within a Beckerian fertility model with contraceptive shocks—I have nevertheless struggled to find the best way to frame the findings that Regnerus presents. I’ve settled on the following dis-analogy.

Imagine that instead of the pill, a different sort of technology shock hit the sexual exchange market in 1960. Suppose that a fabulous machine was introduced into society, a machine that could make a man absurdly wealthy if he merely used it for a few hours a day; suppose further that it was originally invented in North Dakota, and was known in just a few villages. In this scenario, men in those villages would soon have to pay a higher exchange price—or marriage price—for sexual unions. This is not because women would simply demand a higher price. Rather, some men (those with the machine) could start to outbid other men for the “best” women; remaining women in the market would wish to have the same fine gifts and offers, and little by little average marriage prices would go up.

Soon, men without the machine would have little luck of a successful marriage offer without the wealth afforded by this device. Aware of this, men in North Dakota might even try to keep their machine hidden, but women outside the borders of North Dakota would greatly admire and envy their well-to-do neighbors over the border. The race to discover that machine would become quite intense. He who could discover it would have his pick of a marriage partner, and so on. Soon the price for marriage would be very high. In addition to marriage, monogamy, and financial support, some men might even offer gifts worth seven machine-years of work, and, like the biblical Jacob, they would count it as nothing.

Of course, the imaginary technology is already available in the form of hard work.

This thought experiment illuminates the particularly distorting character of the pill as Regnerus presents it, and other close substitutes. Because they make the supply of sex less costly, women—sexual gatekeepers—can and do undercut each other in a race to the bottom. These technologies slice through mating markets as a kind of “anti-work” technology. Men have no need to compete for sexual partners. Instead, women do the competing, lowering their prices. It is their side of the “market” that has been disrupted. Such a world cannot sustain many Jacobs: the costs and incentives just don’t add up.

The dis-analogy depends only on our willingness to accept the features of the so-called “market” for sexual exchange. Regnerus unpacks the evidence for this market in his first chapter. Though it will strike many readers as crude, hardly anyone will dispute that the model of a sexual market captures some important, timeless, and often comical aspects of the male-female dynamic—a state of affairs that has been something like “common knowledge” until recently—a world in which men pursue and women are pursued, men court and women are courted, men offer and women reject, and in which men sacrifice, labor, and attempt various noble deeds to win the heart (and hand) of a beloved. This is a world in which a Jacob is not an alien of a man, but rather one man among many generations of heroic suitors—a man to be admired not for doing what no one does, but for having done better what all others wish to do.

The Genital Life, Humanae Vitae, and the Way Forward

It is difficult to think about responding to a humanitarian crisis of the proportion that Regnerus describes. Doubtless, in the face of an obviously over-sexed culture, it falls on everyone to seek to understand what has happened—hence to read Regnerus’s work—to make an appraisal of those facts, and to work within their own spheres of influence to undo the damage.

The situation is not completely hopeless. At least one near-universal and destructive habit—cigarette smoking—was reversed in a generation or two following careful study and owning up to the facts. I am confident that online pornography, masturbation, and casual sex would eventually be appraised in that way—as destructive habits that serve no human good—if the facts were widely known and disseminated. (Incidentally, much of the careful study that is obviously warranted has simply not been done, thanks to the anti-religious biases of the academy.)

Whether intended or not, Regnerus’s chapter on The Genital Life has almost defined the worldview of those who do not accept the teaching articulated in Humanae Vitae. If “quality sexual experiences are increasingly perceived to be just as pivotal to human flourishing as clean air, potable water, edible food, ample shelter, and antibiotics,” then a teaching that limits sexual activity to the sole instance of married couples ready to accept a child is going to have to give way. Openness to life—as many have pointed out—is just as much an obstacle to the pursuit of “quality sexual experiences” as same-sex attraction, a commitment to celibacy, or the unfortunate condition of being in love with someone who isn’t one’s spouse.

These “difficulties” all line up together. Either sexual experiences are subordinated to some higher ordering principle, or they are not. And when sex is as cheap as it is now, there is little natural incentive to keep them so ordered. Thus, difficult as it may be, it remains for us to strive instead through force of conviction to make sex more costly again, restoring what was lost from the natural balance of things.

Difficult, but worth it. What we stand to gain by making sex expensive isn’t just the reclaiming of men, marriage, and monogamy—we stand to reclaim greatness. This is because The Genital Life simply can’t provide a ratio for the most important human goods. A ratio is something like the motivating force: the reason for which things are done. No man will do a great deed for an orgasm, which he could, after all, provide for himself in a moment of foolishness. But every great man has done what was great for love—of God, of country, or a beloved. Jacob counted seven years of work as nothing since he loved Rachel.

It’s high time for the Catholic Church and her vicars to recover a path to greatness—and not a bad time for the rest of us besides.

C.R. Pakaluk is Assistant Professor of Economics at The Catholic University of America, and head of the Social Research area at The Busch School of Business.

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