I’m sorry this is so long. If you’re in a hurry, some of the funny parts are toward the end.
In an animated video rant against sexual liberation, Mark Regnerus gives the 10-minute version of an essay he published in the journal Society in 2012 (with a Slate companion piece) — using professional drawing hands and narrators. Since it has received more than 80,000 views, and some fawning in the conservative press, I wanted to comment a little.
The video asserts that in the market for sex, women sell and men buy.
On average, men initiate sex more than women, they’re more sexually permissive than women, and they connect sex to romance less often than women. No one’s saying this is the way it ought to be. It’s just the way it is! Women, on the other hand, are likely to have sex for reasons beyond just simple pleasure. Her motivations for sex often include expressing and receiving love, strengthening commitment, affirming desirability, and relationship security. So in an exchange relationship where men want sex more often than women do, who decides when it will happen? She does, of course. Sex is her resource.
Let me just stop here for a minute. If I grant you that, on average, contemporary American men want sex with women more than the reverse, does the size of this difference matter at all? In a response to Regnerus, Elaine Hatfield and colleagues remind us that difference within the genders are greater than the differences between them (which, in turn, are shrinking over time). If the difference between men’s and women’s attitudes toward sex were observable but tiny, would it still be true that the system is one in which women sell and men buy? Of course not. The difference has to be big enough to drive the whole system. No one can say how big it is, or needs to be, because the crackpots running this theory don’t care. They are just spinning out the why-pay-for-milk-when-the-cow-is-free analogy without regard to the specifics of the model.
Anyway, what is the “price” women charge for sex? It’s “a few drinks and compliments,” or “a month of dates and respectful attention,” or “a lifetime promise to share all of his affections, wealth and earnings with her exclusively.” So, which will it be? To explain why we have too much casual sex and not enough marriage nowadays, Regnerus turns to an inadvertently comical lesson on supply and demand, starting with this figure.
“When supplies are high, prices drop,” the narrator says, “since people won’t pay more for something that’s easy to find. But if it’s hard to find, people will pay a premium.” Cow, milk, etc. The reason this figure is funny (and how it differs from real supply/demand curves) is that it also shows that rising prices lead to lower supply. But whatever – the point is, feminism is bad.
To Regnerus, the falling marriage rate (the only fact offered as evidence for this) means the supply of sex has increased and its price has fallen. The narrator asks, “So how did we get here? How did the market value of sex decline so drastically?” Answer: the Pill, which “profoundly lower[ed] the cost of sex.” From there the video goes on to blame women for abandoning their centuries-old cartel, which restricted the supply of sex, thus propping up the price. The video says:
In the past, it really wasn’t the patriarchy that policed women’s relational interests [because isn’t that what you thought patriarchy was all about?], it was women. But … this unspoken pact to set a high market value of sex has all but vanished. But in a brave new world where sex no longer means babies, and marriage has become optional, the solidarity women once felt toward each other in the mating market has dissolved. Women no longer have each other’s backs. On the contrary, they’re now each other’s competition. And when women compete for men, they tend to do so by appealing to what men want.
So, women have sold each other out. As a result, they’ve lost their leverage and men have an advantage they don’t deserve, given their randy minds. To conclude, the narrator declares:
Today the economics of contemporary sexual relationships clearly favor men and what they want. Even while what they are offering in the exchange has diminished. And it’s all thanks to supply, demand, and the long reach of a remarkable little pill.
In the article version, Regnerus writes:
I assert that if women were more in charge of how their romantic relationships transpired—more in charge of the ‘pricing’ negotiations around sex—we’d be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts by men, fewer hook-ups, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on (and perhaps even at a slightly earlier age, too). In other words, the ‘price’ of sex would be higher: it would cost men more to access it.
Yes, that does contradict the point earlier about how women always decide when they will have sex, because it’s inherently their resource. But who cares, feminism is bad.
This is all tricky to reconcile with the common lyrical formulation, in which both men and women “give it” to each other (though not in the same song). So Tom Petty fits the theory, trying to lower the price to zero:
It’s alright if you love me / it’s alright if you don’t / I’m not afraid of you running away / honey I’ve got a feeling you won’t
There is no sense in pretending / your eyes give you away / something inside you is feeling like I do / and we’ve said all there is to say
Baby, breakdown, go ahead and give it to me…
Anyway, a few thoughts on this big ball of wrong.
First, what about actual economics? If women sell sex and men buy it, and women set the price by how slutty they act, there is still the issue of the value of what men have to offer — to women. Like Hana Rosin, who bemoans the cardboardness of today’s man — unable to respond to changing times — Regnerus assumes unchanging men. When it comes to sex, that’s presumably because it comes from God, evolution, or (in Regnerus’s Catholic view) God acting through evolution. But even if all they care about is sex, the value of what they have to offer for it — relative to what women have and need — has surely changed a lot. So, as the relative value of the men’s lifetime promise of wealth and earnings falls toward the value of a couple drinks and compliments, it’s only natural that women will be less and less able to distinguish the two.
As Paula England notes in her (disappointingly mild) critique of Regnerus, his theory has a problem explaining why marriage has declined so much more for the less-than-college-educated population. Among those men and women, the male/female ratio has grown markedly as women flee for higher ground. So, with the relative shortage of women, they should be in command — so they could demand marriage.
But if women insist on marrying a man with a job, as I just showed recently, they actually face a shortage of men. In the video’s terms, they’re back in this situation:
But that’s only because women insist on a man with a job. In other words, the value of what men have to offer (relative to what women need) matters. (England argues against this “it’s the economy, stupid” perspective, for reasons I don’t find convincing.) So why doesn’t Regnerus talk about actual economics?
In the Society version of this video Regnerus says he gets this sexual economics theory from Baumeister and Vohs (and the video resource guide links to several of Baumeister’s papers), including the basic story that sex is something women sell and men buy, and the thing about how feminism dissolved female solidarity.
Interestingly, however, Baumeister and his several co-authors are much more keyed in to the economics questions that Regnerus all but ignores. While Regnerus focuses on the Pill, they write in the 2004 paper he relies on that one of the “preconditions of market exchange” in sex is that, “In general, men have resources women want.” It’s not just the Pill that has changed things, in other words, it’s also the end of men: “Once women had been granted wide opportunities for education and wealth, they no longer had to hold sex hostage.”
Regnerus really does the theory a disservice by leaving all this out. In another recent article, Baumeister and Mendoza reiterate:
According to sexual economics theory, when women lack direct or easy access to resources such as political influence, health care, money, education, and jobs, then sex becomes a crucial means by which women can gain access to a good life, and so it is vital to female self-interest to keep the price of sex high.
The real problem now, according to the intellectual godfather of Regnerus’s version of this theory, is gender equality, but Regnerus doesn’t want to say that. Baumesiter and Mendoza write: “when women have direct economic clout, they do not need to use sex to bargain for other resources, and so they can make sex more freely available.” Thus, they show that casual sex is positively associated with a measure of gender equality across 37 countries. I’ve made a figure from their findings. This is the percentage of people in an international online sex survey who say they ever had sex with someone just once (on the y-axis), by the level of gender equality according to the World Economic Forum (on the x-axis):
The logic here is approaching random. Get this: When women were poor, they needed to withhold sex to get money. Now that they have more money — and are less dependent on men — they don’t need to withhold it, so they give it away. Wait, what? If they don’t need to sell it anymore, and we already know they don’t want to “have” it (that is, do it), then why don’t those Scandinavian women just keep it, for f#cks’ sake? (Amanda Marcotte made a similar argument about Baumeister)
It seems likely the differences between Regnerus and Baumeister are of emphasis rather than principle. Believe it or not, Regnerus’s explanation, focusing only on sex and the Pill, would be stronger if he latched on to this crazy economics argument. But I reckon he stays away from that because taking a stand against women’s equality is a political and cultural nonstarter, and Regnerus’s ambition is social influence.
You asked for it
If you’ve read this far, you deserve some insanely sexist quotes. Because Baumeister has no such qualms about offending women. Besides representing what I think Regnerus really thinks, Baumeister and Vohs are also much more entertaining than Regnerus (in this piece, anyway). In their response to Regnerus, they blame women’s sexual permissiveness for just about everything. That’s because, “Giving young men easy access to abundant sexual satisfaction deprives society of one of its ways to motivate them to contribute valuable achievements to the culture.”
Did you get that? Women giving away sex is literally ruining the culture. If I knew my classics I’m sure I’d know the analogy here. I’m thinking of the early Christian adaptation of the Greek sirens, which sometime before A.D. 700 changed them from magical creatures to vile humans, “prostitutes who led travelers down to poverty and were said to impose shipwreck on them.” If that seems overdramatic, it’s just because you haven’t read the whole essay.
In the feminist era Baumeister and Vohs describe, rather than just marriage in exchange for sex, women have upped their demands: “Women, meanwhile, want not only marriage but also access to careers and preferential treatment in the workplace.” (I’m not sure how this fits with the idea that women have lowered the “price of sex,” but logic isn’t the point here, hating feminism is.)
Here are some key snippets:
The giant trade thus essentially involved men giving women not only easy access but even preferential treatment in the huge institutions that make up society, which men created. Today most schools, universities, corporations, scientific organizations, governments, and many other institutions have explicit policies to protect and promote women. It is standard practice to hire or promote a woman ahead of an equally qualified man. Most large organizations have policies and watchdogs that safeguard women’s interests and ensure that women gain preferential treatment over men. … Nobody looks out for men, and so the structural changes favoring women and disadvantaging men have accelerated.
All of this is a bit ironic, in historical context. The large institutions have almost all been created by men. … Even today, the women’s movement has been a story of women demanding places and preferential treatment in the organizational and institutional structures that men create, rather than women creating organizations and institutions themselves. … All over the world and throughout history (and prehistory), the contribution of large groups of women to cultural progress has been vanishingly small. …
Indeed, the world of work is a daunting place for a young man today. Feminists quickly point to the continued dominance of men at the top of most organizations, but this is misleading if not outright disingenuous. Men create most organizations and work hard to succeed in them. Indeed, an open-minded scholar can search through history mostly in vain to find large organizations created and run by women that have contributed anything beyond complaining about men and demanding a bigger share of the male pie.
Warning, the excerpts grow more and more offensive from here on…
Why have men acquiesced so much in giving women the upper hand in society’s institutions? It falls to men to create society (because women almost never create large organizations or cultural systems). It seems foolish and self-defeating for men then to meekly surrender advantageous treatment in all these institutions to women. … Because of women’s lesser motivation and ambition, they will likely never equal men in achievement, and their lesser attainment is politically taken as evidence of the need to continue and possibly increase preferential treatment for them.
But this pattern of male behavior makes more sense if we keep in mind that getting sex is a high priority for men, especially young men. Being at a permanent disadvantage in employment and promotion prospects, as a result of affirmative action policies favoring women, is certainly a cost to young men, but perhaps not a highly salient one. What is salient is that sex is quite readily available. As Regnerus reports, even a man with dismal career prospects (e.g., having dropped out of high school) can find a nice assortment of young women to share his bed.
The male who beds multiple women is enjoying life quite a bit, and so he may not notice or mind the fact that his educational and occupational advancement is vaguely hampered by all the laws and policies that push women ahead of him. After all, one key reason he wanted that advancement was to get sex, and he already has that. Climbing the corporate ladder for its own sake may still hold some appeal, but undoubtedly it was more compelling when it was vital for obtaining sex. Success isn’t as important as it once was, when it was a prerequisite for sex.
(Did I mention I’m not making this up? I’m sorry to just keep excerpting, but this stuff just writes itself.)
Unfortunately for society, women taking over the economy has a real downside:
Still, replacing male with female workers may bring some changes, insofar as the two genders approach work differently. Compared to men, women have higher rates of absenteeism, seek social rewards more than financial ones, are less ambitious, work fewer hours overall, are more prone to take extended career interruptions, and identify less with the organizations they work for. They are more risk averse, resulting in fewer entrepreneurs and inventions. … Women are less interested in science and technology fields. They create less wealth.
And finally, “the implications of the recent social changes for marriage could fill a book.” (Really, a whole book?) In that book (which we’re really quite happy to wait for), casual sex is also ruining marriage because it’s increasing the crushing depression that naturally follows from female-dominated marriage:
The female contribution of sex to the marriage is evanescent: As women age, they lose their sexual appeal much faster than men lose their status and resources, and some alarming evidence even indicates that wives rather quickly lose their desire for sex. To sustain a marriage across multiple decades, many husbands must accommodate to the reality of having to contribute work and other resources to a wife whose contribution of sex dwindles sharply in both quantity and quality—and who also may disapprove sharply of him seeking satisfaction in alternative outlets such as prostitution, pornography, and extramarital dalliance.
Yes, in their zeal to describe the sexual disaster of modern marriage, they forgot to even nod to the ideal wife’s housework and child rearing contributions.
We speculate that today’s young men may be exceptionally ill prepared for a lifetime of sexual starvation that is the lot of many modern husbands. The traditional view that a wife should sexually satisfy her husband regardless of her own lack of desire has been eroded if not demolished by feminist ideology that has encouraged wives to expect husbands to wait patiently until the wife actually desires sex, with the result that marriage is a prolonged episode of sexual starvation for the husband. … Today’s young men spend their young adulthood having abundant sex with multiple partners, and that seems to us to be an exceptionally poor preparation for a lifetime of sexual starvation.
Yes, that was a third “sexual starvation” reference in one paragraph. (I am completely above making a joke about this, but The Onion isn’t.)
Regnerus cites this guy Baumeister up and down. If all Muslims have to personally disavow Bin Laden, I think it’s only fair that we expect Regnerus to comment on this.
What about lesbians?
Oh, that. When Regnerus wrote his post in Slate, Belle Waring wrote a nice piece about it, which included this:
Please note also that under the economic model, lesbians can’t exist, since they have nothing of value to exchange for sex, except for…um…sex? And since women only use sex as a means to an end, and exchange it with men; and since further, sex has been explicitly devalued to something cheap, well, hm. I submit that if you propose a model of human sexual behavior, and it positively forbids the existence of a whole class of people who nonetheless actually exist, then maybe there’s a problem with the theory? Just a thought.
I promise I’ll stop now, but Regnerus actually has talked about lesbians recently — though not to explain how they have sex without a buyer. This from a speech just last month at Franciscan University of Steubenville, at which he implied homosexuality emerged partly because of the Pill, too, based on his reading of Anthony Giddens’ Transformation of Intimacy. He said: “Giddens draws an arrow from contraception to sexual malleability to the expansion of homosexuality.”
So, if he thinks lesbians are an unnatural creation of modern sexual plasticity, then I guess it’s not surprising that he also believes (at about 9:10) that lesbians produce asexual children:
Despite comprising a mere 1.3 percent of the population, respondents in the NFSS [New Family Structures Survey] who said that their mothers have had a same-sex sexual relationship made up 15 [50?] percent of all the asexual identifiers in the NFSS. So, 15 [50?] percent of them come from 1.3 percent of the population.*
The hatefulness of this is what’s most important (you have to see the smirk when he jokes to the Franciscans that asexuality might be “convenient” for people pursuing celebacy). But for what it’s worth, I also interpret this as further evidence that his data is garbagey. When a substantial number of respondents answer questions at random or incorrectly — as was the case in the Regnerus/Wilcox NFSS data (see p. 333 here) — then highly skewed items will be unreasonably correlated (e.g., if 3 percent fill it out the question at random, and the actual asexual population is 1 percent, then most of the people counted as asexual will be random; and if the same happens for mothers’ sexual history, then the two variables will have a surprisingly large overlap.)
It would be tempting (and more enjoyable) to simply ignore Mark Regnerus forever. His record of scientific manipulation and dishonesty in the service of the movement to deny equal rights to gays and lesbians is well documented, and social scientists of good will won’t trust him again unless he comes clean. I wish that he and the people of good will could just agree never to interact again. But he’s young and ambitious, and it’s likely that he’ll be back. So we should keep an eye on him.
* On listening to this again, it’s hard to tell, but I think he says 15%, not 50%, as I first transcribed it.