Update: My review was subsequently published in Men and Masculinities and is available here.
(Bad sign when a blog post has a prologue)
When I was invited to review Mark Regnerus’s book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, I agreed because it would give me a justification for reading the book. I already knew writing about it would scratch a number of my itches: research ethics, methods for studying sexuality and families, same-sex marriage (homogamy), the politics of academia, and Regnerus himself — whose work has been making me itch for years. But I had planned to set him aside after pulling the whole Regnerus Affair together for a chapter of my new book. Then I saw some people were treating the book normally (and, in the case of the one and only Anthony Giddens, who lavished 37 words of hyperbolous blurb on it, even seriously), so I thought it might actually be worth reading. And then I saw it was a terrible, awful book that no one should take seriously, much less read or buy, and that someone needed to say that, with evidence, so as not to allow its normalization. In other words, I got sucked back in.
So I took all these notes I wanted, and know I may as well share them, partly to protect myself and partly to help others for whom they might be useful. I have to be thorough when I do this, because I am afraid of making a mistake or missing something good so that my over-the-top attack boomerangs and makes me look stupid or petty or crooked. However, the journal has asked for only 1000 words (I’m not naming it in case they decide not to publish my review). So I’ll dump the notes here — which will be long — then write a formal review from these notes.
The first section is my attack on his ethics, and then I’ll get into the book itself. (Some readers may want to just read this section, then wait for the review.)
The Regnerus case
It is important to separate three problems with Regnerus’s academic work. The first is its poor quality, but that’s the least important. If it was just another pile of low quality sociological research it wouldn’t be worth getting this worked up over it. However, the fact that it’s so bad is important context for considering, for example, why Oxford University Press would publish it, or why the Wall St. Journal runs an excerpt.
The second issue is his repugnant, fanatical political and religious views. This is obviously a matter of taste, but there is no sense denying it as if I’m some sort of dispassionate methods or ethics vigilante. I care much more about taking on his work because of the bad he is trying to do with it in the world.
Those two issues will figure in the review, but the ethics issue will less so, so I’m getting into it here, with references. To get background on the story of the Regnerus Affair, you can read the chapter in my book, or read the entire Regnerus thread on this blog, or read this 2015 recap, which is the latest long piece, with links to everything else. For purposes of this discussion, these conclusions are salient: he used crudely biased survey methods to gin up harms attributable to same-sex parenting, to help stop same-sex marriage in the courts, as part of a conspiracy with other right-wing academics (principally Brad Wilcox) and institutions (Heritage Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Witherspoon Institute), which included manipulating the peer review process to plant supporters on the panel and submitting the article for publication before the data collection was even complete, and then repeatedly lying about all that to cover up the conspiracy (including in the published work itself, where he falsely denied the involvement of the funders, and in an ethics proceeding by his university).
So what do we do with all this now? All that didn’t get him fired, and he still does research in the academic system. That is galling, because there is at least one really good, honest researcher who doesn’t have a tenure-track job today because Regnerus does. But that’s the system. Meanwhile life is long, people can change. In our weak system, however, which relies almost entirely on good will and honesty by researchers, reputation matters. With his reputation, you simply can’t take his word in the way that we (naively) do with regular researchers. I think there are two options, then, if we are to take the research seriously. The first is he could come clean, admit to what he did, and make an honest attempt to re-enter respectable academia. The other (non-exclusive) option is for him to make his research open and transparent, to subject it to scrutiny and verification, and let people see that he is behaving honestly and ethically now.
He has not yet done either of those things. If he ever comes clean and admit what he did, that would be a (welcome) sight to see. On the second option, he has made noises about openness. And with the anti-gay research project, he did make the dataset public (after he published with it), which allowed it to be picked at, and then thoroughly (paywall; sci-hub) debunked (open). Now, with the data collection he did for Cheap Sex, called Relationships in America, for which he was the principal investigator (again using private money), he may have learned his lesson. The website promises, “In an effort to allow others to build upon our work, and as part of our commitment to transparency in research, we are pleased to announce that the full data set will be made available in mid-2015” (this is on the website as of January 2018). The announcement of this sort of thing brings much of the benefit in terms of reputation, because credulous readers who think he seems cool don’t know that he’s lying.
Anyway, to cover my bases, I emailed the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, the non-profit Regnerus currently uses to launder his tax-exempt contributions (it’s worth a trip through their website sometime), to ask for the data. On November 16, 2017, I wrote to the “research team“:
I am writing to inquire about the availability of the Relationships in America data. I am interested in replicating the analysis by Mark Regnerus in Cheap Sex, and conducting additional analysis. Please let me know how I can obtain the data for this purpose.
After receiving no response, I resent the message a month later (and needled them on Twitter), and got a message back from Kevin Stuart, the executive director of the institute:
When the Relationships in America report was written, Professor Regnerus estimated he would finish his work with the data by late 2015. The book project was delayed, and subsequent analyses of the data are still ongoing. When those are finished, we will release the data and announce it on social media. Whether that is in the new year , or even late next year, I do not know. Should you wish to receive the data collection agency’s project report, which includes the survey instrument, we would be happy to provide it.
Obviously, “commitment to transparency in research” doesn’t mean you wait to share the data till you’re done with it. (Ideally, reviewers should have access to the data in the peer-review process, although this is often not practiced.)
As a reviewer, knowing Regnerus’s history of dishonest behavior and unethical research practices, no one can believe anything he says which can’t be independently verified. So it’s difficult to write a review of his work. Of course, it would be best if everyone’s research was open and transparent, so everyone was accountable, and we didn’t have to go through this evaluation of people’s ethical credentials. But that’s not the system we have. The approach I decided on was to not accept any of the facts he reports from his original research, but to discuss the methods he claims to have used as if they were real. I’m open to suggestions on how to handle this. I think it’s very important not to give dishonest researchers a pass as long as we’re stuck with this lousy system of unaccountability. Time passing is not sufficient to regain the public trust. (For more on the system we have, read this excellent review article by Jeremy Friese and David Peterson; and to help fix it get involved with SocArXiv.)
Notes on Cheap Sex
An interesting thing about “peer-reviewed” books in sociology is that the intensity of the review is highly variable, with some books receiving thorough reviews and some receiving virtually none at all. Hardly any, however, receive the level of scrutiny that articles in the prestigious journals (usually) get, with detailed, blow-by-blow critiques of their methods, findings, and interpretations. If the typical top-notch article receives maybe a dozen hours of reviewer time, repeated several times for revisions, how much attention should a peer-reviewed book receive? Relative to the scale of the research, it’s invariably much less.
The other thing about academic peer-reviewed book publishers is that they make their decisions to publish much more according to marketing considerations than do most academic journals. Although university (branded) presses are often non-profit, and may lose money for the institutions they serve, they need to sell books. Oxford, the biggest university book publisher, sells a lot of books and makes a lot of money. They are not non-profit, with reported profits of more than $100 million in 2017 (a down year). Prestige is their brand (they claim to have printed the very first book), but money is money, and they want books that sell, too.
Anyway, I did these notes as if I were peer reviewing the book, but more thoroughly than I normally would because I intended to make them public. (Question on the future of peer review: if people will read your reviews, and evaluate you based on their quality, would you write better reviews? I would.)
For some background, I have written previously about the “sexual economics” theory Regnerus got from Roy Baumeister, and its insane sexism, here; and about the Catholic stance on the gender binary to which Regnerus subscribes.
The notes are in sections rather than a single narrative. Here goes. From theory to methods, more or less.
Theory in a nutshell
It is common in a review to demonstrate you have read the material by summarizing it briefly. This is my summary: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free,” is the theory in a nutshell. The book is an extended rant on that theme.
24-25: “So men want more sex than women do, on average. Economically speaking – at least in the heterosexual world – women have what men want. … So in the heterosexual mating market broadly understood, there is demand – interested men – and supply: women.”
So, in heterosexual exchange, “men’s sex objectively [has] no value,” while women’s does (but only to men).
Because women want marriage and men want sex, there is a “split mating market,” and women are overabundant on the wanting-marriage side so they have a hard time getting married. You would think this means there is a shortage of women on the just-wanting-sex side, which would hurt men’s ability to have no-strings sex so cheaply. But actually “the modern mating market [plays] more to men’s advantage than to women’s – that is, he gets what he wants more readily and consistently than she does”? (27-28). Why? His explanation is that women in the marriage market are in such abundance that they have no choice but to cheapen their sex in the hope of getting a man – and any that holds out is undermined by the sluts (who in the old days would protect other women through their “cartel”). So it turns out the mating market isn’t split after all, because the sex-wanting side is flooded with women who want marriage but have no choice but to be sluts if they want any chance at marriage. If women would just hold out collectively – rebuild the cartel they had in the good old days of patriarchy – they could pull men over from the no-strings side of the market (and men would have to then work harder and be more ambitious generally to get sex), but women don’t do that because they are sluts.
“What is cheap sex? … Cheap sex is both an objective fact and a social fact, characterized by personal ease of sexual access and social perceptions of the same. Sex is cheap if women expect little in return in return for it and if men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition, or fidelity in order to experience it” (28).
Note sex is something that men buy and women sell, period.
The pill is the major technological shock that helps drive all this, with its associated “mentality.” Then porn, and online dating/sex services “created a massive slow-down” in marriage, which “put the fertility of increasing numbers of women at risk,” and “have arguably even taken a toll on men’s economic and relational productivity [I think that means marriage?], prompting fewer of them to be considered marriage material than even before” (11)
This was a large category of notes, into which fell claims and statements that seem theoretical, but either don’t make sense or are contradictory.
He goes from the fact that men want sex somewhat more than women do to that difference being the very definition of sex. “Heterosexual sex exhibits an exchange relationship wherein men access sex that women provide, typically in return for desired resources” (60). Question: how great an imbalance in sex drive would there have to be for it to be the defining characteristic of all sex? He doesn’t ask this question.
“Remember, sex is her resource, and in a consensual relationship she controls access to it. It doesn’t happen if she doesn’t permit it” (95). By definition (consensual) this is true of men as well. The fact that Regnerus says this only of women is very important: what is happening (society going down the tubes) is because women are opening their legs.
The theory is misnamed the “exchange model,” which implies that people exchange things in sexual relationships. But it’s actually only between men and women, heterosexually, what he calls “the supply of sex and the supply of resources” (46). “The exchange model is rooted in stable realities about male-female differences that are not socially constructed and will not disappear” (44). In other words, it doesn’t apply to same-sex sex (see below). “The exchange model can neither be reversed nor declared dead” (45). He pretends to base this on science (biology), but it is really a religious affirmation, representing the abuse of science by Catholic doctrine, the leaders of which have decided to embrace words like “natural” and “science” while imposing their preordained view of truth on them, especially with regard to gender (this is how they frame their opposition to marriage equality). Not only can it not be reversed or declared dead, but it “may bend but it won’t break,” and it “may be old fashioned but it is not faulty” (45).
For the model to fail, he lists a series of supposedly-impossible things that would have to happen: “Men would pine to stay at home longer with their infants. Women would play fantasy football. All unlikely scenarios” (45). However, in 2011, 21% of fathers were the primary caretakers for their preschool-aged children, meaning they provided more hours of care for them than any other person or arrangement (https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p70-135.pdf). Women are 29% of fantasy football players (https://fsta.org/research/industry-demographics/, 12/24/17).
Does “sexual economics” apply to homosexuality? He has a whole section about this, saying yes but answering no. The “sexual economics approach concerns the distinctive relational interests of men and women, whether they are gay or straight” (54). In his view, homosexuality is basically a behavioral malfunction that doesn’t change people’s God-given “relational interests.” There is no sexual exchange in same-sex relationships.
The definition of “cheap sex” is men getting sex for lower cost: “men have to do less wooing (fewer dates, less costly indicators of commitment, etc.) in order to access real sex. Hence, sex is cheaper” (11). It’s not clear why masturbation (whether or not with pornography) is also cheap sex. How are pornography and masturbation “the cheapest forms of sex” (107) if they don’t involve women exchanging anything with men? If a man masturbates alone, how is he getting sex from a woman? What is the definition of sex, to which a price may be attached, if it’s not being bought from anyone? E.g., he describes the increase in pornography as an increase in the “supply” of sex (11), totally against his own definition. It’s just not clear how, under his theory, masturbation and pornography consumption are sex.
“Women have plenty of agency, opportunity, and success … Women can openly pursue sex for its own sake in a manner utterly foreign to their great-grandmothers. They can try the demand side of the equation. Of course, they will succeed in their efforts” (26), by which he means men will gladly have sex with them, because they are sluts. What does “try the demand side” mean, though? He just said (24) “women never pay men for sex.” This caveat seems like a recognition that his theory is wrong, but he doesn’t incorporate it substantially.
He quotes Baumeister and Vohs: “Once women had been granted wide opportunities for education and wealth, they no longer had to hold sex hostage.” Although Regnerus says “hostage” is an overstatement, he endorses the narrative (46-47). But the economics here is incoherent. When women had no wealth or power, they completely controlled access to sex, and held it “hostage” to get marriage. Now that they have everything they need without a man, they give sex away for nothing. He says: “If women no longer need men’s resources … then sex simply becomes less consequential, easier to get or give away” (51). He returns to this: “The question to ask is why women demand so little of men in return for offering men what they want — what they are willing to sacrifice a great deal for. And the answer is economic: it is because many do not need what men can offer” (67). In reality, of course, poor women seem to “demand” marriage less than rich ones do, so this seems wrong. But further, what economics works like this? Sure, when buyers have no money sellers lower the price, but in this case why don’t they just keep it? If they can get the money they need from their jobs, and men aren’t giving them love or protection anyway, why do they “have” (give) sex for free? The only answer is they are stupid, and sluts.
Oddly, he says “Online dating’s superior efficiency works against relationship development … and positively rages against the goal of efficient marriage market ‘clearing’” (70). What is the definition of efficiency here? Usually it’s a combination of quality and quantity, but he uses “efficient clearing” to refer to the number of marriages period, regardless of quality. He acknowledges online dating could be a way of “maximizing the likelihood of locating a spouse who is more desirable,” which would seem to be “efficient,” but, “more often we are allowing ourselves to treat human being as commodities” (70). This is a non sequitur.
One good old days example he uses is his own marriage. His then girlfriend dumped him for “being distant, unpleasant, and uncertain about us,” and then she went on a date with someone else. But then because “the search costs [were] fairly tall” he decided to call her and “we were back together before the weekend was out” (70-71). Her role in the decision is not specified. (Why is this story here? Unclear how it fits his model.)
Is this an evolutionary theory or not? “Men can see more flesh in five minutes than their great-grandfathers could in a lifetime,” and “they can do that in seconds in a way unanticipated by their genetic material … In other words, humans are not evolutionarily familiar with the accessibility, affordability, and anonymity that Internet pornography offers” (107). I am pretty sure men saw more female nakedness in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness than our great-grandfathers did, too – especially in the million or so years between when we lost our fur and the development of corsets. Raising the fascinating question: what if you showed modern porn to Paleolithic men? Would they have stopped hunting and gathering if they didn’t need to demonstrate their physical prowess in order to see nakedness? Of course it’s true porn has changed sexuality, there are just a lot more useful things to read about that than this book.
Historical mythmaking. Describing respondent Carlos, who masturbates a lot even though his girlfriend wishes he wouldn’t: “There may have been an era in which Carlos would have had trouble retaining the sexual interest of a woman, but that era is no more” (111). When did it matter more that men were sexually desirable? With universal early marriage and no divorce? Is that when women were more free to dump a man they didn’t like? (No.)
Weird jag on the military and same-sex marriage (184). He is sure the military has turned away from supporting marriage because it allows same-sex marriage. How, though? All he can come up with is that because the military defines adultery only as heterosexual sex, “enforcing its own adultery codes would first require considerable revision before new prosecutions can move forward.” So they can’t police adultery with same-sex couples. OK, this would presumably only affect adultery among gay service members, though, so I don’t get it how he jumps to this: “I cannot imagine that [revision] occurring. Hence the armed forces’ recession from actively supporting marriage and generously benefiting married spouses leaves organized religion as the only obvious, active institutional supporter of marriage.” That is just nuts; the military is of course very supportive of marriage.
Deep sexism and the gender binary
In my book I organized the story of Regnerus around his determination to protect the gender binary. This is where he becomes most passionate, and irrational and religious (Catholic). There is a lot of this in Cheap Sex.
“I write, too, as a man, yet one who has concerns that are in historical alignment with women’s (and many men’s) long-standing relational interests — things like commitment, stability, monogamy, tranquility, and a family” (21). (Also file this under confusion caused by imprecision – does “many men’s” imply these are ALL women’s interests? Otherwise what is the distinction?)
Homosexuality is not real; this is a recurring, unstated but undeniable theme. Lesbian couples have less sex because they are women, and homosexuality can’t change their nature. His evidence is 52% of lesbians say they want more sex than they’re having. Why?
“Sexual economics provides an answer rooted in evolutionary psychology which suggests that just because someone self-identifies as something other than heterosexual does not mean they are able to just opt out of deeply embedded sexual differences in socio-sexual behavior…. The frequency [of lesbian sex] is lower due to the fact that the couple is comprised of women, who are historically sexual gatekeepers” (82).
Thus, they may “mimic the heterosexual exchange model. But mimicry it is” (83). So they cock block each other, I guess.
Reification of nature as juxtaposed to culture. He’s talking about contraception and ART as “a concerted accomplishment of synthetic technology undermining nature in the service of human consumption” (199). He also elevates “nature” with regard to marriage: “It will not be deconstructed, because it is not a mere social construction” (207). What’s most natural of all is the gender binary.
Everything nowadays is going against nature. And gay marriage maybe most of all. “The successful movement to ‘de-gender’ civil marriage in the West has reinvigorated efforts aimed at the general dismantling of gender and male-female distinction,” which is part of the feminist agenda “aimed at obliterating all sexual difference – that is, eradicating the truth of sexual dimorphism” (212). Thus he insists “sex is observed, not ‘assigned,’ at birth” (213). He approvingly quotes Dick Udry as saying, “A social engineering program to de-gender society would require a Maoist approach: continuous renewal of revolutionary resolve and a tolerance for conflict,” and Regnerus concludes: “And since it builds upon a theory of sex differences that is empirically groundless, it won’t work” (214).
Some weird sexist asides. E.g., holding the position that porn use is a deal-breaker for their relationships “would likely backfire on women (as many things tend to do in the domain of relationships)” (132). E.g., this is a list of “unintended consequences” of delayed marriage: “more living alone, more dual-earner families… more infertility concerns, more solitary sex” (173). Odd to include dual-earner families on that list.
Many examples of women causing problems. E.g., his slutty respondents don’t realize they are ruining it for other women. “What Nina and Sarah (and numerous others) do not realize, however, is that even wasted sex is priced – cheaply – and contributes to the socially discernible cost of sex in the surrounding mating market” (176). They are selling out other women. “In the domain of sex and relationships men will act as nobly as women collectively demand” (177). The assumptions here are that (a) men’s bad behavior is women’s fault and (b) men’s behavior used to be more noble (measured, presumably, by marriage rates).
“Who are the winners in this new relational regime? The easiest to spot, of course, are career-minded women, for whom access to the contraception that made sex far cheaper also enabled them to finish education and commence careers… in so doing fostering new structured patterns (and a culture of expectation) of career building. … There are other winners. Sexual minorities … sexually opportunistic men … the wealthy … short-term corporate profit … [and] America’s late modern capitalist economy” (194-195).
These “career-minded women” are in a list of decadent cultural parasites.
Confusion caused by imprecision in writing
Moving from theory and argument to more mechanical critiques of the book, there are a lot of passages – a lot – where the specific meaning is literally ambiguous, impossible to discern from the text; or where poor writing and editing creates logical contradictions. These are examples.
“In fact, the relationship histories that young Americans tell us about are growing increasingly predictable: plenty of sex, starting early…” Increasingly predictable means decreasing variance in experience, but that’s not happening; rather they are increasingly conforming to the narrative that he is describing.
“I am after answers to several important questions, including… Is marriage still perceived as a key goal, or is it increasingly perceived as optional” (13). These are not mutually exclusive.
“Men, on average, are more often principally drawn to the powerful physical pleasures of sex than women are” (22). In this sentence, “on average,” “more often” and “principally” are all imprecise modifiers just creating mud. And on the next page, “I know that women can and do like sex. Rest assured, though, that men—historically, and on average—tend to want sex more and pursue it with greater abandon and single-mindedness” (23). Why is “can and do”? Why do you need “on average” and “tend to”? etc.
“The bottom line is this: women are the sexual gatekeepers within their relationships. Men infrequently function as the ‘gatekeepers’ of sex in their relationships. (If they are, they are comparatively easier to convince)” (26). The first sentence is contradicted (in different ways) by the next two.
Regnerus writes, “most young adults still pay deferential lip service to marriage,” then later on the page, “most of them [Americans] – especially women – are still invested in monogamy and marriage” (32).
“The mating market in this ‘state of nature’ [before the Pill] was populated by roughly equal numbers of men and women, whose bargaining positions – averaged together – were roughly comparable and predictable, with men valuing attractiveness more than women, and women valuing productivity and economic promise more than men” (35).
What does this literally mean? What is the “average” of attractiveness and productivity, and how are they “roughly comparable”?
He concludes a section of speculation about how cheap sex is probably causing same-sex relationships by saying, “The bottom line is that as Americans’ sexual culture becomes less heteronormative, which appears to be the case, the effect of it on mating market dynamics is almost certain, but it is not simple to predict. For that reason alone, we ought to pay attention” (60). How is something “almost certain” “not simple to predict,” and what is “that reason”?
“In reality, the phrase [lesbian bed death] indicates a process by which lesbian couples are thought to diminish the frequency of sexual activity within a relationship over time, until their baseline average is well under that of gay men’s or straight couples” (81). Incorrect use of “baseline,” and apostrophes.
“Recall that Sarah delayed first sex until well after her adolescence was over, in step with a trend that the CDC data has long noted: from 1988 through 2013, the share of teenage girls who were sexually experienced declined from 51 to 43 percent, respectively. And yet that did not seem to matter much about what happened next. Over the course of her twenties, Sarah slept with numerous men” (85).
In addition to the redundant “respectively,” the “and yet” doesn’t follow at all, because the trend is about teens, so starting to have sex in her twenties fits perfectly. He probably means “the trend shows increasing chastity, and yet she was actually slutty.”
Ironically, just after saying his interviews “found men consistently inarticulate about the subject” of pornography, he writes this sentence: “Just like the psychiatrists debating the matter, these men are seldom prepared to label it a problem, but they also clearly display enough halting conversation about it that neither are they prepared to suggest that nothing is wrong or off-kilter” (127). You spend a lot of time reading this book knowing he’s saying things wrong but sort of knowing what he’s saying. If you won’t write better than this, get an editor.
Is masturbation becoming more prevalent? “While it is impossible to say for sure, the existing evidence supports the notion that masturbation has increased in frequency – recently – and is arguably at an all-time high” (138). Four pages later, “Pornography and masturbation … are surging in popularity” (142). He was right the first time – his evidence doesn’t support that unqualified conclusion.
“While genuine demand for masturbation could have naturally increased in 20 years, there’s no reason to think it would at this point in history, unless the technological and social fostering of sexual desire (and hence demand) has increased. And it has, revealing that male desire and arousal is not fixed; it is malleable and can and is being stimulated” (139).
Question, does technology cause “natural” increase? If not, what is “unless” doing here? What does “it has” refer to? “desire and arousal” are two things, so what specifically is “malleable and can and is being stimulated”?
“When more and more men are considered less and less marriageable, the resulting sex-ratio disparity in the pool of marriageable men tends to spell greater and greater problems for women in how they conduct their relationships” (152). Try again while pretending words have meaning.
What do the various uses of “it” refer to in this passage?: “Individuals may elect not to form marriages or families … but they are not capable of socially constructing monogamy out of existence. We are simply not free to write off fertility’s debt to love, its desire for exclusivity, and its idealization of marital union. It will resist and reemerge, if even only in wounded form” (184).
Contempt for respondents (and kids these days)
The book includes text which is said to be from interviews. There is no systematic analysis of the interviews or respondents. Who are they, how were they recruited? Who did the interviews? What was the interview schedule? He says he “limited the interviews to 100 overall” (14) but no general information is presented about them; and only a small number are quoted in the book. They serve two purposes: to repeat his conclusions back to him, and to be treated with contempt. In no case does he learn from them or tell us anything new from the interviews. He doesn’t learn from their experiences. I don’t like it when interviewers use their respondents as analysts instead of using their stories as data; maybe I’m too positivist.
When respondents restate his theory directly, and you wonder if they’re real or what
Alyssa (p. 49):
“I know in my mind, and from my feminist perspective, that sex is something that people come together for, that women and men should enjoy equally, and that there shouldn’t be any work on either part, there’s no trade-offs … But culturally, there’s definitely ingrained in me something that says it’s a gift that a woman is giving a man, and that he needs to deserve it.”
A 24-year-old woman who “waxed eloquent on the dating scene,” said men don’t ask women on dates. Regnerus provides his question, “Do you have thoughts as to why that is the case?” and her answer is a direct restatement of his thesis,
“I feel like the guys don’t do it because they don’t have to. I feel like the girls don’t make them… I feel like it’s just too easy for guys just to say ‘Hey, let’s you and I hang out and see what happens … And the girls aren’t saying, ‘You need to do this.’ You know, to win my affection, you need to take me out. You know, guys aren’t gonna do it, I guess, if we’re not making them” (65-66).
Ben, “28-year-old Denver-area man,” says relationship skills “have been cheapened with the advent of uh, I guess you could call it information-age sex. … I think it’s made sexuality a commodity in a huge way” (95). Totally authentic quote, dude.
25-year-old woman: “relationships are more casual than they used to be … So I think now that may, maybe it’s because women have taken on a stronger role in both relationships and, and pretty much everywhere that that might have something to do with it” (96).
“People from my generation, anyone who grew up with the Internet, get a lot of their ideas about sex from porn, and I think that sex didn’t used to be the way it is now … that seems slightly unnatural and out of line with my idea of kind of purpose and function of romantic sex in a traditional relationship” (118).
Showing contempt for his respondents, and kids these days in general
“Alyssa, a 27-year-old from Milwaukee, told us she had higher libido than her live-in boyfriend. While nearly everything about her past shouts ‘cheap sex’ and the problems that often accompany it…” (49). Nice.
Alyssa started having sex at 15 and has had “almost 20” partners, she “struggles with monogamy” (his term), and may be bisexual. “Despite all the sex-related problems she has endured and, in some cases (by her own admission) provoked, Alyssa has remarkable insight on sexual influence and, at age 27, hopes the future is more stable. She can even envision marriage, something she has seldom witnessed” (119). Wait, why should someone have insight “despite” having problems (of her own making or not)? And why is it surprising that she can “envision marriage”? And who has “seldom witnessed” marriage in the US?
“Wen, a bubbly 28-year-old Asian American from Austin” (150). Don’t call your Asian women respondents bubbly. Also, he doesn’t describe any of his respondents as White, but does describe three as African American (pp. 45, 50, 95).
“While Elizabeth’s high hopes for enduring marriage seem noble, her disdain for dependence upon a husband and her knee-jerk criteria for leaving nevertheless suggest the pure relationship mentality has profoundly altered how she understands marriage.” And then he quotes her: “Maybe one day my husband will fall in love with somebody else. What am I gonna do? Or he cheats on me or he hits me. You know, then I’m gonna have to get out” (159). Her “knee-jerk criteria” are cheating and violence. Nice.
This is unverifiable second-hand aspersion: “Kendalia, a 32-year-old African American woman from Milwaukee cohabiting with an unemployed man who spends most of his days playing video games and watching pornography” (50).
A respondent who thinks she “doesn’t even need marriage to enjoy a successful life … mistakenly equates elective decision-making about sexual and reproductive health with signals of deep human flourishing” (177). In other words, she doesn’t share his values.
Unsubstantiated imposition of his preconceptions
The jumps between what Regnerus claims as evidence and the conclusions he offers are ridiculous. The missing link is his preconceptions, which are always confirmed.
As “physical risks of sex” have decreased and “economic trajectories of women have soared … this new era has been remarkable for women in terms of career options and labor force success, but more challenging on them relationally.” This is presumably as defined by lower marriage rates, as no other evidence is given, but “the route to marriage – something the vast majority still holds as a goal – is more fraught with years and failed relationships than in the past” (43). So the 1950s marriages were not challenging “relationally” because they married young after a short search. Often pregnant. Not challenging at all. He elaborates that when women no longer need men’s resources, “the relationships are far more difficult to navigate because strong commitments and emotional validation are just plain less necessary (and thus slower to emerge) from men” (51). Is there less commitment and emotional validation now that divorce is an option? I’m skeptical, but there is no evidence presented on that either way. He returns to this in expressing disagreement with Giddens: “While Giddens was on target to hold that ‘sexual freedom follows power and is an expression of it,’ it simply does not spell the power to make relationships flourish and last” (51). But does it spell the power to end bad relationships? This is not important to him.
He believes homosexuality is not natural, but is the result of “sexual malleability” made possible by the Pill, etc. As an example he recounts a story he heard while “chatting with a friend of mine” whose sister is “in a same-sex relationship” and “eventually married a woman” (he does not call her a lesbian). He then descends into a pseudo-scientific jag about her, starting with how her coming out “coincided with early twenty-something difficulty navigating the relationship world of men as a tall, athletic woman. She didn’t fit in and was seldom asked out. I am not at all suggesting,” he says, while 100% suggesting, “this experience was a key reason for trending toward relationships with women” (58). So why bring it up? He goes on to mention that this “happened for Amanda in a historic period of political change around sexuality,” then mentions that Washington, DC is “a city known for having the worst sex ratio in the country” (58). On the second page of this speculation,
“We should expect that some share of women will respond to perceived mating market constraints and struggles by experimenting with same-sex-relationships. … This need not be the case for all or most self-identified lesbians or bisexual women [note he never concedes lesbians actually exist]. No matter. In Amanda’s case, she told her sister [says her sister?] that she very well could have ended up with a man had interest from such been expressed and received at critical times. But it did not happen.”
This is a belabored way of saying “relationship difficulty” made her “trend toward relationships with women” because she is definitely not naturally a lesbian. (Also, why use long anecdotes from friends when you supposedly did 100 interviews?)
He offers a two-page description of the 2012 American Sociological Review article by Elizabeth Armstrong, Paula England, and Alison Fogarty (only the first two of which he names), which analyzes the determinants of orgasm and sexual enjoyment among college students. He criticizes them for “elect[ing] to focus mostly on sexual technique, something they note was more apt to occur when sex partners liked each other enough to be in a relationship” (105), rather than focusing on relationship status and aspirations (which also affect the outcomes). Here he seems to substitute the term “sexual technique” for “oral sex” (which is what they measure but he never mentions) as something that is “more apt to occur” in relationships. Maybe he is afraid if he mentions oral sex – which has the largest effects in their models on both odds of orgasm and sexual enjoyment – he will give people the idea (like porn does).
Does porn make men gay? He could have studied this, but he didn’t. So he just speculates and offers a “hypothesis.” He says porn is an “influential teacher,” and
“some of its lessons … are learned, liked, and repeated. As an example of the hypothesis I am posing, straight men are glimpsing other men having sex (with women) in pornography – the ‘cumshot’ scenario in porn is not just common but listed as popular and desirable by straight men when queried about their own pornography preferences. In reality, then, straight men are attracted to the sexual pleasure of other aroused men. I am not suggesting here that porn use leads straight men to ‘turn’ gay. No. What I think is a reasonable interpretation, however, is that pornography is indirectly shaping (and increasing) the sexualization of situations, what people are willing to try, and what they come to desire sexually. … Pornography, then, is blurring the lines between sexual orientations, contributing to the growth of what is sexually attractive” (123).
So it’s making them want to have sex with men, but not to be gay. This is important because he doesn’t think anyone is naturally gay, so he needs reasons for why men would have sex with men. He returns to this later, referring to “the clear interest among straight men in the depiction of male pleasure and ejaculation” as part of a social context in which “more same-sex experimentation will occur” (208). He’s really stuck on the cumshot. What he misses about it, however, is that it might reflect not straight men’s attraction to male arousal, but how it makes erotic the degradation of women. Regardless, he has no evidence for this “hypothesis” except the fact that gay men watch more porn than straight men.
He thinks that men don’t have to work hard in general now because sex is cheap, but his history is off. “Previous cohorts of men who did not make ample wages were simply not considered marriageable and hence were unable to access sex with the regularity they craved. They worked for it, and some became marriageable” (173). It’s a great story of American greatness gone by, men pulling themselves up by their erections. But what is this history? From 1950 to 1980, about 90% of men were married by age 35. Did we not have low-earning men back then?
Regnerus argues against demons.
He calls the social change “over the last several decades”
“technology-driven social change. Recognizing this counters the simple and reductionist explanations like ‘social construction,’ ‘the right side of history,’ ‘liberation,’ ‘enlightenment,’ or ‘the triumph of rights and freedom over ignorance and bigotry’ for the new variations in social sanctioned intimate relationships” (12).
There are no references to any of these “simple and reductionist” thinkers.
“My claims have less to do with lawyers, doctors, and executives than they do with regular people farther down the socioeconomic ladder – the kinds of men and women social scientists often claim to represent but frequently overlook in their own research methods” (14).
Such a rebel.
“Though no economist, Anthony Giddens agrees that contraception altered the playing field. (I know of no serious scholar who denies it, but few discuss it)” (33). Why would one need to be an economist to see that? And “few discuss it” is hilarious. See Wu, Martin, and England 2017:
“What led to the decoupling of sex and marriage? A conclusive causal answer to this question will likely remain elusive, but many have argued, on plausible theoretical grounds, that advances in contraceptive technology and the introduction and diffusion of the birth control pill in particular were decisive factors by allowing women and couples far greater control over whether and when to become pregnant” (emphasis added).
My own textbook says, “Few innovations had a social impact to rival that of the birth control pill.”) Note, however, that his whole discussion of the Pill, which runs throughout the book, is about how it affects dating and mating for unmarried people, but one-third of people who use the Pill are married, and it’s improving their family as well as their work lives.
“As pornography increasingly saturates American private life, it is become scientifically untenable to maintain that porn doesn’t matter” (123). Who says porn doesn’t matter?
Funny / ridiculous
Before getting into methods, pause for some laughs.
“There is wisdom to the slower pace of science” (19), says the person who submitted a paper before data collection was even complete.
No shit: “I lean conservative in my own life and personal perspective” (20).
In the section on gays and lesbians, which is devoted to explaining how unnatural homosexuality is, he presents a figure he claims is from his Relationships in America survey, which shows women are least likely to be “100% heterosexual” in their late twenties. We “should not be surprised” about this, he says, because women “face a fixed fertility schedule” (57), so they become straighter as they age into their thirties. If he was being honest, he would admit it’s weird for this theory that women are least heterosexual during their peak fertility years. Instead, he pretends it’s not surprising they get out of their homosexual years just in time for the end of their “fertility schedule.”
Sloppy and slapdash analysis on porn effects
Sometimes he analyzes women, sometimes men, without explanation. This smells like effect shopping, consistent with this very selective and incomplete reporting on his analyses in general. But because the data aren’t available, we can’t investigate. For example, on porn, he reports use declines with age more among women than among men (115): “Why the greater attraction of pornography among younger women? Speculation is difficult to avoid.” (It might be hard to avoid, but you don’t have to publish it.) Anyway, the speculation that follows offers nothing for why this pattern would occur for women and not men (the proposed mechanisms all would apply to men as well). From there he goes to the effects of porn – on women, ignoring that men use it more, suggesting it “undermines long-standing ideas [and values] about marriage” (120). To support that, he discusses women who “say they never watch porn” (why this category, when he has a continuous measure?) who are “least likely” to cheat in relationships and “most likely” to disagree that “traditional marriage is outdated,” with no reference to the comparison groups, adding, helpfully “(results not shown”). He concludes: “It makes sense. Porn use thus appears to constitute a liberalizing force” (120-121). No reason why this discussion is just about women.
Later (123-126), he asks, “Does heightened porn use matter for fashioning political attitudes about marriage?” and answers, “It does among men.” There is no reason for why he doesn’t include women in this discussion or analysis. He says there is a “linear association” between pornography use and men’s support for same-sex marriage. The regression table (221) says it is OLS regression but doesn’t define the independent variable beyond, “Last pornography use (behavior, 0 = most recent”; or the dependent variable, beyond “support for same sex marriage.” Are these scales? There is no information on how they are measured or coded, needed to judge whether the use of OLS is appropriate. There is also no measurement specified for five control variables in the model (education, income, social media use, religious attendance, and importance of religion). (In all his tables he practices asterisk inflation, so * = p<.10, etc.)
Regnerus doesn’t like the GSS porn question, which is reasonable. But note I did a quick analysis of GSS and find that among both men and women, those who have watched an x-rated movie in the past year are more supportive of same-sex marriage rights, since 2006 when they started asking the question, controlling for age, race/ethnicity, education, political views, and religious attendance. (This paper found porn increased support for same-sex marriage in GSS 2006-2010, but only among low-educated men.)
He finds this porn effect hugely significant. How could porn affect views on gay marriage? It’s not about men watching gay sex, but rather about porn’s “veritable fire-hose dousing of sex-act diversity … different positions, roles, genders, and varying numbers of participants — and that is basically where porn leads today: away from sex as having anything approaching a classic marital sense or structure” (125-126). He also cites evidence that porn users are more likely to identify as feminists.
Without any ability to assess the actual effect of porn on marriage equality attitudes (we can’t even judge the effect size in his model), it’s impossible to evaluate his bizarre conclusion:
“In the end, contrary to what very many people might wish to think, men’s support for redefining marriage may not be the product of actively adopting ideals about expansive freedoms, rights, liberties, and a noble commitment to fairness. It may be, at least in part, a passive byproduct of regular exposure to the diversity of sex found in contemporary porn” (126).
Quite a leap. (And again, why is this just about men?)
He also suspects that porn is encouraging some men to stay out of the marriage market, because they can just masturbate. To support this, he has a long quote from Milo Yiannopoulis (yes, really), one interview quote (“porn is one that uh, that I can’t get away from. … Sex you have to go look for, usually” ). Based on that evidence, he writes, “The question is not whether some men have exited the market, courtesy of porn. The question is how many” (130). (What does “courtesy of” mean?) Then he says Relationships in America shows that 29% of never-married men under 50 selected “haven’t really dated in the past year” (which he describes as “had not dated in the past year”), and of them, the majority are regular porn consumers. From this weak evidence, he concludes:
“It may be too much of an assumption to hold that such frequent pornography consumers who report no dating in the past year because they don’t want to or think they’re uninviting are off the mating market because of their pornography use, but I hold that their porn use may be undermining their participation” (131).
Since this is obviously a major question for him, why didn’t he design some research around answering it? (Also what does it mean to “hold” that something “may” be the case?)
There isn’t much for methods in the book. I don’t include the supposed 100 interviews under “methods,” but nothing about that effort, as reported, qualifies as research; he just talked to some people. He does have a few descriptive statistics and some regression tables that he says are from the Relationships in America data, inadequately described. I discuss them here.
For women, but not men, Regnerus says there is a relationship between political views and wanting more sex (77-80). Conservative women are less likely than liberal women to say they want more sex than they are having. He shows this table for percentage of women who want more sex, which he says derives from the Relationships in America survey:
Very conservative: 16%
Very liberal: 53%
These are the terrible research methods he then employs to investigate the question:
He says (but does not show) that this correlation is not found among men, a discrepancy which does not raise any questions for him, and to which he never returns, although the speculative theory he introduces could just as well apply to men as to women.
He treats this as a question of liberalism’s effect rather than conservatism’s effect, as if conservatives live in a natural state, so their views need not be explained; also as if women desiring sex is the condition that needs to be explained, instead of the reverse. So he says of the table, “It is obvious that more politically liberal women are apt to say they would prefer more sex. Why?”
To try to understand the liberalism effect, Regnerus says, “I discussed this conundrum with others, and a plausible, four-part path explanation emerged.” That path is laid out as follows: (a) liberals are less religious, (b) they “therefore are more likely to have a difficult time attributing transcendent value” to life, but (c) they see sex as transcendent, so (d) “liberal women therefore desire more frequent sex because they feel poignantly the lack of sufficient transcendence in life.” Some path.
To test this post-hoc theoretical speculation, Regnerus presents a logistic regression table, with odds ratios and no confidence intervals or standard errors, but with asterisks, one of which indicates a p-value of .10 or less (no reason is given for this non-traditional alpha level). The dependent variable is dichotomized, to indicate those who want more sex than they are having. The independent variable is labeled “political liberalism,” but it is not defined in relation to the five-point political views scale he describes in the text.
The logistic table has three models and an N for each of 1,387: the first has liberalism, age, race, education, and marital status. The liberalism odds ratio is 1.39** (which means p<.05). Is that for the difference between liberals and all others, or for each point on the political views scale? No way to know. The second model adds five controls for sexual behavior, orientation, and emotional well-being. Now liberalism’s odds ratio is reduced to 1.24* (p<.10). The final model adds three religion controls: importance of religion (odds ratio: .99), religious service attendance (odds ratio: 1.03), and “less religious than 10 years ago” (odds ratio 1.68**). Now the liberalism odds ratio is… the same, but no longer has a p<.10 asterisk.
Regnerus writes triumphantly of this result: “So I added religious service attendance, importance of religion, and a unique measure of having become less religious in the past decade to the regression model predicting wanting more sex, and – as theorized – becoming less religious predicts wanting more sex. And what is more, political liberalism no longer matters for wanting more sex.” If the coefficient doesn’t change, but the standard error increases, can you say it “no longer matters,” if that change happens to push it over the p<.10 threshold? No, you cannot.
He adds, “This theory about replacing the loss of the sacred (with a quest for sex) is a plausible one.” (Good to know.) “Unfortunately,” he intones, “something so immanent as sex will not – and cannot – function in the manner in which religion can, has, and does.” (He loves these, will not, cannot, can, has, does sequences.) After a little more of this, he concludes, “Maybe that is why very liberal women are also twice as likely to report being depressed or currently in psychotherapy than very conservative women” (there are no details provided; twice as likely as whom?). (In 2016 the GSS included the CESD depression scale, which seems to be the scale Regnerus used; my quick analysis of that, with basic controls, shows that “extremely liberal” and “extremely conservative” people (male or female) are more likely than people with moderate views to be depressed, but not significantly different from each other.)
Empirically false statements
I noted a handful of just false statements.
“There are now more women than men in the paid labor force” (11). This unattributed fact, presumably from Hanna Rosin, is not true and has never been true, as I explained in this blog post.
“Women never pay men for sex” (24). They do a lot less than men, obviously, but some do nonetheless (e.g., there is research on sex tourism in which rich-country women travel to poor countries for sex with poor-country men).
“In 1992, there simply was no online pornography” (139). There already was BBS porn in 1992.
“To be sure, things did not change overnight following [the Pill’s] debut in 1960. … But change things it did. The vagaries of less-reliable contraceptive devices or condoms, which men never much appreciated, could now be avoided. Marriage plans could be stalled. Careers could be developed without fear of interruption. Women could have two children instead of five or six” (33-34). The total fertility rate was below 3.0 before the Great Depression, and never reached 4.0 even during the Baby Boom.
Sex isn’t the only thing that motivates men. “(For example, men are powerfully motivated by competition in sports and business, but seldom over women anymore)” (153). Really, men “seldom” compete over women anymore? Is that because there just too many sluts to choose from? I’m skeptical.
Grammar and editing errors
Back to basics.
“In the world of sex, men and women often display differences, and it has significant and far-reaching consequences” (24). What is “it” (and what does “often display differences” mean?)
The third paragraph on p. 28 is out of place, starting with an “It” that does not reference anything in the previous passages and ending, bizarrely, with,“But you get the point.”
Incorrectly calls a difference between two percentages a “percentile gap” (90). Similarly, a woman “reported climaxing in her current relationship about half the time, but says that the 50th percentile is not a problem” (103). That’s not what a percentile is.
On 134-135, he says in the text that 24% of women and 9% of men say they have never masturbated, but the chart shows the numbers are about 27% and 13%.
The age of respondent “Elizabeth” changes from 26 to 25 (p. 25, 103, 156).