Women Who Have Casual Sex Are Not The Reason Men Are Avoiding Marriage

Can we stop making women responsible for men’s behavior?

It’s an old saying but most of us have heard it — “Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?” That’s a phrase that’s both dated and sexist, so to hear it re-branded as “cheap sex” — aka casual sex — and purported to be the reason men aren’t committing and marrying is something I would have thought we wouldn’t be discussing in 2017. And yet, here we are, thanks to sociologist Mark Regnerus and his new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.

Regnerus (the same sociologist behind a controversial study of how children of same-sex couples fare) says cheap sex — sex with little cost as far as time or emotional investment — is behind a host of societal ills, from fewer people marrying to the rise of unmarriageable men to more people living together to more children being born outside of marriage — you get the idea. And it’s all because women are giving men sex too easily and quickly, thanks in part to the Pill, without demanding anything in return.

OK, it’s true that fewer young people are marrying nowadays. It’s true that more young people are cohabiting nowadays than ever before. It’s true that the pervasiveness of porn has changed the way men and women think about and engage in sex. And it’s true that there’s a lot more sex outside of marriage nowadays. But to say that the only reason men are avoiding committed relationships and marriage is because women are spreading their legs and giving it up too soon (bad, women, bad!) is shaming, blaming judgmental and, as it happens, not entirely accurate.

‘Men will work for sex’

In a 2011 article in Salon, no doubt the beginnings of his book, Regenerus writes:

(W)hat many young men wish for — access to sex without too many complications or commitments — carries the day. If women were more fully in charge of how their relationships transpired, we’d be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on. … while young men’s failures in life are not penalizing them in the bedroom, their sexual success may, ironically, be hindering their drive to achieve in life. Don’t forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today’s young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year’s book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, “Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy.” They’re right. But then try getting men to do anything.

I have no problem with a society that’s relaxed, tolerant and plenty sexy. In fact, I’m all in! I’m also in for a male-friendly society, too — why not be friendly to men? But, what does it even mean? Does it favor men and men only? In what way? What Regnerus seems to forget or ignores is that some women — not all, but some — would actually like to have casual sex so they can focus on other things besides a romantic relationship, which is a time and energy suck. As my friend, economics professor and Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex author Marina Adshade, says, women are “shamed for behaving in a way that society believes is contrary to their nature.” People have a hard time believing women can be happy having “cheap sex.” Well, many of us gals actually can.

But Regnerus also seems to say that if men don’t have to work hard for sex, they’re not going to work at anything. Really? I know lots of men who are doing lots of things — working to make the world safer from nuclear weapons, helping poor farmers in Africa and Sudan increase their crops so they can feed their families, investigating fraud, fighting for justice … Oh, wait — that’s not what Regnerus means; he means try getting them to woo a woman properly and commit and marry. Because I guess that’s the only thing that matters — romantic relationships and marriage. For men like Regnerus, it’s true: they see marriage as a way to make men become respectable members of society, to tame them. But do today’s men really need to be tamed? And, if so, is it really a wife’s responsibility to do that? We have enough on our plate, quite honestly.

And as the mom to two nice young men, one in a committed relationship and one single after five years of a committed relationship, it’s an insult!

Other factors in play

Yes, there are young men who are living in their parents’ basement and playing video games all day, but I highly doubt it’s because women are “giving” them cheap sex — it’s probably more about stagnant wages and the fact that video games offer a social aspect that leads to a boost in guys’ happiness. I don’t fully understand it, but I don’t think convincing women to hold off on providing “cheap sex” is going to do anything Regnerus would like to see happen — like marriage. And some men are wary of marriage because they know divorce is always an option and men haven’t always been treated fairly by family court; why wouldn’t they delay or avoid tying the knot?

And that’s part of what he suggests, that women conspire together to close our legs and vaginas until men give them what they want — even if what we may want is some casual sex until we find the right person to settle down with, if we even want that, and more and more women are just not interested in being married.

Sorry, Regnerus, but it’s not women’s job to control men’s behavior. The guys are going to have to figure this out by themselves. That said, women should never feel that they owe a man sex; we don’t. Ever.

Delaying marriage isn’t all bad

Interestingly, the data Regnerus presents clearly indicates that men are committing and marrying — they’re just waiting longer to do so. But that’s OK! Since we’re living longer than ever and since women fare better by delaying marriage, why are we still wringing our hands about this? Maybe if we offered people other versions of marriage — like time-limited, renewable marital contracts — more would consider tying the knot. Maybe the problem is with our very narrow one-size-fits-all traditional marriage model.

So let’s stop worrying about men getting free milk without buying the cow. As comedian John Mulaney explains, for many men the cow still matters:

Why buy the cow? Maybe because everyday the cow asks you when you’re going to buy it. And you live in a really small apartment with the cow and you can’t avoid that question at all. Also, the cow is way better at arguing than you are. … But for real, why buy the cow? Let’s be real. Why buy the cow? Because you love her.

And that’s what people like Regnerus don’t seem to understand — men will commit to a partner and may even want to marry her (or him or they) when it feels good and right and natural and important and desired. Because sometimes, that’s what they want — even if they’ve had a lively casual sex life with whoever’s given it up freely, willingly and happily.

Want to explore why you want to marry? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

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