Premarital Sex in America: Better For Men?

How does casual sex impact men and women differently? Why are Americans waiting longer to marry? How is the Internet changing modern relationships? These are some of the questions sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker set out to answer in their new book Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying. According to them, as it's increasingly easier for men to have sex with no strings attached, it becomes harder for women to find long-term relationships. We report on sex and relationship studies all the time, but this time we decided to go straight to the source and ask the researcher Mark Regnerus some questions. Here's what he had to say:


Tr├ĘsSugar: Women have been warned before that one-night stands and casual sex won't lead to serious relationships. What does your research add to the conversation that hasn't already been said?

Mark Regnerus:
With individual persons, anything is possible. I deal in the realm of the probable. Sleeping with someone just because you want to isn't terribly empowering, and frankly it's probably not very difficult, either. The sex may be great (or not), but casual sex makes getting commitment - when you want it - harder to get. Think about what happens to men as a collective when they can stably access sex without strings. Sex with strings comes to be seen as unnecessary. Men have to want to commit. Plenty eventually do, thankfully. But enough don't, or they stall for years. This is why what other women do matters for what any given woman can expect.
TS: Some think that gender equality means women can have sex whenever they want, like men do. But you say that we value sex for men and women differently. How so?

MR:
Again, I didn't make this stuff up. Our book basically tested various pieces of the theory and find the data fit it pretty well. At its simplest, think about the value of men's sexual behavior. Does any woman pay a man for it? No. But plenty of men pay women.
TS: Based on your research, what crucial piece of dating advice would you give a young woman?
MR: It's not a quick step from data analysis of groups of people to personal advice. But the fact that people remain thirsty for advice suggests the problem is a very poignant one. Given that I primarily study sex, I suppose I would suggest to remember that sex is valuable. Men want it. Men will travel the globe to get it. They'll fight for it. For the right woman, they'll make all sorts of commitments to acquire it. And they'll be patient for it. They'll woo women. They'll get to know them. But they won't if they don't have to. Attractive women often forget that they have so much power. Trading it away for little or nothing - or just because you feel like it - is foolish, in my observation. It's a real waste. But this power is best wielded en masse, as a group. Women used to have each other's back, but not anymore. Now they compete with each other.
TS: So what do you make of cohabitation before marriage?
MR: One of the problems with this question is that not all cohabitations are alike. The reasons people choose to do it matter, as does the timing. Cohabiting after engagement (rather than before it) appears to have the best success, in part because significant commitments have already occurred. As I say in the book, in the majority of cases, moving in together doesn't achieve permanence. And yet most emerging adults will cohabitant. First experiences with cohabitation have the best shot at ending in marriage, but it's hardly a certainty. (People who live together multiple times with different people have the poorest shot at getting and staying married.) For lots of young adults, cohabitation is inviting because it mimics some of the more attractive aspects of marriage. But like so many aspects of contemporary relationships, cohabitation is easier on men, and its popularity is a reflection of their strength in the sexual marketplace. Cohabitation is a win-win situation for men: more stable access to sex, without the expectations or commitments of marital responsibilities. The more difficult relationship problems don't even have to be solved. (You're not married, after all.) The impulse to spend more time with each other and to become more intimately familiar with each other is understandable. I get it. But cohabitation is still fundamentally about uncertainty and risk management. It's holding back to see how things go. It feels logical in an era of relatively short relationships and plenty of family experiences with divorce. But few people like to dwell for long in uncertainty, so cohabitation has an inherent instability to it. Come back tomorrow to find out what Mark Regnerus has to say about social networking, porn, and divorce.


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