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Interview With Mark Regnerus About Premarital Sex

Premarital Sex in America: The Internet, Marriage, and Divorce

Yesterday we brought you part one of our interview with Mark Regnerus, author of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Sex. Consulting data from four national surveys and interviews with Americans ages 18 to 23, the book claims that as casual sex became the norm, the balance of power in dating and relationships tipped toward men. Today, Regnerus offers his thoughts on marriage, divorce, and the Internet. Read what he has to say, and tell us if you agree in the comments.

TrèsSugar: Your research seems to assume that marriage is a priority for women. What about grad school, travel, or a career?

Mark Regnerus: Advanced education doesn’t mean a woman has lowered her chance at marriage. It works out that way for some, but I don’t think it’s a systematic problem. However, it’s really, really unfortunate that people perceive such goals — marriage and career preparation — as incompatible. I understand why, but it’s a story — a popular script —and nothing more. You can be married and in graduate school. In fact, economists have documented that married graduate students tend to complete their studies at least as fast, on average, as those that aren’t. I presume marriage is a priority for women because they tell me that. Among young Americans, more than 90 percent still say they want to get married. I was shocked that in the Add Health study — the best nationally-representative longitudinal data set we have on young adults — 20 percent of men and 30 percent of women, all of whom were unmarried and under 24, said they’d like to be married right now. But they’re not. And most won’t be anytime soon.

TS: You say men are calling all the shots in relationships. What would you suggest women do to change the power dynamic?

MR: I’m not optimistic that things will change. (I’m not even sure that things can change, although I hope I’m wrong about that.) As I say in the book and have elsewhere online, we’re witnessing an unintended consequence. Some economists — and this is worth mulling over — suggest that everything changed with the arrival of the Pill. I haven’t explored the idea in depth, and it’s not something easily discernible with the sort of social science data I analyze. But there may be something to it. The Pill not only allowed married women to limit their fertility better; it also opened up sex to the unmarried on a far wider scale than previously experienced. It gives women control over their fertility, and the freedom to have sex without fear of pregnancy, but at a macro level, it hands power to men over the timing of sex in budding relationships.

Women no longer have a widely-shared excuse for delaying sex, even if they want to. The Pill is deeply embedded in the American narrative, though. It’s almost sacred. But to suggest that the Pill has nothing to do with the modern sexual economy and its dynamics just can’t be true. Of course it does. It’s a trade-off: she gets to control her fertility, and he gets to make persuasive claims upon her about the early timing and flow of sex in the relationship. On a more attainable scale, I actually think working to repair the sex ratio imbalances we see in American universities would be a helpful thing.

TS: Let's talk about another reality of modern dating. What role does the Internet play in today’s relationships? Find his answer, as well as his thoughts on divorce, after the jump!

MR: An increasing one, in two obvious ways: porn and social networking. The effects of both are corrosive, though the latter not quite as much as the former. Porn is a social problem because women have to compete with it, which of course further lowers the value of what she has that he wants. And "if you can’t beat them, join them" mentality won’t cut it, either. Think about it: women on average aren’t attracted to porn. Sex therapists’ advice to them to try to join their partner in watching it reveals just how weak a position women occupy in this sexual economy. They’re supposed to do things they’d rather not because to avoid doing so feels — to them and their therapist — as if it puts the relationship at risk. This is not good. Additionally, modern porn, I suspect, takes some share of men off the marriage market (possibly permanently), leaving an unknown number of women who will not find a mate. Such men seem content to masturbate their way into the future. I discuss this more in the book.

Social networking is, like digital porn, a part of the modern world. It’s probably not going away. But it does nothing to contest the "hook-up" mentality, as well as the instability of relationships. Social networking is about keeping options open — the opposite of committing. You can stay loosely connected with former sexual partners (which is a terrible idea). Men especially like that last one; it allows them to keep in touch with past sexual partners, who — they hope — may yet sleep with them again.

TS: There’s evidence that couples who marry young have a higher rate of divorce, so how come you support marrying young?

MR: While I’m a fan of marrying relatively young — which infuriates many people — I’m not a fan of marrying just to be married. And I don’t think marrying before 21 is a good idea, although we all know people who have and have made it work well. Basically, I don’t think women should waste time, thought, and especially sex — remember, it’s a resource that has value — on men who are going nowhere. But in an era when women no longer need men — they want them, but don’t need them — we’re seeing plenty of wasted sex, sex with men who don’t love them, won’t do much for them, and have no interest in (and often no talent at) commitment. So women should be picky about men, both in sex and marriage.

We also tend to think too passively about divorce. We act like it’s something that unavoidably "happens to" people. But divorce is a choice, by at least one party. My wife and I long ago agreed to shut that back door, lock it, and throw away the key. I find that when divorce is not an option, I work harder at solving marital problems.

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