IN A COLLEGE CAMPUS STUDY in 1989, physically attractive people approached opposite-sex students and asked, “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” Not a single woman said yes, but seventy-five percent of men accepted the invitation. This gender disparity forms the basis of the theory of “sexual economics,” which starts from the familiar premise that most guys want sex to be as easy as possible. Women generally want something else to be provided first, often along the lines of commitment, affection, security, love (perhaps you have heard this list before). These things constitute the “price” of sex for men. The going rate is governed by the norms in a given milieu, in much the same way that housing costs are determined by a local market. Since everyone is keen to (inconspicuously) compare notes, a web of interconnection takes shape so that each transaction has some effect on the marketplace as a whole.
Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, sociologists both, rely heavily on this theory to explain the sex lives of young adults today. The rise of “the hookup culture” at colleges, they argue, can be attributed in part to the increasing scarcity of men on campus—an oversupply of sellers works to a buyer’s advantage. Sexual economics also suggests that many women look unkindly on promiscuous members of the same sex out of the same impulse that makes retailers angry when Wal-Mart comes to town: they are being undersold, and now they have to give discounts or lose customers.
Regnerus and Uecker are either indifferent or tin-eared about how distasteful this idea is:
Sex might cost little or nothing—a few drinks or some attention and compliments, or simply a promise to be discreet about the liaison. Typically it’s more expensive than that, such as a perceived commitment to being in an exclusive relationship for a while. The highest price a man can pay is a lifetime promise to share all his wealth, income, and affections with a woman exclusively.
Equating an intimate act to a business transaction is not only crass and reductive; it is also analytically misleading. The analogy to commerce implies an adversarial situation wherein the buyer always wants to pay the minimum and the seller wants to get the maximum. But men often find themselves bestowing attention, falling in love, and getting married after they have already been sleeping with the woman in question. Sexual economics has trouble accounting for that. Men willingly overspend, which describes approximately no one who buys a car. Similarly, the pay-for-play hypothesis fails to capture the fact that most women do not want to extract caring and love from a person disinclined to offer it, and they do not see sex as something they wish they could avoid until marriage.
Of course Regnerus’s and Uecker’s analysis bears some resemblance to reality. Any straight nightlife spot will illustrate that there is a market for sex in which, as a rule, men represent the demand side of the equation and women the supply side. While hope for a deal may abound on both sides, women are looking for good reasons to make one, which sets off a collective merry-go-round of shopping and haggling. That this concept is not terribly surprising represents a problem for the book. Shaky when you examine it closely, the sexual economics theory in its broad outline seems almost trivially true: it describes what we know but does little to explain what we do not understand.
Despite these missteps, however, the book does manage to illuminate some important questions about sex in contemporary America. Based on a combination of data from large research surveys and the authors’ interviews with college students, the book reads at times grimly like an article from an academic journal, but arresting findings periodically appear: a young woman’s attractiveness is statistically irrelevant to how much sex she is having; among female college graduates, politically conservative respondents under twenty-eight were three times more likely to be married, while liberals were fifteen times more likely to be living with a boyfriend; those most able to financially support children are least likely to be having them, which has not yet depopulated the upper-middle class in America, but it has in Spain and Italy; the more sexual partners a woman has had, the more likely it is that she is depressed.
The last fact arises from the discussion of a touchy subject that Regnerus and Uecker handle well: the emotional travails that sexual decisions can bring. Consensual sex, they observe, appears to be an arena of free choice, but in practice it doesn’t quite feel that way, especially for young women. A woman might experience pressure to sleep with her boyfriend—even if he does not apply any pressure—because she thinks four months is a long time for a man to wait. The mix of societal cues that gave her that idea creates a background noise that drowns out the question of her personal willingness. Meanwhile, the boyfriend may be conditioned by Internet porn to think that four minutes is too long to wait, but he may have learned in sex-ed that you never push. We have a conflict, then, among different sexual “scripts,” to use a term Regnerus and Uecker often invoke; various sets of norms as to “what you’re supposed to do” are clashing.
In a chapter called “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” the authors explore the differing scripts in conservative and liberal America. To their credit, here they make things difficult for themselves by discussing not party affiliation alone but a fuzzy yet recognizable constellation of related factors, including religiosity, level of education, and social attitudes. “Reds,” as the book refers to them, are not faring very well at certain measures of family values, including pornography consumption, divorce, and teen pregnancy—the last fact one that Democrats noted with some enthusiasm when the country learned of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy.
“Blues,” though, have their own problems, which Regnerus and Uecker take tentative stabs at addressing. Urban, educated progressives—citizens of what has been called “the NPR archipelago”—use contraception more often, wait longer to marry, and experience fewer divorces. (Many single people who speak fearfully of a 50 percent divorce rate actually face a far lower probability given their circumstances.) This all sounds like success to blues but at lower incomes family stability begins to deteriorate. Blues also suffer more often from a problem very difficult to quantify: confusion. If you believe pornography and cohabitation and premarital sex are wrong, then you will likely feel guilty when you misstep, but at least you know where you stand. Liberals have a hard time articulating what they in fact believe about sex, tending to fall back on a radical tolerance that does not always square well with the emotional weight of the matter.
Lacking a well-defined ethical structure to understand sexual choices, blues seem to wish away the idea that such a structure might be worth having. (“It’s up to you to decide. Just use protection.”) But as Regnerus and Uecker show, sexual regret is a common phenomenon, arising even from mutual and safe hookups. Some 70 percent of young adults, in one study, think they should have waited longer to lose their virginity. And in a national college survey, nearly as many men as women—73 percent of them—regretted at least one hookup.
Reds who look back on sex they are sorry they had, the authors observe, often describe it as an aberration that does not alter their fundamental outlook; the broken rule remains in effect. But if you are a blue who does not believe in “moral rules” about sex, then a cringe-inducing sexual encounter leaves you to wonder why you are cringing. If God is dead and premarital abstinence is an antiquated idea, the source of such regret is mysterious and therefore tough to address. Regnerus and Uecker have not set out to construct a new sexual ethics, and anyone who does so in public tends to take a beating. But this book, which offers a wide-ranging guide to where we are now, could occasion some thinking about where we want to be.
Evan Hughes is the author of the upcoming book Literary Brooklyn, to be published in August.