Considering “Sex is Cheap” and the Outrage it Caused

When Slate published an article called “Sex is Cheap” by Mark Regnerus earlier this week, people went a little apeshit about it. Regnerus’s main point in the feature was that while young men these days seem to be falling behind the benchmarks made by their predecessors in the academic and professional arenas, they are still king in one very important part of life: sex. According to the article, his research for a book called “Pre-Marital Sex in America” has led him to understand that the more women rise to power in the rest of the world, the “cheaper” sex becomes for both sexes. When there are more women than men in the boardroom and the classroom, he argues, it’s easier to get sex in the bedroom and therefore women are putting up with a lot of, well, losers. And giving up sex earlier in relationships. And not demanding commitment or marriage in return. And a whole lot of other rather silly things that may or may not be true, but which Regnerus seems to find generally morally lax.

Well, that’s his opinion. When I read the article, I’ll admit, I got annoyed. “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,” for instance, really annoyed me. So, what, that means that women across the board all want romance, long-term commitments, and no test-driving before marriage? That’s silly. And, “the market ‘price’ of sex is currently very low. There are several likely reasons for this. One is the spread of pornography: Since high-speed digital porn gives men additional sexual options—more supply for his elevated demand—it takes some measure of price control away from women. The Pill lowered the cost as well…. The sexual decisions of young women look more like those of men than they once did” also got to me. Sure, the Pill allowed women to use sex for pleasure without worrying about pregnancy, but now we’ve got STDs to worry about in its place. And porn being real competition in the bedroom? Come on, that argument is so over-used it hardly even bears consideration.

But I was able to turn the computer off after reading this without being livid. After all, some of the points he made, while being couched in decidedly fuddy-duddy old-fashioned language, were interesting and based on some generally accepted scientific evidence. And I’m not exactly a newbie at reading things about women and sex that are annoying.

But apparently a whole lot of other people got much more than annoyed by this article. Violet Blue, over at open source sex, for one. Violet is one my favorite feminist sex bloggers because she never holds any punches on what she really thinks about a topic, and she’s usually right on the bullseye with her opinions. But this time… Eh…

She’s right to be pissed off that Slate allowed Regnerus to go on a slut-shaming rant that suggested that women SHOULD want marriage and monogamy and all the other things we’ve spent so long trying to prove that we DON’T always want, that in fact those things we’ve been told to want for centuries are the very things that kept us down in the first place. But I’m not so sure as Violet that Regnerus is wrong in every way, nor that his often-overgeneralized assumptions about sex and relationships and man- and womankind are all wrong.

For instance, while Violet never says this explicitly, she suggests that women withholding sex until they have some kind of commitment in place or at least promised is an outdated and dangerous ideal that should have gone out with June Cleaver. But why? Sure, a lot of us don’t hold off anymore, and we certainly don’t have to if we don’t want to. I’m a big fan of jumping into bed whenever you feel comfortable. But does female sexual empowerment necessarily HAVE to mean that we don’t withhold sex until we’re sure it’s worth it? There are still STDs out there, and no matter how long you’ve been on the Pill or the whatever, you can still get pregnant. And, hey, maybe it’s not worth having sex with a guy until you know you like and trust him. I don’t think that Violet would argue with any of that, but the way she phrased her vitriolic reactions to Regnerus’s implications that many women used to do this and are doing it less these days makes it seem as if she thinks sex should, to the enlightened man and the enlightened woman, be a zero sum game with no consequences that we SHOULD enter into anytime we want without much consideration. I just don’t agree wholeheartedly with that notion. Sex does have its consequences, whether emotional, physical, or maternal, and for many women it’s still not worth taking those risks until they are certain it will pay off. Sure, women like Violet and myself may prize the ideal of intelligent, professional women enjoying sex for its own sake and not making it a political move within the context of a relationship or non-relationship, but it’s just unrealistic to pretend that women DON’T do this. I know plenty of women who do, and though it seems callous and backwards sometimes, they have their reasons. Of course I wish they didn’t use it in such a callous way, but they do. No matter how high your ideals about womanhood and sexuality, when one looks at humanity in general and the ways in which people behave, treating sex as a bargaining tool is one of our most common practices. Clicking our tongues and acting morally superior to this kind of behavior doesn’t change it; all we can do is not treat it as such in our personal lives and tell others why it’s a good idea to do the same.

I think the key with these issues is to learn not to judge women who jump into bed whenever they want to (Regnerus could, very clearly, use a lesson on this topic), but not to judge women who DON’T, either. I agree that sex should be more than a tool for bartering, but sometimes a tool for bartering becomes one of the many other things that sex is, and as one of the greatest desires of both men and women the world over, shouldn’t its value be high? Can’t we recognize that its value is high and just let that be the truth, then act according to our own principles? I guess not: Violet says that Regnerus is telling us, “If you were a powerful woman, your sexual behavior would reflect your vigilance against tarnishing your impurity. Women should be exchanging sex for commitment.” I’m not sure he’s saying that so much as that, for centuries, this is how people thought. The changes in our sexual behavior might mean something…

I agree with Violet that the slut-shaming tone Regnerus takes is lamentable. And I don’t LIKE a lot of what he’s saying, no matter what his tone is. I don’t agree that sex is all tied to dreams of marriage and children and commitment and a white picket fence these days, and I don’t think it ever should have been or ever should be, and Regnerus should certainly be taken to task for having written an article that implies that he thinks it should. (Hey, Regnerus, those are the kinds of things you should keep to yourself n this day and age if you really believe them. Or you should at least not publish them in a huge media outlet like Slate if you don’t want lots of women hunting you down.) But Violet says, “Regnerus explains in detail that women are sexual gatekeepers for men. Do not want. And when we do decide to give it up, we don’t seem to want anything – or enough – in return. The whores are not charging enough.” I’m not sure he deserves THAT kind of treatment. As he points out, the cost of sex for women is lower than ever before–the Pill DID liberate us, largely, from fear of pregnancy. The sexual revolution helped us learn that we can use our bodies as we want. Digital pornography should never be treated like a replacement for a partner, by either men or women, but sometimes it might very well be used that way. I’m not saying I like what this guy’s saying or agree with all of it, Violet, but I’m not sure he’s all that wrong about every detail, either.

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