The Bitter Fruit of the Sexual Revolution

Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying

  • Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker
  • Oxford University Press, 2010; 312 pages, $24.95

Although written two centuries ago, the novels of Jane Austen remain a fascination with many young adults living on this side of the Atlantic. It is hard to imagine a cultural setting and a set of characters more unfamiliar to the modern-day reader. The value placed on self-restraint, decorum, and propriety in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility is utterly at odds with the value placed today on self-expression, idiosyncrasy, and atomic individualism. Yet, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker’s meticulously researched and well-written book on the emotional and sexual ethos of America in 2011 goes a long way in explaining why these seemingly anachronistic stories retain their immediacy. The touching innocence, moral certainty, and kindness of Jane Austen’s heroines and the comforting chivalry, moral excellence and noblesse oblige of her heroes provide a welcome respite from the often cynical and emotionally brutal and unromantic world of young readers of the twenty-first century.

Indeed, Premarital Sex in America provides a compelling, yet sober snapshot of that twenty-first century world. Packed with key findings of the authors’ extensive quantitative and qualitative research, the book chronicles the romantic and sexual lives of “emerging adults” from ages 18 to 23. It is frankly disturbing; parts are not for the faint of heart, nor at times, for the faint of stomach. The two sociologists lament that, because of the increase in the age at first marriage, “more and more premarital sex is occurring than ever before” and that the term “has lost most of its association with marriage” altogether. They explain that “a good life in the minds of many Americans now involves delayed marriage and childbearing but accelerated sex.”

The book employs a valuable explanatory framework. The scholars explore the impact of two parallel influences—“sexual scripting and sexual economics”—on young people. On sexual economics, they note: “Men would pay the more expensive price for sex—whatever that price should happen to be. In other words, men will work for sex. But they won’t if they don’t have to.” Likewise, on scripting: “If a critical mass of men and women enjoy an extended series of sexual relationships and expect sex fairly promptly within them, it becomes quite difficult for a minority to do otherwise.”

The confluence of these two forces on the lives of young people is heart-breaking, judging from the authors’ plaintive observations of interviewees. For instance, of one young man: “He hopes to get married someday and have lots of kids; children made his parents happy, he notes. How to get from here to there is not on his mind, however.” Or of young women trying to adapt to a culture of sex without commitment: “The challenge, of course, is getting one’s heart to care less.” And the young woman who thought that sex would yield commitment from a man, not the other way around: “Given emerging-adult women’s interest in security, it’s a noble sentiment. It just doesn’t work. Many women who agree to sex early in a relationship hope for a degree of ‘appreciation’ in return, but sex bargained for too early . . . seldom generates something so ambitious as a commitment to fidelity and security.”

A key theme of the portrait painted by the sociologists is “serial monogamy”—the practice of numerous intense, but short-term relationships. In the authors’ characterization:

Most sex—indeed, the vast majority—is still experienced in romantic relationships. However, many of these relationships are fragile and end within six months. . . . So while young Americans don’t do commitmentless sex for very long, neither do they keep romantic-relationship commitments for very long.

The result seems to be confusion and emotional turmoil. The book notes that many, perhaps most, young people “reflect negatively on the circumstances in which—or the timing of when—they lost their virginity.” The research demonstrates that men with fewer partners report less depression and women who have more partners are also more likely to experience depression and poor emotional health.

The difficulties associated with a culture that maintains little or no boundaries around sexual behavior are felt acutely by women since “serial monogamy . . . hurts women far more than it does men.” The authors explain that, among young women, “Many don’t sense that they have control of the sexual aspect of their relationship.” In this domain, “women tend to lose power, as Kathleen Bogle notes in her study of college hookups. Initiating sex with men—especially early—hands men the keys to the future of the relationship.” They also note:

The losers in this discounted sexual marketplace are clearly women who would prefer a high price for sex: those who want to remain virgins until marriage (and yet who wish to get married). They are increasingly put in a bind in their pursuit of a lifelong relationship, constrained by how the sexual decisions of their peers alter market expectations about the price of sex. Many feel pressure to “take what they can get” and commence a sexual relationship with a marriage-minded man before marriage, or risk the real possibility that in holding out for a chaste man to marry they will wait a lot longer than they would like to, watching the pool of available, ideal men shrink before their eyes.

The problems facing young adults, particularly young women, are not limited to emotional trauma. Regnerus and Uecker note that sexually transmitted infections “are a growing problem among emerging adults.” More ominous is their report that “while the boundary between legal and illegal sexual activity may be codified, emerging adults often convey a reality that is a lot more blurry.” As a result: “If we could convey a series of key revelations from our in-person interviews with emerging adult women, one of them would be just how many of them have experienced either actual or attempted sexual assaults.”

The authors’ observations point to the obvious question: where are the parents and teachers in the lives of emerging adults? In answering that question, the researchers note: “American parents’ oversight of their teenage and young-adult children tends to be wide but shallow, resulting in children who long for—but seldom experience—real intimacy with their parents. Instead of pursuing a deeper relationship, many parents settle for just knowing that their kids are ‘safe.’” Addressing the failure of most young-adult relationships to endure, the authors say:

Reasons for their termination are numerous, of course, but one overlooked possibility is that many of them don’t know how to get or stay married to the kind of person they’d like to find. For not a few, their parents provided them with a glimpse into married life, and what they saw at the dinner table—if they dined with their parents much at all—didn’t look very inviting.

Of course, the entertainment industry is quick to fill the vacuum created by the reluctance of parents, teachers, and grown-ups to provide moral guidance. The authors implicate “the Internet as both a sex educator and sexual-activity stimulator, bar none.” Responding to the ludicrous assertion that the media do not promote problematic behaviors, the authors claim the media’s influence is indeed powerful. They point to the popular television and film series Sex in the City “whose effect on how women collegians think about sex can hardly be overestimated.” Hollywood’s portrayals of sexual behavior, they believe, skew decision-making by young people “by limiting access to alternative scripts.”

Peers only reinforce the media captivity of the young. The book explains: “While it’s true that not everyone on campus is having sex, if students believe they are, then their own sexual pursuits tend to become more urgent.” Looking at media portrayals of both the real and imagined behaviors of their peers, few will find it surprising that “while there has always been the possibility of casual sex and short-term sexual relationships that didn’t imply romance or commitment, imaging them in their own lives is becoming easier and more attractive.” These sources are blatantly ill-adapted in helping young adults achieve goals related to marriage and family life. Young adults, the scholars observe,

hold the institution of marriage in high regard, and they put considerable pressure—probably too much—on what their own eventual marriage ought to look like. And yet it seems that there is little effort from any institutional source aimed at helping emerging adults consider how their present social, romantic, and sexual experiences shape or war against their vision of marriage—or even how marriage might fit in with their other life goals.

When it comes to the eventual transition to marriage, “For many, it won’t occur smoothly because it was never advocated or modeled.”

These are the children of the revolution. The sexual revolution that decimated traditional standards and sources of moral authority in one generation is bearing bitter fruit in the lives of the second. A young woman quoted in the book says: “I think the sexual revolution was a big joke.” But as the compelling research in Premarital Sex reveals, the joke isn’t funny as it plays out in the lives of young people. Today’s young adults are undeniably well-off and thriving materially. They enjoy opportunities and resources unheard of, even among their boomer parents. In terms of family and moral life, however, the appropriate analogy may be the packs of near-feral children who roamed about the countryside after the Communist revolution in Russia. Cut off from the hard-won lessons of tradition, they are emotionally (and sometimes physically) vulnerable not only to predators but also to the consequences of bad choices, consequences that still rear their ugly heads, even in the face of denial.

Indeed, Regnerus and Uecker suggest that those who are most successful in holding out against the tide of promiscuity are those who draw on older, pre-revolutionary traditions, especially those rooted in religious faith. In describing characteristics of the “increasingly unique group” of young people who retain their virginity into their 20s, they note this group is “more religious, especially in terms of how central it is to their identity.” They cite research demonstrating that “religiosity is often the primary reason for maintaining virginity into the 20s.”

Here too, Austen’s novels resonate. Her heroines may have lacked parental oversight but were successful in achieving happiness, especially marital bliss, by drawing on older traditions and bedrock moral foundations. Reinforced by the impressive findings of this book, that insight of Jane Austen is a lesson that emerging adults cannot ignore.

Mr. Duncan is the executive director of the Marriage Law Foundation.