Red Sex

(This is an excerpt from my 2011 book Premarital Sex in America…)

Martin was a 19-year-old from Virginia when our research team spoke with him for the second time. He had tried college but had dropped out after a year. It just wasn’t for him. Instead, he settled comfortably back into his working-class roots, becoming an electrician. By ignoring the popular narrative that said he needed a college education to successfully navigate life, Martin had found his niche. And a girlfriend. Not terribly religious and yet very culturally conservative, Martin is one face of “red” America.

Although sexually experienced with a previous girlfriend, Martin wasn’t having sex at age 19 because he was dating Bethany, the 15-year-old daughter of a police officer. Indeed, sex with her would’ve been against the law, and he was well aware of that. But the two were hardly unsexual. Martin said they did “everything but,” a common revelation. A vocal opponent of homosexual behavior, Martin is more conservative about others’ sexual decisions than his own. Although he believes the Bible says that sex before marriage is wrong, he adds, “A lot of it, I think, has to do with society to a certain extent.” While it’s not exactly clear what he means by that, we suspect it’s a way of claiming that sex is normal relationship behavior today, regardless of what might have been acceptable in the past. Like many conservatives, he offers a nod to the standard while excusing his diversion from it: “I’ll tell you, I believe in it. But I’m not perfect. . . . I mean nobody is. But I’ll be the first person to tell you I’m not.”

While premarital sex has largely dropped off the map of salient issues among many conservatives, marriage has not [Read more...]

Nonmonogamy? Not yet.

“Nonmonogamy” is a gentle mouthful of a word, a polite replacement of sorts for “promiscuity” and “infidelity” in the lexicons of cosmopolitans. The same kind of transformation has happened to “virginity loss,” “cheating,” and “prostitute,” terms no longer considered appropriate for the more sex-positive among us. In their place we now have sexual debut, extradyadic sex, and sex worker, respectively. As a student of young Americans’ sexual behavior, I’ve found that the lingo alone requires effort to master. But neither my word processor nor even most of my hipster neighbors recognize the legitimacy of nonmonogamy—the practice of supplementing a primary sexual partner with one or more others.

Serial monogamy, however, is another story. In fact, it’s the primary sexual script among young adults today. And it’s into this pattern that most Americans of any age put their energy. You’re only allowed one sexual partner at a time, and to overlap is to cheat, and cheating remains a serious norm violation that gives the victimized party not just the uncontested right but often a perceived moral obligation to end the relationship. And that, argues the authors of Sex at Dawn, is a problem.

Apparently we didn’t just evolve from apes. We are apes. When it comes to matters of sex, authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá charge, we haven’t really even evolved. Although we more closely mimic chimpanzees, who fight and feud over sex, we would do well—the authors assert—to mimic the Bonobo, that amiable chimp cousin who appears both gracious and generous in its sexual expressions. Bonobos resolve their power issues with sex. And their anxiety issues. And pretty much any issue. Make love, not war, is their mantra.

Monogamy, Ryan and Jethá claim, is not natural. [Read more...]

Contraception, Cheap Sex, and the Nonmarital Birth Rate

Every once in a while something in the New York Times will bring a smile to my face and offer hope. Well, that wasn’t this week, yet again. In Saturday’s edition came the discouraging news that over half of babies born to American women under age 30 are being born to unmarried mothers. Since the overall total is 41 percent, it means women over age 30 are more apt to be married when childbearing. But I think most reasonable people can still agree that it’s better—on average—when fathers are engaged in their children’s lives than when they’re not.

Now, I haven’t come down too hard on contraception in my previous writings and two books, but it boggles my mind to think that the logical answer to slowing the skyrocketing nonmarital fertility rate is to pump more (and free) birth control into the relationship system (which is also called the mating market, and once was called the marriage market, back when the pursuit of sex and the timing of marriage were more tightly connected). It’s a little like printing money to stimulate an economy: it sounds like a helpful thing, it could work, but it may backfire, and it’s hard to know with confidence what exactly will happen, and whatever happens may well generate unintended consequences, but it sounds noble because at least it’s doing something.

To be sure, contraceptive usage prevents very many pregnancies—duh—but what it doesn’t prevent is all of them, given normal contraceptive failure rates (which vary) and the fact that many people don’t use them correctly (due to lots of reasons, ignorance being only one of them). But what I think typically gets left out of discussions about contraception—because it’s challenging to accurately discern it [Read more...]

If rescue dogs are the only legitimate dogs today, are rescue humans next?

Apparently we now own a rescue dog, a term I was entirely unfamiliar with a mere 5-10 years ago. The Regnerus family was not, so far as I knew, in the market for a dog, although cute canines calculatingly kenneled in front of PetSmart, Petco, or some other such big box brand never failed to attract my children’s attention on the way to the grocery store. And that is how we eventually wound up with a dog, my first since a nine-year stint with a beloved dachshund that ended in 1989, when he was put down. He needed expensive back surgery (to walk), and well, people just didn’t do that for dogs back then like they seem to today.

Be that as it may, I find myself mulling over this rescue dog phenomenon. It seems to be a cultural badge of honor for the owner (or master, or whatever we’re called today—but please, not “mommy” or “daddy”). Dogs acquired the old-fashioned way, by a breeder, have become passé, somehow inferior. In 1980, my parents acquired Cinnamon, the family dachshund, for 50 bucks from a breeder in rural Sumner, Iowa. It seemed like a good deal at the time, and certainly in hindsight. Perhaps AKC-registered dogs are much more expensive today—I don’t know. But our rescue dog, a mostly lab, part hound mix, cost more than that just to acquire her from a rescue organization planted in front of PetSmart. I realize Austin is weird, and that we’re supposed to keep it that way, but the legitimacy issue here is striking [Read more...]


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