Red Sex

Red Sex March 5, 2012

(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. Marriage is a central institution in Martin’s mind, not so much because it alone ought to contain sexual behavior, but because marriage is about children, and it’s “what good people do.” Martin sees himself as increasingly old school, a hallmark of many reds and the plain definition of conservative: “I don’t think you should have kids outside of marriage. . . . That’s just somethin’ I’ve never believed in.” Sex–and even brief periods of cohabitation–are acceptable, but both must serve marriage, not subvert it. “I think marriage is, you know, that’s an agreement. That’s not something that should be broken up,” he asserted.

Fast forward to age 22, and Martin is still seeing Bethany–she’s now his fiancée. Three years older, he waxes nearly verbatim on the subjects of marriage and morality. Since she’s no longer underage, the two are sexually active. He stays over at her house on weekends and sleeps in her bedroom. Her parents are fine with it.

Martin nevertheless asserts that the right thing to do would have been to wait, but that was unrealistic “in this day and age,” and he never really gave it much thought. Instead, he too is living out the story of emerging adulthood, albeit more rapidly than many of his college peers, whose fun and “rebellion” against institutional expectations is delayed: “I was raised . . . [like] what I’ve seen: You’re born, you go through your teenage years, you have your fun, you settle down, you get married, you have your family, you raise the family, the cycle starts over. It’s just, it’s the way things go. And it’s just the cycle of the world, I guess would be the best way to put it.”

Martin hopes to marry Bethany in two years. Building some financial security before marriage and children is important to him–he currently lives at home for free–and Bethany will help. In fact, Martin is counting on her income not just now but far into the future. In that, he’s like 74 percent of unmarried American young men who agree that “any woman you would consider marrying should be able to work steadily and contribute to the family’s income.” Married women with children in red America value–or at least need–employment no less than those in blue America.

This is red sex, or at least one very common representation of it. It is the face of the rural and small-town and some suburbs in the South, Midwest, and West. It’s romantic. It’s fairly relational. It’s quick to sex and nearly as quick to marry. It’s mindful of and  deferential toward organized Christianity. It bears children early and more often than does blue sex. It publicly balks at abortion yet experiences no shortage of them. It tolerates divorce–sometimes several of them–because a happy marriage is a key piece of the American good life.

Although Martin’s story may look more like redneck sex than anything else, his is not the only form of red sex. But it’s certainly one common pattern repeated regularly in our interviews with emerging adults. And although we will spend time here documenting the differences between red sex and blue sex, where reds and blues differ most profoundly is not in the sex itself or the sexual partners. Where they differ more obviously is in the place of sex in life, the relative importance and order of sex vis-à-vis marriage and family, and the appropriate ages for each stage. For conservatives–whether they’re evangelical or Catholic or not very religious at all–sexual relationships are meant to foster or follow marriage, even if they don’t. Their cohabitation patterns more closely predict subsequent marriage than do those of other American religious traditions. And plenty of reds are cohabiting, especially the less religious among them.

While we have suggested that conservatives are uniquely subject to the cultural collision of old-world, family-focused values with the new world’s sexualization of youth, there’s another, simpler explanation to their sexual behavior that is often overlooked. It’s pretty hard to be anti-sex when you’re pro-marriage and pro-family. American conservatives are a relational bunch. Whether they’re religious or not–and there are plenty of both types–conservatives really like ideas and ideals like that of a man and a woman together, romance, home, togetherness, kids, and family–all of which imply sex. This is not to say that their relationships do not struggle and break apart. Many of them do. In that way they are vigorous supporters of the American narrative of serial monogamy. Reds value loyalty and dependability, even if–and perhaps because of–their experiences of veering off of those pathways. In fact, conservative Americans are now regularly reminded that their marital relationships are collapsing at a pace either comparable to or exceeding those of their more liberal and less religious cousins. This shouldn’t surprise anybody, since one cannot get divorced if one is not married, and more liberal Americans are increasingly likely to delay or avoid marriage and cohabit instead. A mature sense of responsibility and marital realities is simply scarce early in emerging adulthood, whether you’re red or blue. And since a developed ethic of marital responsibility eludes many young married reds, plenty divorce.

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  • What do you see happening with Greek sex? That is, sexual norms in a nation where the financial system has broken down and the standard of living is falling?

    Martin nevertheless asserts that the right thing to do would have been to wait, but that was unrealistic “in this day and age,” and he never really gave it much thought.

    This day and age may seem like it’s set in stone, but in the arc of a civilization, the last 40 years aren’t so long at all.

  • I just finished teaching Premarital Sex in America in my “Family Life” class. My students are a mix of reds and blues, so they were interested in this chapter. What got their attention the most, though, was that hooking up was most common at high-standards colleges with a strong Greek system. That is Centre College to a T.

    • Mark Regnerus

      Hi Beau, thanks–of course–for using the text in class. About that correlation–I saw it pretty robustly in the College Women’s Study of 2000. But I have seen other studies fail to confirm it. I think some of it has to do with changing college make-up. Greek systems have typically been a white thing, so far as I can tell. And so some of the Greek influence is probably white, upper-middle-class influence. And they tend to be more sexually permissive than, say, Asian Americans. For example, Stanford–in the latest data I saw–is tamer than I had expected. So I think the emerging story is that elite schools are tending toward less sexual permissiveness, in part as a function of who’s in their student body (i.e., studious, planful kids, Asian-Americans, etc.). Greek systems operate as they long have, fostering imbalanced sex ratios (at parties, etc.) and more sexualization. It’s part of their narrative. On some campuses, you have both, which tends I suspect to foster a bifurcated situation regarding sex.