Commentary Magazine

Premarital Wrecks

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

By Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker
Oxford, 312 pages

A professor at  Notre Dame once lamented to me that the parents he encounters don’t worry that their kids will engage in sexual activity during their undergraduate career. Rather, they fret that students will come home engaged to be married. Forty years ago, who could have imagined that parents would want their children to prolong their “wild” years and put off the responsibilities of grown-up life?

Today, of adults between the ages of 18 and 23, 84 percent report having had premarital sex. Yet even the term “premarital sex” has come to seem quaint. As Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, the authors of Premarital Sex in America, point out, “historically [the phrase] implied a sexual relationship between a couple who eventually got married.” They note that “most sexual relationships among contemporary young adults, however, no longer result in marriage. And an increasing share of American adults aren’t marrying at all.”

This is not to say that casual sex is the norm. In fact, the much-discussed “hookup culture” of continuous, superficial couplings is far less prevalent than Tom Wolfe’s last novel and the explicit brochures on college bulletin boards would have you believe. The authors report that college students tend to be less promiscuous than their non-collegiate peers—the former are too worried about getting pregnant and having their career plans thrown off track to put themselves at risk. But, as it turns out, young people of all educational backgrounds are more likely to engage in serial monogamy—a number of somewhat long-term sexual relationships that may not end in marriage but may look like a practice run of it.

Analyzing a number of studies, including the National Study of Youth and Religion, the National Survey of Family Growth, and the College Social Life Survey, Regnerus and Uecker try to arrive at an understanding of what this serial monogamy looks like, both physically and emotionally, for young adults. Here, they say, is the norm: “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.”

But because young people hear so much about casual sex, they overestimate how many of their peers engage in such behavior. As a result, they tend to feel a greater need to engage in it themselves. In a study of more than 700 undergraduates, “researchers noted that men who considerably overestimated the sexual activity of their male peers were also 11 times more likely to have had sexual intercourse in the past month than were those who underestimated men’s sexual activity.” Indeed, the results of this dynamic can create real problems, especially for women. The authors write: “Unwanted sex is not the domain of uniquely poor relationships; it’s a reality for many of them.” In one study, half of the women and a quarter of the men consented to unwanted sexual activity in the previous two weeks alone.

Young adults have bought into a lot of what Regnerus and Uecker call “sexual scripts.” They believe that marriage is a “sexual letdown” when in fact married people tend to have more regular sex than single ones do. They believe that cohabitation is a good way to strengthen relationships when study after study suggests it is not.

It is little wonder that misperceptions abound, as Regnerus and Uecker also cite pornography as a major source of sexual “information.” Pornography has warped what the authors refer to as the “sexual marketplace.” One young man they interview talks enthusiastically about digital porn. “I think I like my own ‘personal time’ as much as I like having intercourse.” Regnerus and Uecker write that “if porn-and-masturbation satisfies some of the male demand for intercourse—and it clearly does—it reduces the value of real intercourse, access to which women control.” With the supply of sexual outlets rising, the “cost of real sex can only go down, taking men’s interest in making steep relationship commitments with it.”

All this talk of women controlling access to sex will rile feminists, of course. They have told us for years that women should not be society’s designated sexual police force. And yet society seems to have taken little notice. In one study, “researchers asked 242 college students to predict when they expected sexual intercourse to first occur in relationships and when it did.” On a scale from 0 to 1.0, women’s predictions correlated at .88; men’s predictions earned a .19. Women don’t have ESP. They are the ones who decide when sex happens.

If there is a unifying theme to the social science on premarital sex presented in this book, it is that young women have become very poor sexual economists. “Not a few women,” in fact, “imagine that power is found in generating male desire. On the contrary, most any woman with a pulse can generate some desire.” Moreover, the greater availability of women on today’s college campuses drives the cost of sex downward. According to one survey, “recent sex is far more common—with or without a boyfriend—in colleges and universities that have higher numbers of women. . . . Conversely virginity is far more common where women comprise a smaller share of the student body.”

“Just because women control the flow of sex within their relationships does not mean they’re free to do sexually as they please,” the authors caution. They must negotiate the terms of sex within the context of their environment. That environment is what is pushing women to make choices that are in turn making them unhappy.

So how are young adults faring psychologically now that they are having sex earlier and without the commitment that comes with marriage? Well, to begin with, they’re regretful. According to one major study, 70 percent of young adults “reflect negatively on the circumstances in which—or the timing of when—they lost their virginity.” Once again, the women are suffering the most. “Having more numerous sexual partners is associated with poorer emotional states in women, but not men.” Indeed, a number of studies have shown “a linear association between both lifetime and recent partners and indicators of poorer emotional health, and women who report the greatest number of partners display the clearest symptoms of depression.”

Despite decades of feminists telling women they can act like men when it comes to sex, it simply hasn’t worked out that way. As the authors note, “To call the sexual double standard wrong is a little like asserting that rainy days are wrong. We may not like them, but they’re not going away.”

While there is no shortage of unhelpful scripts being offered to young men and women by adults with an ideological ax to grind or some sexually explicit entertainment to sell, the news in this book is not all bad. The serial monogamy practiced by young people tells us that they are still fundamentally attracted to exclusive relationships and that fidelity is one of the most important virtues to them. And, odd as it may seem, the fact that young people aren’t getting married isn’t a sign that they don’t value marriage. In fact, marriage seems so important that they don’t want to get into it unless they are absolutely certain it will work out.

The most damaging script of all may be coming from their own parents, as the Notre Dame professor suggested. Where marriage was once traditionally considered an important step on the road to independence, marriage is now seen as a destination for adults who already have careers and homes and stable bank accounts. For that perspective, and all the problems that come with it, they can thank a generation of parents who seem torn about letting their children grow up.

About the Author

Naomi Schaefer Riley is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values. Her book on tenure in higher education will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in the spring.

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