Cheap Sexism and Intellectual Dishonesty about Marriage

By William K. Black
October 2, 2017     Kansas City, MO

This is the second column in my series about win-win strategies to strengthen the family and countering the conservative culture warriors who use the family as a means to oppose win-win solutions that bring people together.  Mark Regnerus is one of the most notorious of these hard right culture warriors.  He is the disgraced pseudo-scholar who right-wing groups funded to try to gin up evidence that same sex marriage harmed children.  His efforts collapsed in an embarrassing spectacle that made clear that his dogmas rule his work.

Regnerus is back in the Wall Street Journal flogging his new book in an op ed entitled “Cheap Sex and the Decline of Marriage.”  He introduces his thesis with the claim that because unmarried heterosexual women are willing to have sex, tens of millions of men are no longer willing to marry.  If unmarried heterosexual women wish to improve their chances of getting married, they need to be virgins – and convince their sisters to remain virgins until marriage (at an average age of around 28 for college-educated women).

In Regnerus’ mythology, unmarried heterosexual men are not supposed to be the problem.  Regnerus’ view is that “boys will be boys.”  I begin with Regnerus’ discussion of economics.

Many economists and sociologists argue that this flight from marriage is about men’s low wages. If they were higher, the argument goes, young men would have the confidence to marry. But recent research doesn’t support this view. A May 2017 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, focusing on regions enriched by the fracking boom, found that increased wages in those places did nothing to boost marriage rates.

In my first column in this series I demonstrated that there is strong, broad economic support for the finding that increased financial stability is strongly associated with increasing working class men’s marriage prospects.

Regnerus’ claim that fracking boom marriage rates prove that “research” does not support the importance of male working class jobs to their marriage prospects is nonsensical.  First, economists and sociologists do not believe that the important factor is whether “young men” “have the confidence to marry.”  The key factor is whether unmarried heterosexual women view working class men as having reliable income and work and family habits that lead them to view the men as potentially marriageable.

A fracking boom is exceptionally unlikely to produce a near term marriage boom.  The regional fracking booms brought unexpected wealth to regions that were suffering from the Great Recession and were often relatively poor rural counties that had been suffering population out migration.  Women are more likely to lead that migration from rural counties, particularly women who are better educated and more likely to marry.  Fracking jobs are overwhelmingly male.  No one thinks this combination will lead to a marriage boom coincident with the fracking boom.  It is more likely to encourage first an influx of prostitutes.  The fracking boom, in many locations, also proved ephemeral when oil and gas prices fell sharply.  If fracking produces reliable, stable jobs that persist for many years it will produce increased marriage, just as mining towns eventually transformed from male enclaves to towns that attracted women.

The fracking study proves nothing about the importance of heterosexual working class males having steady jobs to make women view them as potentially marriageable.  Regnerus writes as if heterosexual unmarried men are the key decision makers about marriage, saying that they are deciding to delay the age at which they marry, but failing to mention why.  Increasingly, Americans marry after they get college and post-graduate degrees and secure stable employment.  College graduates are far more likely to have marriages that do not end in divorce.  Americans who marry at age 30 produce a much lower divorce rate than those with similar education that marry young.

Regnerus then bemoans the consequences of effective birth control that unmarried women can unilaterally use and the fact that effective contraception increased women’s education and paid jobs, which “reduced their dependence on men.”

This transformation was driven in part by birth control. Its widespread adoption by women in recent decades not only boosted their educational and economic fortunes but also reduced their dependence on men. As the risk of pregnancy radically declined, sex shed many of the social and personal costs that once encouraged women to wait.

Regnerus’ lament that birth control and reduced discrimination against women “boosted their educational and economic fortunes” “but” “reduced their economic dependence on men.”  Consider why he used “but” rather than “and” in that sentence.  All three of the changes he described are highly desirable, so he should have used “and.”  He used “but” because he views the decline in female dependence on male income as undesirable.

Regnerus cites another devilish influence, overwhelmingly on males.  Regnerus does not understand that this influence undermines his thesis about women and “cheap sex.”

Online porn has made sexual experience more widely and easily available too. A laptop never says no, and for many men, virtual women are now genuine competition for real partners. In the same survey, 46% of men (and 16% of women) under 40 reported watching pornography at some point in the past week—and 27% in the past day.

Under Regnerus’ logic, this primarily male obsession with masturbating to porn (Regnerus’ euphemism for masturbation is “sexual experience”) makes his hope that women will adopt a strategy of maintaining virginity into their late 20s and early-to-mid-30s even more dubious because ‘porny’ males prefer their laptop to real women.  Worse, Regnerus believes that males do so because the laptop “never says no.”  More precisely, porn makes male sexual dominance and female submission a ‘sure thing’ that leads to the guaranteed fulfillment of each heterosexual male’s particular sex fantasies.

One might think that Regnerus’ take on porn would cause him to stress the need to reforming male pathologies, but the right celebrates the paramount male pathology of male dominance and fetishized female submission.  Regnerus’ euphemism for male dominance is men’s “mercenary attitude toward relationships.”  Regnerus’ op ed ends without even a whimper of a plea to deal with the paramount male pathology.  It turns out that the problem that Regnerus has identified lies overwhelmingly with males, not women.  Moreover, the problem is not with women’s supposed willingness to say ‘yes’ to “cheap sex,” but with males’ addiction to the sexual dominance of the fictional submissive woman of porn who “never says no” to their particular sexual fantasies.

The porn problem according to Regnerus is not that women say “yes” to men’s sexual desires, but that they say “no” to their sexual fantasies and to sex.  This contradicts Regnerus’ thesis that marriage is in trouble because women are too willing to say “yes.”

Regnerus, to his horror, has embraced Catherine MacKinnon’s most famous feminist views of male dominance, fetishized female submission, and porn.  Regnerus champions traditional sex roles, so his dogmas trap him.  He cannot offer any solution to his own (false) statement of the problem because any solution would have to embrace the feminism that he despises and fears.  He can offer no way out of his dystopia of dominance by males that even he labels “mercenary.”  His op ed does not even try to offer solutions.

Regnerus is the mercenary’s mercenary.  He makes women the villains in a phony culture war in which his ‘evidence’ shows that men should be his villain.  It would be vastly more productive to end the culture war, stop demonizing men or women as villains, and employ win-win solutions such as the job guarantee to strengthen marriage.  People of goodwill anywhere on the political spectrum from progressive to conservative should support the job guarantee program and a policy of maintaining full employment.

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