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Are Marriage Rates Declining Because Of Cheap Sex?

Some argue premarital sex without commitment makes marriage superfluous.

Key points

  • Individuals are capable of separating sex and romance.
  • Marriage is not declining but merely being postponed.
  • Gay people have much to teach straight people regarding sex and romance.

Many have speculated as to why fewer women and men in the United States are marrying compared to earlier generations. Is it due to the growing economic independence of women? Is it because men do not want to be tied down to just one person for life? Are young people rejecting traditional notions of marriage as a lifelong commitment? Perhaps the number of “marriage-material individuals” has so declined that it is more difficult to find a suitable partner. Perhaps the ready availability of porn to satisfy sexual needs reduces the need for marriage.

Kabuto 7, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Kabuto 7, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Statistics that might be relevant indicate that the vast majority of individuals have premarital sex, both casual and attached. Thus, marriage is not a necessary ritual or means to engage in sex, certainly during young adulthood. We also know that sexual minority individuals have not been unencumbered with navigating these issues for decades. But what about heterosexual individuals?

Sociologists Nicholas Wolfinger and Samuel Perry addressed the question: “Is there evidence that never-married persons with multiple sex partners (indicating they not only can, but do more readily access sexual activity with less long-term commitment) are less likely to get married?” Perhaps if both women and men have multiple non-marital sex partners then it reduces their incentives to marry. Although this might be expected of men, if women also have multiple sex partners, perhaps their desirability in the eyes of men as spouses is reduced. This is the position of sociologist Mark Regnerus, who argued that with so much cheap sex (non-marital sex or “no-strings-attached sex”) available, women lose their bargaining power to demand from men a long-term commitment. Although other, non-religion-based researchers might not phrase women’s dilemma in the same way, it is a common belief.

Using data from two national surveys, Wolfinger and Perry sought to determine whether having “a higher number of non-marital sex partners lowered the likelihood that people would eventually get married.” They first found that the association between engaging in multiple non-marital sex partners and marriage rates is true, but only temporarily so. That is, it was true in the short term but not in long-term marriage prospects. They concluded that researchers who incriminate the ready availability of casual sex in the U.S. as the contributory factor in the retreat from marriage are misguided.

Although having multiple premarital sex partners might affect the age at which people marry, ultimately, they are as likely to marry as those without this history. The sociologists concluded, “Spouses-to-be may have extensive sexual biographies, but they will become monogamous when they are ready to get married.” Of course, that conclusion is true for some men and women but certainly not all.

Wolfinger and Perry noted other problems with the cheap sex argument. First, most Americans prioritize lasting relationships over serial liaisons. Second, single women’s sexual activities do not detract from their desire to marry. Third, men tend not to see sexually experienced women as undesirable marriage partners. Fourth, American culture has largely decoupled sex from marriage.

My Take

Though perceived as outcasts for much of history, non-heterosexuals in the U.S. have shown heterosexuals that it is possible to have sex before marriage and still maintain loving, life-affirming romantic relationships. They have taught us that sex and romance are not necessarily one and the same, and that it is possible to negotiate between the two in their relationships. Straight people are now beginning to work out their sexual and romantic issues taking into consideration the experiences of gay people.

References

Wolfinger, N.H. & Perry S.L. (forthcoming). Does a longer sexual resume affect marriage rates? Social Science Research.

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