“Low-Cost Sex” and Young Men’s Desire to Marry
Hookup sex, pornography, and the delay of marriage.
Posted Nov 17, 2020
It used to be that sex wasn’t easy for young men to come by. Fertile young women were closely guarded by their families and often married off to the highest bidder. For the most part, the only way for a young man to get sex was to marry his potential partner, and that came with a lifelong commitment to support her and her offspring.
But with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s, this dynamic fell apart in the Western world. No longer having to fear unwanted pregnancy, women could have sex without demanding a lifelong commitment from their partner. This meant that they could postpone marriage to pursue a career and still get their sexual needs met.
Since there was no longer a stigma against premarital sex, young people could also pursue short-term sexual encounters. With apps like Tinder now widely available, there’s much discussion of “hook-up culture” as a recent phenomenon. In reality, however, young people have been hooking up on college campuses and in bars and clubs for half a century.
During the last five decades, we’ve seen a significant increase in readily available pornography as well, first in the form of “gentlemen’s magazines” and “adult theaters.” As technology advanced, porn movies became available on VHS and other formats that could be viewed in the privacy of people’s homes. And now we have virtually unlimited porn provided for free over the internet.
Today, sex is no longer a “high cost” item for young men. Those with "game" can play in the hookup culture. But even those without the requisite social skills can still experience the excitement of sexual release through masturbation enhanced by high-definition porn and state-of-the-art sex toys.
The ready availability of “low-cost” sexual gratification has worried many social commentators. Specifically, they fear that young men will no longer want to get married because they can get their sexual needs met without the commitment that marriage entails.
Evidence in support of this contention comes from the observation that young people are delaying marriage, and many are choosing not to marry at all. However, are hookups, pornography, and masturbation really the cause of shifting patterns of marriage in Western society? This is the question that University of Oklahoma psychologist Samuel Perry explored in a study he recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
For this study, Perry analyzed data obtained from two different surveys, providing the researcher with data from over 1,700 young men who were not married. Although the questions on each survey were worded differently, both included items about the respondents’ frequency of hookup sex, pornography viewing, and masturbation. They also asked whether the respondent wanted to get married.
Perry tested the hypothesis that young men who frequently avail themselves of “low-cost” methods of sexual gratification would have less desire to get married. This is a concern that has been expressed by social commentators, and it’s based on the argument that young men will have less incentive to pay the “high cost” of marriage when they can meet their sexual needs in a less costly manner. In terms of this study, the prediction was that respondents whose frequency of hookup sex, pornography viewing, and masturbation were high would report lower desire to marry.
However, the data did not fully support this hypothesis. When Perry only looked at the correlation between frequency of hookup sex and desire to marry, he found the data pointed in the predicted direction, but only slightly so. That is to say, young men who found it easy to obtain short-term sexual encounters were somewhat less interested in getting married compared with those who reported few or no hookups. This result is in line with findings from other research showing that people are most content with their single life when their sexual needs are met.
Even so, the evidence doesn’t suggest that young men who frequently hook up aren’t interested in marriage—it’s just that the need isn’t as pressing. This, after all, makes sense. Even if your game is good, finding willing sex partners is time-consuming, so no doubt the availability of a live-in sex partner is appealing.
More importantly, though, Perry found that young men who frequently viewed porn and masturbated had a stronger desire to get married than did those who engaged in these activities less often. In other words, young men don’t view porn and self-stimulation as low-cost alternatives to partnered sex. Rather, they treat these activities as stop-gap measures to achieve some degree of sexual gratification while waiting for a time when they can get their needs met with a regular partner.
The title of Perry’s article poses the question: “Does low-cost sexual gratification make men less eager to marry?” The results of this analysis clearly indicate that the answer is no. Those who frequently engage in hookup sex still express a desire to marry, while those who relied mostly on porn and solo sex for relief expressed an even greater desire to get married.
One explanation for these findings is that frequency of engagement in low-cost sexual activities is an indication of sex drive. People vary widely in how frequently they want sex. Young men with low sex drives would have less incentive to pursue low-cost sexual activities even if they eventually marry for the other benefits that being partnered entails. However, those with high sex drives have a strong desire for a regular sex partner, and they have pressing needs for sexual release that must be met in the meantime.
Young people are delaying marriage compared with previous generations, and many are giving up on it altogether. Based on the data reported here, however, it’s not the availability of low-cost alternatives to sexual gratification that is driving this change. Despite the fact that sexual gratification is easier to achieve today than it has ever been before, young men still aspire to have a committed sexual relationship with another person. It’s just that they now have ways of assuaging their libidos while they’re waiting to meet that special someone.
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Perry, S. L. (2020). Does low-cost sexual gratification make men less eager to marry? Pornography use, masturbation, hookup sex, and desire to be married among single men. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Advance online publication. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01793-w