The past few decades have brought significant change in cultural beliefs and practices in regard to sex and relationships. Will that continue as time goes on? What will the realm of sex and relationships look like in 2030? Few people are better placed to give some predictions for the next decade than Mark Regnerus, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Man, Marriage, and Monogamy.
Cheap Sex is a fascinating analysis of the sexual behaviour of Americans from the perspective of social economics. (This article, written a number of years before the book, outlines the basic idea.) Regnerus makes the case that technological developments – specifically the Pill and internet pornography – have lowered the social and economic cost of sex and in so doing have radically changed the romantic and sexual landscape of America. Though not written for this purpose, Cheap Sex provides a strong critique of the sexual revolution, showing that it is not primarily a triumph of social justice and freedom and that it has failed to deliver what it promised.
In the final chapter of the book, ‘The Genital Life’, Regnerus summarises his thesis:
‘Sex is cheap. It is more widely available, at lower cost to all than ever before in human history. What has emerged is not unlike the decline of the locally owned boutique shops and the rise of big-box, discount chains. Cheap sex has been mass-produced with the help of two distinctive means that have little to do with each other – the wide uptake of the Pill and mass-produced high-quality pornography – and then made more efficient by communication technologies. They drive the cost of sex down, make real commitment more “expensive” and challenging to navigate, have created a massive slow-down in the development of long-term relationships, especially marriage, put women’s fertility at risk – driving up demand for infertility treatments – and have taken a toll on men’s marriageability. The “pure relationship” regime [that is, relationships created and maintained only so long as they bring satisfaction to each party], which has flourished alongside the dramatic rise in cheap sex, is not nearly so consonant with other long-standing priorities like childbearing and relational stability. But it is becoming the norm in the West – the template for evaluating relationship development. And it has changed how men and women perceive themselves, their sexuality, each other, and the point of relationships. Cheap sex does not make marriage unappealing; it just makes marriage less urgent and more difficult to accomplish’ (pp.193-94).
As he closes the book, Regnerus looks forward, offering eight predictions for the year 2030:
- Sex will get even cheaper.
- Age of (sexual) consent laws will be enforced only in the most egregious cases.
- The rising age of first marriage for women will begin to slow and might even peak, but the share of unmarried Americans will continue its upward march unabated.
- After a brief period of pent-up demand, same-sex marriage will recede.
- Men’s sexuality (not just women’s) will become more evidently malleable.
- Polygamy will not make a comeback, but polyamory may emerge as a minority norm.
- The retreat from marriage in the United States will not be stemmed by organised Christianity.
- Efforts to de-gender society and relationships will fall short.
Some academics choose not to pass judgement on the societal changes they observe, but Regnerus closes with the bold statement: ‘I am not so reticent, having become convinced that the Genital Life we are adopting is misanthropic, ultimately anti-woman, and not sustainable. The exchange relationship, on the other hand, is old. It is deeply human. It fosters love when navigated judiciously. And it remains the historic heartbeat, and the very grammar, or human community and social reproduction’ (p.215).
If things continue as they are, the future of sex isn’t great. But against that backdrop, the goodness of the Bible’s teaching on sex can shine even brighter. So, I think that leaves us with a couple of challenges: don’t give up on the Bible’s good teaching, and don’t be afraid to share that good teaching with others.