Book Review: Premarital Sex in America
By: Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, Oxford University Press, 2011. 295 pp. $24.99
It can be argued that dating, marriage and sex are the most complex subjects young Americans face today. The western culture is drowning in the abundance of opinions and ideals circulating in regards to this subject up to the point that few understand the right way to carry out a relationship, when the right time to have sex is, and what must be in place for marriage to happen. Christians must realize this pertains to them as much as it does to the culture around them. Just to know what the bible says about marriage and sex does not guarantee an understanding of it. Furthermore, the implications of the actions in our relationships are unknown, until, it seems, there is an abundance of pain and hardship. Young Americans have to wade through waters much deeper than their parents because of the vast array of possibilities for relationships, and opportunities for sex. Although these realities have caused great uncertainties when it comes to relationships and sex, young Americans remain unfazed as they travel full steam ahead into much misery and confusion. It is clear this generation of young adults is in dire need of direction, even if they think they know what’s right for them.
Along come Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker with a brilliant book compiled of massive amounts of research to clear the fog around what’s happening in young adult’s relationships and their sex lives. With comprehensive survey data, and in depth interviews, Regnerus and Uecker provide one of the best works to date on the romantic and sexual lives of young Americans.
There has been a great change in the way young people approach relationships over the last few generations. Marriage has taken a backseat to careers and education, the access to sex has become much easier, and few relationships last longer than five years. The social script has changed drastically, but is that a good thing? Has the sexual and moral revolution been beneficial for emerging adults? With such a comprehensive study, the reader is able to gather enough information to have a holistic idea of the implications of the relationships in our current culture.
In this book, Regnerus and Uecker find out what young adults relationships and sex lives are like; what they wish for, and what they actually do. They find out if the stereotypical depictions of the college sex scene are correct, and if education plays a role in the way young adults think and live in regards to relationships and sex. Since this study is directed toward the non-married, Regnerus and Uecker shed light on what the non-married think about marriage, and if political views and religion influence their ideologies.
In their research, Regnerus and Uecker estimate that 84 percent of non-married young adults between the ages of 18-23 have had premarital sex. But the title of their book is misleading, not that the sexual relationships they talk about aren’t premarital, but that the sexual relationships of non-married young adults don’t result in marriage. Premarital sex has lost much of its association to marriage resulting in the change of its definition. It no longer refers to a particular person they marry, rather, premarital sex refers to sexual relationships before that person’s own marriage. As they put it, “the 'who' has become less important than the 'when' in the use of the term.”
“Serial monogamy,” they say, is the temporary replacement for marriage. It is just enough to satisfy young Americans while they pursue education, and a career. Or at least these young people think it will. As the statistics show, the majority of young adults, aged 18-23, have had more than three sexual partners in their lifetime. It is not surprising that those who have more partners are more likely to be people that get drunk often, or have had sex before the age of 16, but what is surprising (both to them, and me) is the little relevance religion plays in the amount of partners. When I say religion, I mean Christian religion. Religiosity usually means sexual conservatism, but due to the social interactions that take place in the religious sphere, there is more opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex, which means opportunity for romantic, and even sexual, relationships.
Regnerus and Uecker’s study reveals a difference between those with higher education and those who never went to college, between conservatives and liberals, between the religious and irreligious, and between men and women in their experiences. Although these differences are prevalent, there is a common ground on which the majority of young adults in America stand: something isn’t working. A discord in ideology and experience persists. This is largely due to the social script.
What is meant by a social script is the story which one is expected to follow by the culture. By the end of the book, it becomes clear that the very thing the research and stories provide is the outline of our culture’s script. It is a complex, and sometimes contradictory script with individuality at the helm. To be your own person is the driving force behind romantic relationships, and sex in a young American’s life. In the chase for romantic and sexual chemistry, experience reveals that harmony is not the case, yet individualism propels them forward to try again. The social script is a vicious cycle which lulls young adults into complacency, while damaging them in the process. As Regnerus and Uecker find, this is not ideal; the way young adults in America are pursuing romantic relationships and sexual intimacy is not working.
Women are affected the most, and it’s not positive. The social script has proved detrimental to the happiness of women, more than the happiness of men. Social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs developed the idea of sexual economics which is the system that has men paying women for sex, but not with money. Rather, men pay by giving security, commitment, love, and other things which go along with a monogamous relationship. Because men are generally the pursuers, women set the price for sex. But many things such as pornography, the fight for equality, and the ease of access to sex have forced women to lower their price for sex. Women have to lower the price of sex in hopes that men would stay committed, but Regnerus and Uecker find that cheap sex and commitment fail to co-exist.
They conclude their section about ‘no strings attached’ sex by saying, “Some – more men than women – prefer sex without security, which tends to damage others – more women than men – on the inside.” This is just one of the implications of the sexual revolution. The remainder of the implications young adults live with when they follow the social script aren’t much better, and it continues to costs women more than it does men.
Because this book is not written from an explicit Christian worldview, it leaves a lot of questions. Such as how to live out a relationship that will last, how to raise the “price” of sex, where true commitment and security is found, or how to rid ourselves of relational problems may arise. This book just explains the facts, and statistics, but gives little consolation or help for future relationships. What can be concluded from their findings is that you kind of just have to get lucky to have a good relationship.
Even though this was how I understood most of what Regnerus and Uecker were saying, the purpose of their book was not to answer these questions so much as display the reality of the romantic and sexual lives of young Americans. They conclude by stating simply that sex is complicated. This should not cause fear, but rather drive us to understand the beauty of sex the way God created it to be.
We need fathers who will show their sons and daughters what it means to be a man. Not a ‘macho-man’, but a biblical, gospel centered man who sacrificially leads his family well. We need mothers to exemplify a biblical portrait of a woman to her daughters and her sons; a woman whose identity is so steadfast and sure upon the unmovable rock of Christ that she can defy the cultural standards by submitting to her husband’s headship.
This book is for young adults and parents with children of all ages alike. It is a great resource for understanding the sexualized culture young children are being brought up in, and the culture young adults are to navigate. Although this book is not written from an explicit Christian worldview, it will be helpful for Christian parents; especially parents with teenage daughters, who want to better prepare their children to combat the sexual script of our culture.