Intellectual Encounter with Prof. Mark Regnerus
November - 2017
We met up with Professor Mark Regnerus, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Texas, Austin, at our offices at 14 Arrow St. in Cambridge, following his presentation the night before on his newest book published through Oxford University Press: “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy”.
AAI: Thank you for joining us Dr. Regnerus. You currently work within the realm of sexual dynamics (men, marriage, monogamy) but at your lecture yesterday, you noted that your first interest was in religion and the sociology of religion - can you take us back to your beginning and what got you interested in sociology in the first place?
M. Regnerus: I've been interested in social distinctions and the very different lives of many people since I was a child. I think some of this has to do with the fact that I grew up in rural Iowa but my parents grew up in the working class suburbs of Chicago.
When we would go to visit my grandparents, I would have these distinctive experiences and think "wow, life here is very different". I always enjoyed looking out the window of the car and walking around the working-class areas of the inner suburbs of Chicago. Then I would go back and live my rural small-town life in Iowa. I was always stayed interested in the differences between the two places.
I then went to college 10 minutes away from where my grandparents lived, in the "burbs" of Chicago, and in my first months there was attracted to a sociology professor and his research. Because I went to a small school, orientation was sitting around a table with the heads of the department. I remember that Psychology had a bunch of people at the table and sociology very few. I was thinking I could go either way with regards to study and decided to sit next to the sociology professor. I had met him once before on a campus visit and recalled being very impressed with him. The professor (Brad Breems) was interested in the same sorts of things I was already interested in since my childhood and was carrying-out neighborhood and community studies in Chicago.
Later in college, I remember reading Alex Kotlowitz's "There Are No Children Here", about life in the projects and with Professor Breems we got to go visit the Henry Horner Homes before they were torn down. Needless to say, I became a sociology major in college, focusing on urban sociology, race and ethnicity.
I became interested in religion when I was in graduate school. Because of the nature of the school's Ph.D. program, one had to work on a project that one of the professors at the University was an expert in. As a consequence, I latched on to a project Professor Christian Smith was working on concerning American evangelicals. As a Presbyterian at the time, I felt I knew something about this and could contribute to it in an effective way. This venture turned out to be profitable and I decided I was going to be a sociologist of religion at that point.
At the same time I started working with Christian Smith there was another big data collection project going on in the department on adolescent health. I later discerned that I could link the two projects. My thought was that this novel intersection could make me marketable as a professor and, in any case, I could always teach criminology, because I wrote my dissertation on delinquency.
Throughout my career I've kept changing interests every so many years, I think it's a healthy thing, intellectually stimulating. Colleagues tend to punish that kind of behavior because you're supposed to "become the expert" at one thing and dominate a particular field. But I see myself less as a specialist and more of a broader intellectual, in some ways, but American higher education is not set up for intellectuals really.
AAI: Has there been any literature by other authors in your field that was particularly formative for you, in the way you approach the science?
M. Regnerus: “Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions” by Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs. I read the article on an airplane ride to meet Baumeister with Michael McCulloch in Miami, when they were doing a project on self-control. My thought was “I should read up on what these guys are up to”.
I had starting dabbling in research in the realm of sexual behavior at this point and the article was eye opening - everything started to make sense.
Another key piece in the realm of sexual behavior was Timothy Reichert’s article, which appeared in First Things, called “Bitter Pill”. It helped me see how the mating market had been transformed in relatively recent years. Explaining how contraception has split the mating market into different segments, which it is yet to recover from.
“We don’t want to demonize an entire class of people, “all x, y and z men must be predators”. We need to step back and recognize that the potential for this is in every man. That the potential for manipulation is found in every woman. These are true statements. Recognizing these and other realities, will help us answer the question of how to foster a community in which we minimize the potential for this destructive power to be exercised.”
AAI: Anthony Giddens, maybe the most famous sociologist of the last several generations, you rely heavily on his book for perhaps the theoretical edifice of your insight in “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy”. Particularly, professor Gidden’s 1992 book, “The Transformation of Intimacy”.
Can you say a little bit more about this particular book and why you chose to build on it so much for your own book?
M. Regnerus: I read “The Transformation of Intimacy” after reading the two articles I mentioned.
Giddens is known more for other kind of work and this was the only work of his, that I could recall, that dealt specifically with relationship behavior. When I read it I was expecting it to be in dense “Giddens Style” but found it to be very fluid and ahead of its time, for 1992. I decided to make “Cheap Sex”, in part, a book about a book. Looking back at what he got right and what he got wrong. Surprisingly, he got very little wrong.
It’s probably Giddens’s most interesting, insightful and readable work.
AAI: Going now to your book, “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy” – what would you say is the “main claim” you make in the book?
M. Regnerus: The biggest observation I make in the book is that the price of sex/sexual experience has sunk very low due to various modern technologies. This price drop has led to some degree of mayhem in the mating market. The fruit of this is a lot of frustration by those in the market who are looking for a life partner, someone to mate with for life.
Not only is finding a life partner more difficult and the process longer, it has disfavored women disproportionately to men.
AAI: The methodology of the book is applying economic exchange logic to dating, sex and relationships. This is not original to you, others have done this. However, there seems to be some instinctive pushback by many against using this lens of analysis for these intimate matters – do you have any thoughts on this?
M. Regnerus: A sexual relationship or even a sexual act is something we can overlay lots of things on. In one sense it is just biological, in another sense there is a psychological and a romantic realm to the act. Due to our complex relationship with these matters, people seem to think that speaking of this as an exchange is to demean these other realms of the act or relationship but that is not what is going on.
In the book I make clear that this, the exchange approach, is a language that can describe one aspect of what is going on but does not exclude anything else from also going on. However, in all these interactions there is always an exchange going on and I have noted that people do not seem to be comfortable in recognizing this.
AAI: Turning to our immediate context, the college. You note at one point in your book that coaches and administrators at colleges remain “unwilling to wrestle with the dark side of human personhood” when it comes to sexual relationships - What is it about sex that seems to awaken this dark-side of human personhood?
M. Regnerus: This dark-side is something that we don't want to talk about often or we will acknowledge in only indirect ways; referring to particular cases as being egregious and only engaging with them as if the students involved in these cases are exceptions among their peers. However, human beings cannot be opened-up and found to be either essentially good or essentially evil. The potentiality for good or evil runs through all of us.
If we could learn to acknowledge this dual potential, for both great good and great evil, we could become more sensible in how we approach student life and student residences, with an eye to preventing this dark-side of human personhood from being realized sexually because when it's realized sexually it can be far more destructive than when it's realized in terms of drug use or the destruction of property. Sexual misbehavior, to put it mildly, can have long term emotional consequences which are deeply destructive in people’s lives.
We don’t want to demonize an entire class of people, “all x, y and z men must be predators”. We need to step back and recognize that the potential for this is in every man. That the potential for manipulation is found in every woman. These are true statements. Recognizing these and other realities, will help us answer the question of how to foster a community in which we minimize the potential for this destructive power to be exercised.
AAI: Your book points to one difficulty in doing this (reducing the potential for destructive behaviors) stating that we rely too much on personal challenges and too little on social constraints. It seems that ideology trumps problem solving for many college administrators and for many of us in our personal lives. How do we start educating ourselves and the culture on recognizing the utility in constraints?
M. Regnerus: The culture today wants to treat men and women alike/interchangeable at all times even though men and women are not alike in this domain (tendencies in sexual behavior). In light of this assumption, we solely privilege the factor of consent in evaluating sexual relationships, but this is a minimalist approach. Of course, there must be consent, however, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there's a lot of consensual sex out there that is destructive, disastrous and corrosive to men and woman and shouldn't happen in the first place.
All we have now is the subjective requirement of consent, but I'm pretty sure that within a short number of years my libertarian colleagues will realize that “wow, consent, that was a little bit too thin” and maybe there's more to this story.
Socially, I think it's easier for men to do the right thing when they're socially constrained and socially challenged than when all the constraints are off and we simply say “hey buddy, you better do the right thing in the heat of the moment, ask for consent each step of the way and check your blood alcohol level because if it's above a certain level then you're guilty of something”. This is not how people work. Some reform of the social ways in which we interact makes a lot more sense. Such as preventing men from getting at women in ways that women, in general, would prefer they not. This is why I think single sex dorms with sensible visiting hours makes good sense. Most people think, “oh, sexual assault on campus happens at parties or in parking lots, in cars” but in reality, it happens in residence halls. There are ways in which we can take steps to reduce this but we are unwilling to do it because ideology has trumped sensibility and common sense.
AAI: One of the ways you describe sex from the exchange perspective is sex for resources: women are the gatekeepers of sex which they exchange for resources from men. In the book you argue, as others have, that women are becoming more independent with regards to acquiring resources - Is the exchange now more for status than economic gain?
M. Regnerus: Some men will always have status and therefore be more desirable because of who they are or what they can do but I don't see any substantial movement in the exchange based on the status of men.
Some argue that all women are having sex simply because they wish to and/or because they are in love with or like the people they are sexually coupling with. I don’t argue that this isn’t the case, it's just that if he provides nothing and is given this level of intimacy, there is bad precedent being set. For access to this level of intimacy the man should be providing something to the relationship and this is not limited to economic resources. A resource can be love, commitment, sacrifice, time. How much time does he spend with me? Is he going out of his way to buy me flowers to show his affection or meeting me across campus?
I was recently in Dallas talking to a family friend of ours who had his niece living with him and his family for a while. He told me that his niece would drive an hour north of where they lived to meet some guy who texted her to show up to go see him. His wife and him sat her down and explained that this is not how it works: “If he wants to see you, he knows where you live and he's welcome to come down here”. My friend and his wife were letting her know that an effort should be made on his part, even if only taking a drive and having to talk a while with her uncle and aunt. But he didn’t have to do that because the niece was willing to concede intimacy for nothing.
Status can still play a role. I remember a UT student who was falling behind in class and I asked if she was ok and if she wanted to come to office hours. She came to offices hours and I could tell something was clearly wrong. I asked “is there a man behind this?” and she started crying.
She told me that she had been sleeping with a UT football player. The issue is, for what? Simply the status of being with the football player. He had recently left and now she came to realize “wow, this was a bad exchange.”
I told her, “You’re worth more than this,” speaking economically, and she starts crying again because she recognized that it's true. A relationship based on status interest or anything other than resources such as commitment, sacrifice, love and expressions of devotion, which are all resources that she wants, is not going to end well.
 The conversation has been edited and abridged