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It’s not that I had terribly high expectations for a book titled Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Because seriously: “premarital”? Particularly when the authors — sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker — acknowledge in their introduction that by “premarital sex” they actually mean sexual activities undertaken by an “emerging adult” (ages 18-23) who is not married, and that by “young Americans” they actually mean people who are cisgendered and straight. In other words, the very framing of this book-length study by the title alone suggest that what readers will get is a familiar story re-packaged as a ground-breaking assessment of how “contemporary shifts in [sexual] market forces … have dramatically altered how [heterosexual] relationships are conducted” (as the jacket copy claims). As I said: not that I had terribly high expectations going in.

The thing is, this book could have been a successful and insightful analysis of 18-to-23-year-old heterosexual attractions, identities, and practices. With a mixture of quantitative and qualitative analysis (national data collection and 40 in-depth interviews), the authors could have offered new ways of understanding heterosexual sexual practices in young adulthood. They could of provided us with an in-depth exploration of the individual and cultural values, social pressures, and practical concerns that lead to those practices. They could have taken the opportunity to counter moral panic about changing sexual mores with data that show, for example, that college sexual cultures are much more relationship-based than a freewheeling marketplace of hook-ups. In fact, occasionally, Premarital Sex in America seems poised to take on this role of reality-check for media moralizing: marriage doesn’t mean the end of one’s sexual happiness (p. 174: “marriage tends to be good for emotional intimacy as well as sexual intimacy”) and the so-called hook-up culture (p. 106: “casual sex from hook-ups is rare by comparison, suggesting that popular perceptions of the depravity of the ‘hook-up culture’ may be somewhat overstated”). So despite initial trepidation, I was ready to give this book a reasonable change to prove my pre-conceptions wrong.
The problem can be boiled down to two systemic (and, I would argue, inter-related) issues. First, the persistence of the authors in leaning heavily on unexamined assumptions about what is “just a fact” or “inescapable” (they actually use both on p. 22) as well as the use of terms without specific definition — they never indicate, for example, how they determined the sexual orientation of their interviewees (identity? practice? desires?), and later in the book divide respondents into “reds”/conservatives and “blues”/liberals without detailing the criteria by which they sorted these groups (political affiliation? beliefs about sex? upbringing? religious practices?). They “explain” many of the assumptions I found problematic by relying heavily on shakey theories of innate gender difference (see here, here, here, and here) and the perennially popular theory of “sexual economics” in which men are the lustful consumers of sex which women “sell” for relationships. 
I obviously don’t have any first-hand experience in this heterosexual “marketplace” in which we ladies are selling the sex we don’t want for the emotional intimacy men reluctantly give in exchange for booty … but can I just say, on behalf of the many women and men I know who swing that way: EW. Not only is this theory an impoverished way of thinking about human sexuality, it has absolutely no explanatory power for peoples’ motivations to get into sexual relationships. Because if dudes are all about getting it off, hello: you have two hands and lots of (supposedly equally horny) fellow dudes who could help you out. If sex is just sex and the relational context in which it happens is meaningless, then what benefit would men have in seeking out women to be sexually intimate with? Zilch. The authors of this book actually say this at one point, when discussing pornography: “If porn-and-masturbation increasingly satisfies some of the male demand for intercourse, it reduces the value of intercourse, access to which women control” (246). You can only capture and keep a man by bartering sex in exchange for intimacy — if your fella has access to sex all on his ownsome, then tough. In turn, if women aren’t that into sex and want emotional intimacy — why bother with the work of selling sex in exchange for (presumably reluctantly-expressed or faux) emotional intimacy or relational stability when you could meet your emotional needs elsewhere — say with family members or close friends? — and avoid the trouble of putting out?
So basically, you could bother to describe heterosexual interactions in terms of economic transactions, but it’s not going to help you explain why men and women continue to seek each other out for long-term intimate relationships. In fact, the theory of sexual economy these authors put forward argues against hetero sex being at all rational as a way of meeting our emotional and physical needs — unless you happen to want to procreate (something they barely touch on within the text). It’s irritating and unsatisfying and, aside from everything else, makes me wonder why anyone who believes hetero sex works like this enjoys being heterosexual. 
I’d point out that another gaping hole in the theory of sexual economics these authors put forward is that they argue it’s just the way humanity operates … except they fail to take into account queer folks relationships, which are also part of humanity and are an interesting control group for the power of their pet theory. For example: if women barter sex for relational intimacy, then what happens when two women are in a relationship? Why hello, “lesbian bed death” the theory that will never die! Except … plenty of women in same-sex relationships are getting it on together … are we selling each other sex (that we don’t want) in exchange for emotional intimacy (that we already have?). You can see how it starts to get ridiculous damn fast.
Obviously, once someone’s overall framework for analysis fails to impress, the little shit begins to grate on one’s nerves. So for the sake of relieving my spleen I’m going to bullet-point the smaller issues I had with how the data was presented and analyzed:
  • The use of “virgin” to mean “person who hasn’t had vaginal intercourse.” First, I’m skeptical that all of the studies from which the authors drew data defined “virgin” in exactly this way, and second … really book? really? We’re going to reinforce the idea that sex = tab A into slot B one more frickin’ time? Particularly when in the same breath, practically, you go on to talk about “virgins” who’ve engaged in oral and anal sex?
  • Lack of transparency in data. So I realize I’m hypercritical of data because, well, I’m suspicious and I’ve been trained by good friends and colleagues that way. But when you start telling me things like what the average number of sexual partners for X group over X period of years is … and then tell me you’re relying on self-reporting … I’m tempted to throw out the data. Unless you’re going to tell me how you asked study participants to define “sex” and “partner” and whether you asked them to keep track over a period of months or years, or whether this was data based on recollection, etc. 
  • Describing people as “attractive” without qualification. Especially when you’re two men describing your college-age study participants as “attractive 20-year-old women.” Just: EW. But beyond that, the assumption that attractiveness is some sort of objective, measurable quality and that it exists on a static scale rather than being deeply subjective and situational. 
  • Suggesting sexual “mystery” is better than reality in relationships. Again, a symptom of seeing sex as transactional: men, it seems, are most interested in sex they think they desire but must pursue. So the “easier” women are to fuck, the quicker the relationship is to “age” and grow stale. Additional negative points for working in sentences like: “It’s a classic tale that characterizes billions of sexual relationships in human history” (80). Naturalizing something by making it seem historically inevitable = no cookies for you!
  • Failing to define “pornography.” Yeah, it becomes clear that they (like so many other critics) mean commercially-produced videos and photographs. But that’s no excuse for laziness in reporting. Since they seem to have assumed everyone was on the same page about what pornography was, they accepted the reporting on their interviewees concerning the effect “porn” had on their relationships and sexual desires. A much more interesting conversation could have been had if they had probed a little more deeply into their subjects engagement with erotic materials on a broader scale (I bet at least some of the young women they interviewed are writers and readers of slash fan-fiction, for example). Instead, we just got the tired scare story about how mainstream video pornography is creating unrealistic expectations in men concerning women’s bodies and sexuality.
  • Failing to delve beyond the most obvious analysis of their data. This happens repeatedly, so I’m just going to give one example. In a section on negotiating unwanted sexual practices, the authors report that the top “unwanted sexual request made by men of women is for anal sex” (the top unwanted request by women of men is for cunnilingus). It becomes clear that what they mean is men are requesting penis-in-anus sex, though they don’t articulate this. No mention is made whether they asked the men (or women) about penetrative anal sex to stimulate the prostate, which is something I don’t think they count as “sex” because they suggest that “there is no biological basis for preferring anal sex to vaginal sex” … a statement that would only make sense if they were thinking about stimulation of a penis. They go on to argue that men are only asking to perform anal sex because they’ve learned it’s part of the sexual script from watching pornographic films. They also accept without further analysis women’s self-reporting that they just don’t like anal sex, full stop, without exploring in what contexts it was tried (i.e. did the partners have lube? did they prep adequately? was there coercion? did they try a second time, with better results?). Precision counts people!
  • “Intercourse is more satisfying than masturbation” (157). Written in a section headed “Semen: An Antidepressant?” So … yeah. I just want to point out — AGAIN — that reducing sex to penis-in-vagina intercourse is a big problem in this book. I also think there is something deeply troubling about the idea that solitary sexual activity is and unsatisfactory substitute for relational sex. Not because it isn’t for many people (though I’m going to go out on a limb and say that for some it likely is) but because masturbation isn’t a substitute activity. It’s a parallel or complementary sexual activity. We do it, and enjoy it. We get different things out of it than we get out of partnered sex. Many women in The Hite Report and Our Bodies, Ourselves, among other texts, report very distinct types of orgasms (both pleasurable) from self-stimulation and partnered stimulation. 
  • Characterizing a relationship that ends as a relationship that “failed.” Relationships can be formed for many reasons, and as long as they were mutually-satisfying for all the people involved for the duration of the relationship, there’s no reason why the fact the relationship ended means the relationship failed. It’s true that many relationships do come to an end because one member or both stops being satisfied. But “end” doesn’t automatically mean “fail.”
  • Emotional health is a woman thing. Again: seriously? Yeah … they’re serious. Not only do they bring up the correlation between abortion and depression (without clarifying it’s a correlation and not necessarily causation), as well as a throw-away mention of the correlation between same-sex activity and poor mental health outcomes, but they out-and-out argue that women’s emotional health is the only story that matters: “the central story about sex and emotional health is how powerful the empirical association is for women–and how weak it is among men” (138). They explain this using the theory of “natural” gender differences which, since the data to support this theory is shite, isn’t really an explanation at all. 

By way of a conclusion, Renerus and Uecker offer to dispel “ten myths about sex and relationships” for which the evidence “just isn’t there” (242). Some of these are fairly value-neutral — for example the first one is the myth that “long-term exclusivity is a fiction,” when in fact only about 12-13% of American adults followed in a longitudinal study reported cheating on their partners. But others are off-the-wall wacky, such as the assertion that “to call the sexual double standard wrong is a little like asserting that rainy days are wrong” (243), or their suggestion that women control men’s sexual impulses by playing hard to get: “If the average price for sex should rise, men’s sexual behavior could become subject to more constraints” (245). Their sexual economics lens for viewing human relationships, oddly enough, leads them to espouse a deeply conservative and moralizing tone when it comes to suggesting how we can effect change in sexual interactions.

Finally, as I argued above, the theory of a (hetero)sexual economy that pervades the analysis in this book is deceptively simplistic in its power to “explain” human interactions. Instead, it could more aptly be understood as a compelling set of metaphors for a specific type of sexual scene — say a fraternity party or a singles bar. Because, as reviewer Evan Hughes notes, “shaky when you examine it closely, the sexual economics theory in its broad outline seems almost trivially true: it describes what we know but does little to explain what we do not understand.” Because the economy is so compelling as a metaphor (at least to Regnerus and Uecker), they fail to ask any new questions of their material, instead regurgitating outdated gender stereotypes in place of fresh insight.

Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.