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 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.
Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.