I spend what’s probably an unhealthy amount of time worrying about the precarious sex-and-relationship norms of my generation. Both experience and observation scream at me that our current patterns are a path to loneliness and confusion, responsible for emotional scars that may not fully heal. We follow trends that not only damage us in the present, but leave us jaded in a way that interferes with relationship success in the future. In vain I wonder how we got this way and what we should do about it.
To that effect, my recent reading of Mark Regnerus’ and Jeremy Uecker’s 2011 book, “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying” was a sociological breath of fresh air. Despite the use of the now old-fashioned term “premarital sex,” this book is very much in tune with our current norms and offers both extensive statistics and first-hand accounts to describe the modern-day sexual habits of twenty-somethings nationwide. It breaks down how much sex we’re having, who’s having it, how we’re doing it, and what it means for our relationships.
As the authors explain, our sexual norms occur in the form of “scripts” we learn to follow – from our families, peers, media, educations, political cultures, and a host of other factors . Our ideas aren’t always in tune with reality, but still we follow them because they’re what we know. It ends with “10 myths about sex and relationships” that summarize the book’s main findings, and which I will further summarize here for your reading pleasure and education.
Myth 1: Long-term exclusivity is a fiction.
Millennials behave as if permanent exclusive relationships, i.e. marriages, are unrealistic, or at least not appropriate for our current life stage. But we still crave intimacy and security. So we settle for patterns of serial monogamy in intense but temporary relationships, which come with many of the benefits previously associated with marriage (sex, pooling resources, companionship) but with the understanding that they might end at any time. Some of the more progressive among us have abandoned the idea of marriage altogether as an outdated institution. But in reality, fully half of marriages still last a lifetime, affairs only occur in a minority of them, and marriage success rates become pretty stable starting in our early 20s. It’s still very possible to live the dream, and you don’t have to wait till your 30s.
Myth 2: Sex is necessary to sustain a new or struggling relationship.
This makes sense on the surface, but the numbers just don’t support it. There’s a pretty direct line showing the sooner sex commences in a relationship, the more likely that relationship is to eventually fail. Sure, some people will walk out on a sexless relationship, but in most cases, they wouldn’t have stuck around, anyway. The statistics tell us the most committed partners, and the ones with the happiest endings, are the ones willing to wait.
Myth 3: The sexual double standard is inherently wrong and must be resisted by any means.
I’ll directly quote here: “To call the sexual double standard wrong is a little like asserting that rainy days are wrong . We may not like them, but they’re not going away.” The point here is a little more complex, but crucial in understanding our sexual dynamics . Men and women both enjoy sex, but they have different drives and expectations. Studies overwhelmingly support what most of us already know, articulated in “sexual economics theory”: men seem to have an unlimited demand for sex, while women control the supply. Men want low-cost, low-commitment sex, women want sex accompanied by security and stability. This won’t be true for everyone at all times, but the sociological trends in this direction are pretty stark and unchanging.
The push to erase the double-standard has been less than successful. We’ve aimed for sexual equality by trying to make women just like men, free from both practical and cultural consequences once associated with sex (STDs, pregnancy, social stigma). Low-commitment, low-cost sex for all! But women aren’t men, and still experience far more relationship dissatisfaction and mental health issues related to casual sex than their male counterparts. In fact, the push for “sexual equality” has worked out to men’s major advantage. The rise in hook-up culture has given them more access to no-strings-attached sex than ever before, and now that women are “liberated,” the guys don’t even need to feel guilty about it.
But instead of living in denial about the double-standard, women can use it to their advantage. By embracing their control of the supply-side of sex, and collectively working to drive up the its “price” via waiting longer to put out and demanding more in return, they can get a better deal. Which leads me to number four.
Myth 4: Boys will be boys . Men can’t be expected to abide by the sexual terms women set.
Half-true. If men have lots of access to cheap sex, boys will be boys. But men respond to the standards that are set for them . In other times and places, men have been much more willing to wait for sex and commit in ways more advantageous to women in order to get it. We’re a far sight from that reality now, but it’s not impossible.
Myth 5: It doesn’t matter what other people do sexually, you make your own decisions.
One of the book’s strongest themes is showing how we develop expectations for ourselves by watching those around us. We read sex columns, gossip with our friends, absorb reality shows and sitcoms, not merely for entertainment but for guidance. And since we take our cues from each other, then what other people do actually matters a great deal. When we see our friends hooking up, we feel out of place if we’re not doing the same. This ties back to sexual economics as well. Women who want more commitment have more trouble finding a man willing to provide it, because it’s not considered a reasonable expectation anymore. Even men who want commitment have a harder time finding women who will trust them, because men who want to stick around are an oddity. In our desire to be non-judgmental, we’re allowing and therefore perpetuating norms that hurt the chances of relationship stability for everyone involved.
Myth 6: Porn won’t affect your relationships.
I guess I’m naïve. I didn’t realize before reading this book that, if the statistics are to be believed, nearly all 18-23 year old guys watch porn on a regular basis. And they can view more of it, more quickly, with more variety, in higher digital quality, and at lower cost than ever before.
This has a few relationship ramifications. It lowers the “cost” of sex for men by providing them an appealing alternative . Brain-scans show that masturbation accompanied by porn provides much greater sexual satisfaction than the act does on its own, meaning that men simply feel a decreased need for actual sex. Women have to put out more to compete. Additionally, porn sets new expectations for what kinds of sexual acts men desire. Women feel obliged to fulfill these desires, and as a result they agree to do things they don’t want or enjoy at a much higher rate than in the past. In short, the prevalence of porn gives men more power in the relationship and skews the sexual dynamics. Despite this, we continue to treat it as harmless, or tolerate it as a necessary evil.
Myth 7: Everyone else is having more sex than you are.
We live in a society that goes above and beyond in advertising and glorifying sex. In social media we emphasize the parties and the drama over the daily. Everything tells us that there’s tons of sex going on around us. In reality, statistics show that nearly everyone thinks other people are having more sex than they are. And most of us are much closer to the average than we realize. Chances are, you’re having “enough” sex.
Myth 8: Sex need not mean anything.
The sexual double-standard comes back into play here. Again, this is breaking down trends, and these ideas don’t apply to every individual. But overwhelmingly, men are able to tolerate casual sex much better than women, who experience significantly higher levels of depression and emotional distress as their partner count goes up. But of course, what affects women’s emotional health is also going to impact the men they enter into relationships with later, so it all circles back around . Everyone suffers. The idea of meaningless, consequence-free sex just isn’t based in reality.
Modern-day social dynamics factor in here as well. Between hook-ups and social media, we don’t get to have clean breaks in our relationships like we might have in the past. We can maintain ties with past partners more easily, and fall back on them in moments of weakness. Current and past partners might keep track of each other, creating more relationship friction. This all creates a lot of ambiguity and distress over our increasingly “It’s complicated” relationship statuses. Another direct quote: “For men in particular, this inspires a sort of bizarre quest to sustain the modern-day equivalent of a harem” of potential hook-ups, present and past.
Myth 9: Marriage can always wait.
Despite the barriers, most millennials still hope to be married eventually. But most of us think there should be a long waiting period first . Marriage is in addition to our other life plans, not the basis of them. We seek to develop ourselves first and foremost, however long it takes. In keeping with these high standards for ourselves, we also set high expectations for our future partners and marriages.
Unfortunately, the “marriage market” once we reach the point of being “ready” isn’t always very promising. Our 20s are periods of youth, socializing with like-minded individuals, career development, high fertility and physical health. Far from being too early to find a spouse, this may actually be when the options are most promising . Gender comes into play again here as well, as for women age tends to be a liability, while for men it’s more often an asset. But the point here is that the “get established, then get married” script we’ve been taught may not produce the results we hope for.
Myth 10: Moving in together is a step toward marriage.
This seems intuitive, but it’s simply not reality. Most cohabiting relationships will end in break-up, not marriage. The arrangement is appealing in part because it offers some of the benefits of marriage without the commitment . But since it’s not marriage, those involved don’t feel the same need to work out the problems that inevitably arise when you share a residence. So more often than not, it doesn’t work out. Those who wait to cohabit are much more likely to get and stay married.
The authors make these points with more charisma and depth than I’ve done here, and offer ample supporting evidence. But that’s the snapshot.
I don’t have any quick fixes for our millennial relationship woes. I don’t know what a healthy dating scene in 2015 America should look like. But if we could collectively absorb these ten truths and alter our sexual culture accordingly, I have no doubt we could create a much more satisfying romantic culture than what we have now. It’s not too late for a happy ending, but we’re going to have to rewrite the script.