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In Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker focus on young adult's (often referred to as emerging adulthood) sexual habits and engagement in premarital sex. Surveys, in-person interviews, and qualitative data from other sources (such as Add Health) help create a comprehensive overlook of heterosexual, unmarried adults between the ages of 18 to 23.
The authors state that premarital sex and cohabitation is increasingly common among young adults. A minority of young adults do however remain virgins until marriage. Characteristics such as religiosity, ethnicity, high expectations of partners and fear of pregnancy and contracting STIs are all factors that influence such a decision. At the same time, sexual repertoires such as oral sex and anal sex have become more common among young adults although anal sex is a relatively new addition.
Regnerus and Uecker employ the theory of sexual economics and markets when discussing the timing and prize of sex. According to sexual market theory, men are generally more interested in sex, are not opposed to casual sex and initiate sex more often than women. In exchange for sex, the partner (more often the woman) expects something in return, such as financial stability, emotional support, commitment and loyalty. At the same time, sex on the first date, one-night stands and hooking up is fairly common. Therefore, the prize and timing of sex has gone down, and men are more likely to "get away" with "discounted sex". Sexual relationships are said to begin when women want them to, and women are therefore regarded as the sexual gatekeepers. Women's decision to enter a sexual relationship early is said to be counterproductive to sustaining a romantic long-term relationship and maintaining a "high prize" for sex, as women reportedly are less satisfied with short-term sexual relationships than men (in part because of the declining prize for sex and the double standard of sexual behavior).
Women are therefore more likely to be judged, ostracized and called names when engaging in premarital sex, especially if providing "discounted" sex. The authors state; "…there's only one effective way to resist it – and that is for women to attempt to feel and think and pursue sex like men" (p. 244). The underlying notion then is that women need to become more like men in order to combat the sexual double standard. But would that not drive down the prize of sex even more? If men prefer "easy" sexual pursuits, would they not also prefer women who have sex with them early on? The authors suggest that this is not necessarily true. Citing a study by Paula England, the authors conclude; "Men were about 45 percent more likely than women to subsequently disrespect someone who hooked up with them" (p. 106) and "Relatedly, 53 percent of women said that they felt disrespected after hooking up, compared with only 24 percent of men" (p. 106). After all, if men are looking for sexual relationships, those young adults who have the most sex are in committed relationships.
Men are more likely to introduce unwanted sexual requests, use persuasion and coercion to obtain sex, and sexually assault women. It seems as if demanding that women be more like men would not improve the sexual and romantic relationships for women. Therefore, regarding men's sexual behavior as the norm (even though it is more often harmful) while stating that women need to change their sexual behavior results in minimizing women's sexual needs while normalizing men's. It also seems as if there is a catch 22 in terms of women trying to drive up the prize of sex, while trying to be more sexually similar to men. It does not seem as if any of these suggestions can work simultaneously.
Using comprehensive methods to analyze and understand the sexual behaviors of young adults does however pay off. Regnerus and Uecker introduce a nuanced and multi-faceted picture of sexual behavior. They examine the belief that college students are more sexually active and conclude that "hooking up" frequently in college is more common for the campus sexual elite, and more common for those young men and women who are not pursuing higher education. They also conclude that social networking and media help perpetuate the notion that campus life is filled with sexual encounters and frequent "hook-ups".
The authors also discuss sex and emotional health, stating that women are more likely to experience depression, especially when having numerous sex partners (although the correlation and order of the two is not determined). The number of sexual partners does not seem to correlate with depression in men. Men do however tend to react in emotionally different ways than women, and are more likely to be violent, receiving low grades, and use more drugs and alcohol.
Even though the average age of marriage has increased for both women and men (to 26 and 28 years respectively), almost all young adults do want to marry sometime in the future. Those who marry early are more likely to report being religious and in a romantic relationship. Race, SES (socioeconomic status) and parental relationship also influence this decision. Rather than marrying early, many young adults opt for cohabitation even though couples that cohabitate have poorer odds than those who do not.
After introducing various characteristics of the sexual behaviors of young adults, the authors turn their attention to what they describe as red sex and blue sex, sexual behavior based on conservative and liberal young adults. Both red and blue adults engage in sexual activity to a high degree, but there are differences among them. Blue adults tend to wait longer to have children and get married. Red adults tend to prefer marriage to cohabitation and are less pragmatic of abortion and homosexuality. The authors state that more people across America are "becoming blue", but since those same people have children later in life and also have fewer children, the number of "red young adults" is growing by population.
The authors conclude the book by discussing 10 myths concerning sex and relationships that are common among young adults. They also state that narratives and social scripts, and the transmission of such scripts are powerful forces in influencing beliefs about relationships and sex. The authors state that both sexual economics and sexual scripts combine forces to influence the decisions of young adults.
The implementation of sexual economics can be troublesome as it infers that women need to change their sexual behaviors whereas men need not do much to change theirs. The normalizing of "male sexuality" can be problematic, as it no doubt affects women, often negatively, but is simultaneously viewed as more desirable. The range of sexual behaviors and the analysis of young adult's sexuality is however impressive. The fact that the book is easy to read, informative and mixed with personal stories and data makes it a compelling read. The intended audience is not only scholars and students in the field of sexuality, sociology, and psychology (among other disciplines), but the book is also valuable to young adults, parents and anyone else who wish to know more about the sexual behaviors, values, beliefs and practices of today's young adults. Since the book focuses on heterosexual young adults, LGBQT youth may not find the book as useful and informative.
© 2012 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.