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Understanding Sexual Trends in the Dating Culture

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Understanding Sexual Trends in the Dating Culture

Based on his extensive research, Dr. Mark Regnerus sheds light on the reasons behind the prevailing attitudes about sexual behavior, marriage and family in our culture, and how that behavior has specifically impacted men and women.

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Episode Summary

Based on his extensive research, Dr. Mark Regnerus sheds light on the reasons behind the prevailing attitudes about sexual behavior, marriage and family in our culture, and how that behavior has specifically impacted men and women.

Episode Transcript


John Fuller: In today’s “hook-up” culture, there are so many young people with wrong ideas about dating and sexuality. Our guest, Dr. Mark Regnerus, encourages men and women to seek a better way.


Mark Regnerus: And so, the healthiest thing, of course, is to hold onto this thing of great value, until he has paid the highest price, right? – has signaled sacrifice, commitment, stick-to-it-iveness.

End of Excerpt

John: This is Focus on the Family, and today we’ll talk about disturbing trends in the dating culture and what parents of young men and women need to know. Thanks for joining us for this important discussion with your host, Focus president Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, there are a lot of things that are upside-down in dating relationships nowadays – including the expectations of men and women regarding sexuality. God’s design for sex in marriage has been so distorted and trampled on in the culture. And the fallout has been absolutely devastating. We’ll get into more of those details today with Dr. Regnerus who spoke to our staff about some eye-opening research that he’s been doing at the University of Texas there in Austin. And I wanted to give you the opportunity to hear his comments as well. Parents and young adults alike, I hope you’ll stay with us because there is enormous pressure on young women to give in to sexual expectations that a man might have. And in today’s era of the #MeToo culture, the Bible has a lot to tell us about the behavior of men and women. For example, women need to understand the true power they have in relationships according to God’s design. And for men, we need exercise restraint over those impulses and show honor to women.

John: Well Dr. Mark Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin. His latest research is captured in a book called, Cheap Sex and the Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.


Jim: Mark, welcome to the program.

Mark: Thanks, Jim.

Jim: Let me start here: you do such incredible work and extensive research as a sociologist there with the University of Texas. Talk about the culture – where we’re at today when it comes to sexuality. What’s the…

Mark: Right.

Jim: …big picture?

Mark: I – the big picture is it’s changing fairly rapidly, which is kind of weird, because you think this is the oldest of human behaviors in some ways.

Jim: Right.

Mark: And yet, as we’re mapping it, things are quite dynamic in the last 10, 15, 20, 30 years. So – and then, even in the last year or so, there’s so much turmoil over – now we have transgender identity and the Me Too movement. And so, there’s a lot going on in the culture around sex and sexuality. So I look at our relationship behavior and say, “What’s going on?” – using language that’s sort of, you know, what percentage of the people are having premarital sex? What percentage of the people are having – you know, are getting married? By what age?

Jim: Yep.

Mark: What share of the population is divorced? What’s the average age at which people get married? And how are these things shaped by the surrounding culture?

Jim: Yeah, which is really important. Let me ask you about that, because there’s something – I don’t know when this started – but the loneliness index. And again, you’re a researcher. You’re probably, you know, up to speed on these things. But what I heard, when that last came out in the last 12 months, at some point, is that it’s the highest it’s ever been.

Mark: Yeah.

Jim: And yet, you look at all the digital connection, you look at the physical intimacy. You always hear this on college campuses – you know, the “hook-up” culture, et cetera. So there’s this appetite for everything but true intimacy…

Mark: Right.

Jim: …emotional intimacy.

Mark: Right. It feels scary. I mean, talking to a person feels scarier than sleeping with them.

Jim: That just is amazing to me.

Mark: It is hard to conceive of, really.

Jim: Now why do you think, as a researcher, that is happening? From a human perspective, what is allowing us to really transition those appetites to say, “I’m just interested in a physical relationship with you, I don’t want an emotional…”

Mark: Right.

Jim: “…attachment”?

Mark: Well, one of the key things and themes in this latest book of mine is that men are kind of in charge of the mating market out there today, and I think – and have been for quite some time.

Jim: Now, that sounds shocking, because we’re so empowering of women.

Mark: Yeah.

Jim: Explain why you think, as a researcher, that men are actually…

Mark: Right.

Jim: …in control today.

Mark: I don’t just think they’re in control. They are in control.


Jim: Okay, I like that response, as a researcher. Tell me why.

Mark: Right. Well, the price of sex has dropped. And I know people say, “Why are you talking about the price of sex? We shouldn’t talk about it this way.” But it is occurring. I mean, we – we talk about, you know, saving sex ‘til marriage. It’s a great gift. I mean, you’re using exchange economic language in that sense, right? So sex comes at a cost, but the cost is lower than it has ever been due to a variety of things. First of all is sort of the wide uptake of contraception, which is the idea that, you know, sex does not necessarily – we can prevent fertility, right? We can prevent the conception of a child. That means sex is less risky to her. So she has lost this kind of reason to delay, right? And you add into this, more recently, pornography, which gives more outlets for male sexual demand, so to speak, right? Well, what do you – what happens when more supply has been inserted into the sort of the relationship market? Well, the price of the real thing goes down. She feels like she has to compete…

Jim: Huh.

Mark: …with this image on the screen. Competition – that’s all economic language, right? And she’s right. She is competing with it. She feels disempowered by it, because she is, right? Because he has more options for his demand. So that, and then even online dating, which, you know, can be utilized for good, is far more often utilized for opportunistic men than – than we think. One of the interesting things about the online dating world – Tinder’s popular. But Bumble started, recently. And it was started so that it gave power to women to make the first move. There’s a direct indication that women are not in control of this industry and how it operates, because we’ve had to create something new, because there’s this felt demand that men are in charge. So men are in charge across the board on this stuff. This is why women can still break up with them, and they do. But women do not feel like they can really get what they want.

Jim: Let me ask you, in the context of the Me Too movement, then. Is that also an expression of that power, or that desire to…

Mark: Right.

Jim: …be more in charge of this?

Mark: Right, so I’m optimistic about it, in the sense of – people are demanding better behavior – women of men, especially. And they should. I mean, that should be just a baseline. You expect dignity, security and honor in how a man treats a woman. But they’re not feeling like they’re getting that. And so, we’ve seen kind of the reemergence of almost a little women’s cartel of saying, “Hey, we’re sick of this, and we want better treatment.” So I’m very happy to see that. One of the things I think is self-limiting about it is that, you know, tweeting this stuff, or getting particular people fired – and it’s mostly, like, in big industry, in…

Jim: Well, media, politics, et cetera.

Mark: Exactly. I don’t think it affects regular people very much. And nothing about the Me Too movement really alters the underlying dynamics that men still have control in the mating market, in general.

Jim: Mark, you mention, also in your book, about the incentive for women to wait and how that has kind of changed, obviously, over the years, in part because women no longer need kind of the historic skill set of men…

Mark: Yes.

Jim: …provide and protect.

Mark: Correct.

Jim: Why, with that function changing in modernity, why are women more at risk?

Mark: So they need marriage less than they used to, right? In the classic sense, marriage, classically, was sort of the effective transfer of men’s resources to women and the children that they’ve had together, right?

Jim: The joint – joint benefit.

Mark: And to protection – yeah. It was foundational. People built something together, so to speak. And now we – we – our mentality and meaning to marriage has shifted more towards an idea of, “This is a capstone.” Nobody needs it any more, right? It’s something people say, “I’m gonna do that after I’ve built a career, got some assets, bought a house. And then – then I’ll become marriageable and marketable.” But that works better for men than for women, because women feel more vulnerable when they’re 28 and single, or when they’re 30 and dating, and he hasn’t asked her to marry him yet. And she’s like, “Am I – is it time to fish or cut bait?”

Jim: Right.

Mark: You know, so at each of these stages, it still appears very realistically to me that men call the shots in how this happens. It’s not just about men asking women to marry them. It’s what leads up to that, right? And one of the problems is – here, is that women are the gatekeepers to sex, right? I mean, there’s – that’s a realistic statement that feminists hate when I say it. Idealists don’t like the sound of it, but it’s just true, okay? I mean, women are the gatekeepers in consensual relationships. He prefers easier access. The average man’s thresholds to having sex with a woman are lower than the average woman’s. So when she is quicker to introduce sex into a relationship, that pleases him, at least in the short run, but it tends to slow a relationship down, right? And then she starts thinking, “Oh, well, can I get him to move in with me,” right? It’s a step towards marriage. But she doesn’t realize that this is a major bargaining chip. And for the last data that I – collection that we did to see that sex is introduced in a relationship, before the relationship is even defined as a thing, means she’s trading this extremely valuable resource way ahead of its proper time.

Jim: Yeah, and that connects back to your supply and demand comment – that over-supply creates cheaper demand, right?

Mark: Right. I mean, so lots of these things are about how technology shapes culture, right? So it’s not just contraception. It’s – pornography gives him more options. Online dating gives him more options. She might say, “I have options, too. There are men looking at me.” But she’s a lot more picky about it…

Jim: Sure.

Mark: …Than he is.

John: We’re talking today on Focus on the Family with Mark Regnerus, who is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. And we’d like to direct you to some free resources that we’ve compiled for parents and young adults relating to dating and sexuality. We have PDFs, articles, and other audio discussions at And Mark, you’re banking off of research. You’re not just saying, “This is my opinion.”

Mark: No.

John: You’re saying, “This is what the research shows.”

Mark: Right.

John: And as I’m tracking along with you, I’m kind of curious – if men have the power in the current economy of sexuality, if you will, in the culture, but women have the – kind of the yes-or-no factor, – explain the difference between those two and what…

Mark: Sure.

John: …the research would indicate is the healthiest.

Mark: Right. Well the healthiest thing, obviously, is – if – more women than men want to marry, generally. And so the healthiest thing, of course, is to hold onto this thing of great value, until he has paid the highest price, right? – has signaled sacrifice, commitment, stick-to-it-iveness, given gifts, been there, traveled to see her, all of these things that when we look at the market today, like, they’re not doing that at all. I was talking to a friend of mine. He was – his niece was living with his family for a while. And she had a boyfriend of sorts an hour north of Dallas. And he would expect her to come see him, right? And the friend of mine said, “You know, I think you have this backwards, right? He needs to signal sacrifice, if he’s really serious about you. And until he does, you should be a lot more guarded in your affections, quite frankly.”

John: How did she respond to that?

Mark: You know, these things tend to open women’s eyes. It’s an awkward moment, in part, because they know it’s true, and often they know they haven’t lived up to it, and they don’t know if they can put the genie back in the box, which is difficult, because economists of this stuff will say, once a relationship has added sex, it is very difficult to cease it and the relationship survive. One of my interviewees in my next book – she actually accomplished that, right? They actually had conceived a child on the first time they had had intercourse. And this was not what she had planned, not what she had intended to do. She said, “This was a mistake.” Her mother and father were very disappointed, et cetera. And yet, she thinks very clearly about how a relationship is to develop. And so, she said, “Okay, we’ve got to reset this, right?” And it can be done. But there’s a great risk to it. It may not work. It often doesn’t work, but it can work. So the wisest thing, of course, is waiting ‘til he pays the highest price. But his thresholds are lower than that, right? And if women signal that that’s not required, then he’s happy to pay less, typically speaking.

Jim: Dr. Regnerus, let me ask you about this because, again, most of our listeners are Christians, and this is right at the crux of the whole issue. We’re in modernity, this modern culture that, unfortunately, looks a lot like the Roman Empire culture, right? – sexuality, kind of unrestrained…

Mark: Right.

Jim: …The things we read about with Emperor Nero and what was…

Mark: Yeah.

Jim: …taking place – nothing new under the sun.

Mark: Yeah.

Jim: So as Christians, living in this culture, and as parents trying to raise kids in such a way to honor the Lord, to understand His design for marriage, what it means to be male and female, made in the image of God, to come together as one flesh in the bond of marriage, the very institution that God created…

Mark: Right.

Jim: …how can we do that effectively with the onslaught of culture…

Mark: Right.

Jim: …constantly saying to our children, “No, no, no, go this way, an easier way, a more selfish way, a less God-centered way”? What would you say to us moms and dads?

Mark: Yeah. The funny thing is, parents, I think they have good impulses in this domain. Those who can feel like they can talk frankly, do talk frankly. And they make clear their expectations and hopes for their children. At the same time, you have to realize your children are not little automatons. They have freedom, you know, and they’ll express that freedom. I’m also worried, on the flip-side, that sometimes parents put their children under their thumb and keep saying, “No, no, it’s too risky to be in a relationship,” not just for purposes of a sexual risk, but also sort of – “Oh, you’re too young to consider this.” They’ll do this to college students, their own children. They’ll say, “Don’t get serious,” right? “Wait till you’re after – done with college. Wait ‘til” – I mean, so parents are actually feeding into the delay mentality around marriage, because marriage seems like such a big deal, and it is a big deal. But parents can be unwittingly feeding this later, later, later thing. And I – you know, I wrote several years ago – if you reasonably expect your child to be living chastely into their 30s, I mean, I think that the odds are against that, frankly.

Jim: Yeah.

Mark: So, I think there’s a delicate balance we have to – and a dance we have to do with children to instruct, but also sort of give freedom to their decision-making, and to envelop them in community. Know who their friends are, right? I mean, you can sculpt who they hang out with. Watch their electronics usage. If they want one social media platform – one only, right? I think having four or five is ridiculous…

Jim: Yeah.

Mark: …and dangerous, right? Even one can be dangerous. So you – we’ve got to move forward with our eyes wide open, but not in fear. God’s in control, right? Marriage is not going away. Our children will make mistakes. We hope they’re not significant ones, but some of them do. But some of them learn from those mistakes, and they become part of a renewal of faith, too. So we’ve got to kind of take a step back and say, “This child does not belong to me. They belong to God.”

Jim: Yeah.

Mark: “But I’m gonna do my best to sculpt them in positive directions.”

Jim: And that’s – you know, for the most part, praying for them, instructing them is about all you can do. You can’t control them.

Mark: Right.

Jim: And that – I – I take that point, uh…

Mark: Right.

Jim: …wisely. Mark, let me also raise this issue, because you’ve talked about the empowerment of women. And one of the things, when cultures seem to be healthy – and, again, I’m not a researcher, so correct me if I’m wrong. But when you see a culture that’s thriving, it’s usually because women have done exactly what you’re talking about. “There’s a high cost to me. And that means if you – if you want me physically, emotionally, intellectually, that means we get married.”

Mark: Right.

Jim: Now, for most people hearing that, that is so old-fashioned. But it actually is the tried and true formula of human interaction…

Mark: Right.

Jim: …isn’t it? So I think the question becomes – when we look at the Me Too movement and those other things – really, it’s interesting to me – the formula is how do we empower women to, in better ways, stronger ways, control the male appetite…

Mark: Mmhmm, absolutely.

Jim: …and to domesticate…

Mark: Yeah.

Jim: …men into…

Mark: Right.

Jim: …an economic relationship? “If you want me, that means we do this.” How does a culture ever get back to that?

Mark: Yeah. So I’m not optimistic, in the short run about our culture getting back to that. But I do think we can think of in terms of subcultures getting back to that and – and congregations, youth groups, churches, denominations, movements…

Jim: Parental role modeling?

Mark: Right. So it may be too much to hope for Western civilization to recover some of these – these ideas in the short run. But you’re absolutely right that monogamous marriage – and this is from a study of economists, anthropologists and psychologists – monogamous marriage is responsible for a great deal of Western civilization’s advance and the positive and healthy treatment of women around the world. So what is the ideal? Let’s look back to Genesis, right? God made man in His image. And two shall become one flesh. And what God has brought together, let no one put asunder.

Jim: Yeah.

Mark: And that’s really a reshaping of – of the old impulse that has never gone away among men to have access to more than one woman. I mean, it remains true today that even married men’s thresholds for sleeping with somebody is going to be lower than the married women’s, right? And it happens. How do we curb that? Well, social control, right? – and good teaching and things like that. So – because left to the state of nature, I’m not sure we want to see it, right? Because state of nature is extremely male-dominated, and it’s harsh for women, it’s violent, and it’s not conducive to a healthy democracy and a healthy economy. And the Romans figured that out a little bit too late.

Jim: Well, and I think that’s the – the final question – the future. As a researcher, you must think about where these patterns are going. And although you may not have hope for restoration or full restoration, where do you see Western civilization 100 years from now, maybe 500 years from now? What’s happened?

Mark: Yeah, 500’s a little bit far to map out. Even 100 years is far. In the book, in the last chapter, I map out to 2030.

Jim: Okay, good.


John: Okay, good.

Jim: Well, I’ll go…

Mark: Let’s stick to something more reasonable.

John: A little more than a decade. That’s okay.

Jim: I was a pushing you for more, but I’ll go with 2030.

Mark: I mean, 100 years out is – all sorts of things can happen. I mean, nobody should take for granted the survival of their own nation-state, frankly, because nation-states come and go. 2030, I think, in the short run, I don’t see anything to curb sort of this falling price of sex, right? We start to hear more about technology creating sex dolls and things like that. I mean, I think that’s gonna catch on a little bit. But it’s not just for men. I mean, if anybody has seen – and I’m not gonna endorse it – but the movie Her, it’s about people falling in love with operating systems, right? And – you know, think about it. I mean, we can be humorous about it, but think, if an operating system – a nice, handsome, rugged male voice – you know, reads a woman’s emails and knows exactly what she likes and dislikes, it can engage in intelligent conversations with her, whereas her husband, like, you know, he can never remember – “What is it that you like? What’s your size? I mean, what kind of food do you like?” I mean, we’re always…

Jim: Yeah.

Mark: …Sort of, you know…

Jim: No, it’s interesting…

Mark: You’re forgetting…

Jim: …Especially…

Mark: …For this umpteenth time…

Jim: Yeah…

Mark: …where machines never forget.

Jim: …That emotional attachment.

Mark: It’d be more of an emotional attachment. I honestly think that’s a risk. And in the domain of technology, human beings seem bent on making it work to their personal sexual interests, which is frustrating as an observer, because you see what it does to genuine in-person human relating, and it does to the marriage rate, I mean, starting in the ‘70s and accelerating even close to year 2000. Marriage among kind of 20, 30-somethings has declined in the United States, but it’s not only here. We’re – we’re exporting some of our worst impulses.

Jim: Well Mark, this been a great discussion. And I so appreciate what you’ve had to share. And you’ve got this wonderful book out: Cheap Sex and the Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy. I would say it’s in addition to the book of Proverbs, you know. This is the stuff that we know as believers in Christ and yet, is so obscured by the culture around us. And it’s a good reminder from a professional who’s working in the research field as a university professor. Thank you for what you’re doing. Sorry for the heat that you take in being a realist. And keep on doing it because we need to know what’s true. I love that picture of Jesus before Pontius Pilate talking about, “What is truth?”

Mark: Mmhmm.

Jim: And that’s really your job. Jesus came to testify to the truth. And part of that truth is the idea of marriage and God’s institution of marriage and how it’s reflected in humanity today. And not everybody wants to hear that truth. And I am proud of you for doing it. Thank you.

Mark: Thanks, Jim. I’ve – I’ve come to find that out – that not everybody wants to hear this stuff…

Jim: Yeah.

Mark: …Even – you know, both from left, right, Christians and non-Christians. I mean, it can be a tough swallow for a lot of people. So I’m still in business and intend to keep writing until the good Lord calls me home.

Jim: That’s it. Well, thanks again for being with us.

Mark: You’re welcome.


John: And Jim, we have a couple of minute left here. I think the discussion has left a lot of moms and dads thinking, “Okay, so now what? I mean, what am I going to do with this information that Mark has shared? How do I approach dating and sexuality? How do I talk to my kids about that?” They may be in their teens or 20s or even younger and parents, I know, want to help share God’s truth with them about this topic. And certainly following up by coming to the Focus website would be a good start.

Jim: It is. We’ve put together a number of free follow-up resources for parents and young adults all in one place at our website. And I think you will find a great deal of help there whether you want to start the conversation with your younger children about sexuality, or you’re an older teen or a 20-something wanting to learn about healthy, Biblical sexuality. I realize that you might be dealing with guilt from the past – maybe some bad relationships or other regrets you have. Maybe you haven’t done things God’s way in the past and you need help in seeking forgiveness and getting on His path for your life. Focus is here to help you in your dating relationships and to speak out on important issues related to sexuality. And we want to point you to God’s wonderful plan for men and women in lifelong intimacy in marriage.

John: And the excellent resource page that we’ve constructed is gonna have some downloadable articles about dating and preparing for marriage. We’ll have links to other audio discussions about sexual purity and the dangers of the “hook-up” culture and pornography. And you can also get a CD or free download of today’s conversation. All of that and more at, or call 1-800, the letter A and the word FAMILY – 800-232-6459.

Jim: Also, remember we are listener supported. Your support will help young people have a Biblical perspective on sexuality and save marriages. Perhaps even help parents through a crisis with their child. Save a baby’s life and help foster children find a forever home. All of that occurs when you support the ministry of Focus on the Family. 

John: And once again, our website is

Well join us next time. We’ll hear from Deborah Pegues as she provides practical help for those dealing with fear and anxiety.


Deborah Pegues: A lot of us Christians, we say we live by faith, but we operate in fear.

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