Cheap Sex: A Review
A quick check of the Goodreads reviews for Cheap Sex by sociologist Mark Regnerus suggests to me that everyone has strong feelings about this book—which tends to support the author’s thesis, I think. In other words, sex is not what Captain Kathryn Janeway said it was in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, namely a component of good hygiene. One time when her crew visited a resort planet she encouraged her senior commanders to make sure to go have sex with the planet’s prostitutes. None of this was stated so bluntly; it was given instead with a wink and a nod and the good-natured air of a friendly schoolmarm doling out health advice.
There is no Kathryn Janeway, of course. People wrote her lines. Western people. American people. People describing and promoting their worldview through the tool of TV. A worldview Regnerus subjects to withering critique in this book.
Stat after stat. Story after story. The tools of sociology set in skillful array. Regnerus shows that the pill and porn have lowered the “price” of sex, made it more accessible than it ever has been, and therefore put women at a disadvantage in the sexual marketplace. I don’t have the capacity to question Regenerus’ research practices, nor the time to examine his data. Am I supposed to? Everything held true to my experience and worldview. How many readers will do anything other than run his conclusions and arguments through the grid of their own values—just as I have done?
And here’s what I came out with when I did this: validation of words that have guided me since long before I could ever possibly understand sociological stats, since long before my parents would ever have let me be exposed to the very frank stories and personal testimonies in the book. When I was a young teen I read what Jesus said,
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.(Matthew 5:27–30 ESV)
I read it over and over because, in my adolescent mind, I thought it was cool that this paragraph was part of the longest unbroken stretch of red letters in the New Testament. I now know that it’s called the Sermon on the Mount.
At that age there was no way I could process the pros and cons of sexual temptations and opportunities on my own individual level, let alone on a societal one. All I could do was listen to Jesus and trust him. Or not. (And listen to Solomon in Proverbs 5–6 or not. Etc.) I was provided, in God’s providence, the very kinds of help Regnerus describes to help me side with Jesus rather than with the sexual revolution. I had a conservative religious community with its much-maligned “purity culture.”
And after reading Cheap Sex, I have never been more grateful. I argued once in a blog post that every group holding no-sex-before-marriage ideals is going to come up with mechanisms of in-group policing. It doesn’t have to sound so bad, and Cheap Sex shows why: encouraging others to be sexually pure is a way of protecting people. Women especially, but not only them. They’re the ones who suffer the most obvious and immedaite effects of the lowering price of sex. But men also suffer, even if at 24 and the height of their sexual “wealth” they think they’ve got it made in this society. They are betting away future happiness at the price of present pleasure. (Regnerus shows that they’re betting away present pleasure, too, actually. A life of lonely porn and masturbation is not fun.)
I look at my present pleasures—a beautiful wife, healthy children, loud children—and I’m grateful for a culture that knew, because Jesus told it and because of experiences encoded in it, to put guardrails around me during a time when those pleasures seemed impossibly far away.
Ironically, perhaps, I’ve been listening to lesbian feminist Camille Paglia read some of her essays on the one hand defending pornography—that’s her pagan, Dionysian streak—and on the other hand insisting that gender is not a social construct and that feminists in the academy have become man-bashers unwilling to acknowledge the good men have done for women for centuries—that’s her truth-seeking streak. The protection, the work, the war. Egalitarianism hasn’t raised women up and given them the power of men; it has made them play by men’s rules. To the detriment of them first and the whole society as a result.
A must read for pastors and those in Christian education.