Ideals of chastity that in the past shored up the commitment to marriage have been replaced with paeans to freedom and personal autonomy.
Sex has forever been a big seller. That's why in the media saturated world we live in, we are awash with sexual words and images. Today the radio is blaring news of the sex life of Harvey Weinstein, an aging movie mogul and his exploits on the casting couch. September's magazines and newspapers fell all over themselves celebrating the contributions to slaying America's sexual hang-ups by Playboy's crusading publisher, Hugh Hefner. Television networks, first cable and now broadcast, are in a constant race to educate its viewers to the good, the bad and the ugly of sexual intercourse. And then, there is Internet porn, a favorite of American children, where every form of sexual debauchery and abnormality is just a click away.
But outside the media world, in the real world of bedrooms, bars and backseats, it is a different story.
Sex isn't selling as well as it once did. Researchers report that on average, Americans are having sex about nine times a year fewer than they did in the late 1990s. Nine is not a large number. However, this declining trend is most pronounced among the young. For instance, people born in the 1930s had the most sex, whereas those born in the 1990s report the least.
Despite all the talk about the "hookup culture," the vast majority of sex happens today within well-defined relationships. But Americans are having more trouble forming these relationships than ever before. The decline in sex, therefore, is linked to the decline of marriage. As of 2014, 52 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 have never been married.
Some believe that marriage is just not that much of a passion anymore. Young people are now more apt to experience and express their passion for an activity or a cause than for another person. Surfing, hiking and soccer command their minds. Yet when a couple wants to experience sex as just another activity, a bedroom sport, they no longer have to negotiate with a wedding ring.
Ideals of chastity that in the past shored up the commitment to marriage have been replaced with paeans to freedom and personal autonomy. Today plenty of women like living alone, without all the fuss and bother of a messy and uncertain carnal relationship.
University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus declares that marriage is in retreat for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the men are wary of commitment and says they "aren't done being stupid yet." He suggests a typical guy just wants to go out and have sex with a million girls. Admittedly this "typical guy" sounds like a jerk. Why would he commit to the whole marriage bit when he can have fun for a while?
Some economists argue that the flight from marriage is about men's low wages. If they were higher, men would have more confidence to marry. On the other hand, a major finding of a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that increased wages did nothing to boost marriage rates. In regions enriched by the fracking boom, increased wages did not lead to more marrying.
Professor Regnerus' new book is "Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy" offers a straightforward and primal explanation for the slowed pace toward marriage. For American men, sex has become cheap. As compared to the past, women demand little in return for sex. It's just activity. Therefore, men, in return, seldom even buy dinner. Without this interplay of young men and women that is the current scene, we wouldn't have a roster of those television shows about their misadventures. But this is the new sexual norm for Americans, men and women alike, of every age.
Cheap sex that was made possible by the Pill, further discounted by pornography and made more efficient by the popular hook up site, Tinder. On the other hand, it has proven to be a bad bargain for women, leaving them lonelier and less connected than they once were.
Some pundits are targeting the use of social media for a decline in just about everything, but most especially sex. The ping of an incoming text message or a Facebook post delivers a dopamine hit, certainly smaller than sex delivers, but satisfying nonetheless. For little effort, those posts give a false sense of being connected to another person.
Young, unmarried Catholics may bathe in digital media and join the social scene, but they are not finding what they want. Perhaps it is just too old fashioned to think there are enough Catholic and other chaste girls who are also looking for a commitment to marriage and family.
Several men we know have checked out candidates on CatholicMatch.com. Seldom have they met girls the old way such as at a Christmas party given by the parents of their college roommates or a church dance. They are concerned that so many girls are already sexually active. They may not exactly believe a girl who has "been around" will not be a faithful wife, but it's a question mark.
Certain bastions of chastity still exist. Some families have kept up the wait-till-marriage caution. In general, these are families of faith. For the sake of their sons and daughters, more parents should adopt this view.
As Catholics, we need to foster the mentality that a marriage is more than a career. That giving up some of their freedom is the pathway to one of life's greatest adventures.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.
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