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Cheap Sex is the “Inconvenient Truth” in the Retreat from Marriage

NYU Sociologist Paula England is right.1 The retreat from marriage in America began in the late 1960s, took off in the 1970s, and continues to the present day (see the figure below). It concerns jobs—good ones—and their scarcity, especially for the less-educated men and women who have experienced the biggest declines in marriage.

But it’s not all about jobs, as she concurs in her recent essay on this blog. The advent and uptake of the pill was “the biggest game-changer” for relationships and marriage in the 1960s and 1970s, as England notes, and not just for women. That which enabled women to finish college, have careers, and delay childbearing—all the while navigating relationships—gave men more say over those relationships, especially over the timing of first sex within them, and now increasingly before them. That’s one of the assertions of my book Cheap Sex. But we also agree that the pill “is clearly not the whole story of why age at marriage went up…” There’s more to it—just like there’s more to my book than the brief, adapted essay, “Cheap Sex and the Decline of Marriage,” that appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. In this exchange, England and I debate the relative role that the wider “jobs” economy and the sexual economy have played in the post-1970s marriage slump. We agree on plenty, starting on page 11 of the book, where I make it clear that “men are languishing when compared with women,” in both higher education and in the labor force:

As recently as October 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that over 11 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54—about seven million people—were neither employed nor seeking work. What are they doing, and why have they come to languish?

We agree that the most pronounced decline in marriage is among those without college degrees. As England notes, it is estimated that between 32-41% of Millennial men without such degrees will not have married by age 40. Why? That’s the big question. I will presume from her argument (and logic) that women consider such men less marriageable—bad bets—because the prospect of future earnings still matters to women. Sociologist Ariella Kuperberg concurs, citing in the blog, Scatterplot her own study with Kristen Harknett, which concluded that “(i)f men had better job prospects, they were more likely to get married.” Granted. I am not disagreeing with the claim that the economic woes of men have contributed to their declining marriageability. Where I disagree is whether marriage rates will bounce back, should men’s economic prospects brighten. I don’t see it happening. (I would be happy to be wrong.) In other words, I do not think the retreat from marriage in America is driven solely by economic forces.

Read more at Institute of Family Studies –

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