We Christians are used to fretting about the licentiousness rampant in American society, and indeed there is much to fret about. According to the National Survey of Family Growth, four in five American women aged 20 and 21 say they have had intercourse. The same numbers report having engaged in oral sex, and over one in four report having had anal sex. Most of these young ladies, of course, are unmarried.
Now let’s broaden the picture. Over one in every four 18- to 24-year-old college students—men and women—reports having had six or more sexual partners since becoming sexually active. (Many cross the sex threshold in high school.) And many of these college students remain sexually active, with over 40 percent reporting engaging in oral sex and vaginal sex in the past month. These alarming figures are highlighted in the forthcoming book Uncovered: New Research on What America’s Sexual Culture Does to Young Women (Northfield Publishing), by physicians Joe McIlhaney and Freda M. Bush.
The results are sadly predictable. In the year 2000, an estimated 19 million cases of sexually transmitted infections occurred. These infections run the gamut from HIV, to HPV, to chlamydia, to many more. Some STIs lead to embarrassment, others to depression, others to infertility, still more to death. Then there is the whole issue of unplanned pregnancy and abortion, which we needn’t dwell on here.
Certainly a big reason is our society’s continuing rejection of the Judeo-Christian worldview and its concomitant sexual morality. Well has it been said that our ethics follow our theology. It is no surprise that people who have forgotten about the God of the Bible don’t find it too difficult to forget his commandments that forbid fornication and adultery in favor of chastity until marriage and lifelong fidelity thereafter. Also, sometimes our theology follows our morals. More than one atheist has been made after following his or her glands into an immoral lifestyle.
Yet there is more involved in our debauched state than this. Sin has a way of insinuating itself into our lives even when unbidden. Take, for example, the professional unshackling of women in the West. A generation ago, most women were homemakers whose financial security largely depended on the professional success of their husbands. Today, thanks to the removal of most barriers in education and the workplace, women are free to head to the office or to stay at home. Increasing numbers are choosing to do the former.
Men aren’t doing nearly as well, unfortunately. Manufacturing jobs, traditionally held by men who were not suited for the academic life, are drying up, and fewer males are getting ahead in today’s information-based knowledge economy. In fact, on college campuses, women routinely outnumber men—sometimes by nearly three to two. Hurrah for women? Not so fast.
At what should be their moment of triumph, many women now find themselves in the uneasy position of competing with themselves for the fewer available men. The balance of power in sex has clearly shifted, and women are the clear losers.
That’s the thesis of Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Regnerus, in a new book, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying (Oxford, co-authored with Jeremy Uecker), says the traditional sexual bargain between men and women no longer applies. In the past, women, backed up by their parents and by society, generally allowed men sexual access only in marriage. A man usually had to provide evidence and assurance that he would provide for and protect the woman. No more. Under these conditions, many young men never have to grow up to get what they want.
“Relationships that form under the current conditions of imbalance tend to become sexual more quickly than when they form under more balanced gender ratios,” Regnerus tells Katelyn Beaty in the February issue of Christianity Today. “As women who are highly educated and successful outnumber men, this drives down the ‘market price’ of sex.”
It doesn’t help matters that the age of marriage continues to rise, making premarital sex that much more likely. According to the Census Bureau, the median age at first marriage has been rising for half a century. In 1960, men got married just before the age of 23, women at around age 20. In 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available, the median age for men was up to 27.5 years, and 25.6 years for women. Then there is the easy availability of pornography, which introduces even more “competition” for the affections of males.
Regnerus notes that these trends affect Christians, too: “So many young adult Christians are making peace with premarital sex—some because they wish to, but many because they feel they have little choice, that to delay sex puts the relationship at risk. That’s how male-dominated romantic relationships have become.”
Regnerus says churches need to step in. He suggests that churches emphasize marriage as a “developmental priority” for young people, provide avenues for Christian singles to meet one another, and challenge men to woo women, rather than take them for granted.
Many young people delay getting married—but still have sex—until their economic prospects brighten. We have no sure way to turn the national economy around as individual believers. But our personal sexual economies are entirely under our control. And they start with one little word: No.
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