Is Cheap Sex Causing Men to Give Up on Marriage?

I’ve been a marriage and family counselor for more than 40 years. My wife, Carlin, and I have been happily married now for 37 years. There are five important things I’ve learned in my personal and professional life:

  1. A joyful marriage is one of the greatest gifts anyone can have.
  2. Too many marriages go under, just when the couple could be enjoying their lives the most.
  3. Most people would like to have a joyful, juicy, relationship that lasts through time.
  4. Many people are reluctant to marry given the risks of unhappiness and divorce.
  5. An increasing number of men are choosing easy sex over marriage.

There are many reasons why men and women are having a difficult time with marriage these days. One reason may be the increase of cheap sex. The term “cheap sex” is an economic term meant to describe sex that has a low cost in terms of investment. If a person doesn’t have to invest a great deal to get the sexual return they want, the sex is cheap.

Of course, men, like women, don’t just want sex. In my popular article “The One Thing Men Want More Than Sex,” I say that more than the sexual pleasure of “getting off,” men want a safe harbor, a place where we can feel nurtured, care for, loved, and appreciated for who we are. Of course, developing the relationship skills to develop and maintain a caring, trusting, relationship between the members of a couple takes time and skill.

Generally, relationship skills are more easily developed by women than men. Further, men may start off with a disadvantage. According to Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male & Female Brain, “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

The qualifying word “predominantly” is important. It’s not saying that all women have brains that make them more empathic than all men. But just as we can say that most men are taller and stronger physically than most women, we can recognize and accept that women are more skilled at developing and maintaining close relationships.

The number of young, married, Americans between the ages 25-34 dropped 13% from 2000 to 2014.  A new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, by sociologist Mark Regnerus blames this declining rate on how easy it is for men to find a willing sex partner. According to Regnerus, “When attractive women will still bed you, life for young men, even those who are floundering, just isn’t so bad. This isn’t to say that all men direct the course of their relationships. Plenty don’t. But what many young men wish for—access to sex without too many complications or commitments—carries the day.”

Based on what I’m seeing in my practice as a therapist, this isn’t just true for young men, but for older men as well. More older men are finding that the demands and challenges of an intimate partnership and family life are difficult to maintain. More are seeking out women who are willing to accept a much lower level of commitment and involvement.

Regnerus blames cheap sex for the decreasing education and employment rates among men as greater numbers of women get college degrees and enter the labor force. There are many reasons that men are falling behind women in education, including a school environment that often favors women’s emotional intelligence and de-emphasizes men’s need for physical education and action. But if men are less motivated to work hard to get educated, that is another important factor. In past generations, women generally made men wait until marriage to have sex. Women wanted a man who was educated and had a good job. As a result, more men were motivated to follow the societal rules that made them good marriage material.

Now with porn on demand, the proliferation of on-line dating services, and a greater acceptance of premaritial sexuality, sex is easier to obtain than ever before. This has left men with less motivation for marriage, says Regnerus. He cites demographer Steven Ruggles’ prediction that one of every three people in their 20s will never marry.

Regnerus even points to “Fifty Shades of Grey” to prove his point. In the book, Christian Grey gets Anastasia Steele to agree to a series of submissive conditions, including “any sexual activity deemed fit and pleasurable” by him, with no such power returned on her end. “I recognize that ‘Fifty Shades’ is fiction,” Regnerus writes. “It’s made up. But when you sell 100 million copies in two years, your narrative is resonating. There’s something to it.”

Meanwhile, many will go it alone. Self-love for men and women is at an all-time high. A 1992 study found that 29 percent of men (and 9 percent of women) masturbated at least once a week. In 2014, 49 percent of men (and 32 percent of women) confessed to doing it at least once in the previous six days. Unsurprisingly, “as frequency of [watching] porn increased, so did masturbation.”

In their book, The Demise of Guys, psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan say, “In record numbers, guys are flaming out academically, wiping out socially with girls, and failing sexually with women.” They trace problems males are having to lure of addictive technologies that males are subjected to from a young age.

“We believe this demise can be traced to the rise of technology enchantment,” say Zimbardo and Duncan. “From the earliest ages, guys are seduced into excessive and mostly isolated viewing and involvement with texting, tweeting, blogging, online chatting, emailing, and watching sports on TV or laptops. Most of all, though, they’re burying themselves in video games and in getting off on all-pervasive online pornography.”

Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, who study this phenomenon. “Nowadays young men can skip the wearying detour of getting education and career prospects to qualify for sex,” they write. “Sex has become free and easy. This is today’s version of the opiate of the (male) masses.”

I think we need to look deeper if we’re going to understand the reasons males are flaming out in school, becoming more reliant on technology and porn, and never learning the social skills that enable guys to find real, lasting love. What I see when I look deeper is Lost Fathers.

 According to the National Center for Fathering, “More than 20 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father. Millions more have dads who are physically present, but emotionally absent. If it were classified as a disease, fatherlessness would be an epidemic worthy of attention as a national emergency.”

I’m not saying fatherlessness is the only cause of the demise of guys, but the father wound is one important result. Roland Warren, former President of The National Fatherhood Initiative says, “Kids have a hole in their soul in the shape of their dad. And if a father is unwilling or unable to fill that hole, it can leave a wound that is not easily healed.”

When we have a hole in the soul, we try and fill it with all kinds of things, including the temporary highs we get from tweeting, texting, and sexting. Healing the father wound will go a long way towards filling the hole in our soul left by our lost fathers. I’m writing a new book about the father wound. If you’re interested in learning more, drop me a note at by emailing me and put “the book” in the subject line or leave a comment below.