Review Symposium on Mark Regnerus’s “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy”

As book review editor with Men and Masculinities, I’m often having books reviewed outside my area of expertise. My goal has always been to make sure I’m reviewing books that represent the field, incorporating work by a diverse group of scholars, making sure to review the work done by women in the field, and including reviews from graduate students and faculty both in the U.S. and abroad. This year, the sociologist Mark Regnerus published a new book on masculinity and sexualityCheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy. It received a great deal of publicity, and quickly.

Just to consider the scale of publicity of the book, it was covered in New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post (twice, once an op-ed by Regnerus himself), The Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, The Globe and Mail, the Chicago Sun-Times, in addition to more conservative venues like Fox News and the National Review (again, twice, and once by Regnerus himself). This is, quite literally, just a very few of the public venues that reported on this research. As a public sociologist interested in more sociological research reaching public audiences, I was completely blown away. It’s rare to receive a single story in some of these outlets reporting on important sociological work, let alone this kind of massive national attention and sustained dialogue. Even more interesting because, while the book includes a massive collection of new data and analysis, the argument he’s pursuing in the book has been pursued before (more on this in a bit).

The reviews of the book are mixed in the public outlets. Some simply summarize his argument and suggest that he proved it while others are critical of the argument and study to varying degrees. Either way, very quickly, the book became a piece of a national conversation about men, masculinity, and sex. Those blurbing the work were all celebratory in their comments (as book blurbs often are). Perhaps most impressive were social theorist Anthony Giddens‘ comments, who referred to the book as “a magisterial study of the changing sexual landscape today,” and predicted that it would “become a standard work of reference in the field.” High praise!

I decided the book merited a conversation in the field. So, with the editor’s blessings, I invited a collection of scholars to review different elements of the book as a part of a review symposium at Men and Masculinities. I’ve read just about every issue of the journal and I think we’ve done something novel here. Distinct from some symposiums like this at other journals, this one ended up being less congratulatory. In some ways, it’s an odd thing to publish. But, in other ways, I felt the book was part of a larger issue in the field. It pursues an argument we’ve encountered before–leaning on a biologically deterministic position regarding men’s alleged insatiable desire for sex, albeit with new data and a new take.

Regnerus’s argument is that women have started to demand less from men in exchange for sex and this has produced a world historical shift and crisis for gender, sexuality, monogamy, and marriage more generally. He borrows an economic theory (“exchange theory”) to propose this, and leans on a variety of claims from biologically deterministic positions and evolutionary psychology to support his position as well. And he also marshals an incredible amount of evidence from nationally representative surveys and a sample of interviews he collected. There’s a lot to this book. So, I wanted a collection of people capable of reading it from these different perspectives to help readers of Men and Masculinities make sense of the argument.

I’m sharing it here because i hope people read and share the reviews. Sociologist Paula England (a supporter of exchange theory within sociology) assesses his use of this framework and reviews the applicability of exchange theory to his discussion of sex. I invited the anthropologist and NPR blogger Barbara J. King to evaluate his use of biological and evolutionary theories and frameworks that he relies on to support some of the larger claims in the book. And I asked the sociologist Philip N. Cohen to review the data and analysis critically. All three are public scholars par excellence. And I hope they produced a symposium that can be a touchstone as we encounter work subject to some of the critiques of this book.

We’ve published it ahead of print and online at SocArXiv here: https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/tqrwu/ (for those of you outside of academia, this means it’s not yet published, but will be in a forthcoming issue). I hope you will read it and share it with friends and colleagues. When arguments like this reach outside of academia, critiques from their peers should follow that reach and be a part of that conversation as well. That’s how we use science to make the world a better place. It’s part of the process and project.

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