By Mark Regnerus / September 21, 2017
Sarah is 32 years old and recently moved to Texas from New York, looking for a new start—in more ways than one.
Brooklyn had grown too expensive for her hipster pocketbook. A relationship she had hoped would blossom and mature there had instead withered. So to Austin she came, hoping she could improve upon her modest $22,000 annual earnings the previous year.
Her most recent sexual partner—Daniel—was not actually a relationship per se. He was not the reason she moved. Rather, he was a 23-year-old American she had met in China four years before during a three-week language immersion program.
The acquaintance and the sex were not that unusual for her, historically: “I meet people in strange places. … It just happens.”
When they first met, and slept together, Sarah was in a relationship with David, the man for which she had moved to, and then away from, New York. She ended up “cheating on him,” that is, David, several times. She felt guilty, because “I’d be heartbroken if someone was cheating on me, you know.” So she would stop.
If you’re having trouble keeping times, dates, and boyfriends straight, it’s understandable. Sarah herself laughs at the drama of it all.
Relational reality for very many young adults is not easily mapped today. There are fits and starts, flames and flame-outs.
Sarah conveyed an account replete with honest attempts at working it out with David, a musician who seemed more committed to making it in the industry than to making it work with her:
I’m like, ‘I want to get married. I want to have kids.’ And you know, he basically told me that I shouldn’t waste my time on him because he didn’t know. And I said, ‘All right then, I’m not gonna waste my time.’
David and Sarah were finally through. She plotted her move in part to make her decision stick.
But then Daniel reappeared. He was not actually living in New York; he was in Rhode Island. But that did not matter so much, especially when on the rebound: “From then until three weeks ago we had this (arrangement), basically like whenever he came to town, we got together and dated and, like, slept with each other.”
Getting serious was never much of an option. He was 23, and she was 32: “We both knew … he was graduating from college and, you know, like we both, at least I knew it was never gonna work out. I think he kind of felt the same way.”
Why? “He’s 23 and I didn’t want to be in New York … we had fun and everything but I was like, I don’t wanna marry the guy.” Her mental age range for a mate is between 32 and 40.
Daniel and David were not Sarah’s only partners. She recounted “probably about 20” partners when asked about it. Most of them were during a several-year stint in Baltimore, before her time in New York. Four were one-night stands, the rest longer.
When asked how rapidly her relationships tend to become sexual, Sarah replied, “the first or second date.” That account did not stand out from those of many other interviewees.
The numbers are on her side, too. In the 2014 Relationships in America survey, sex before the relationship begins was the modal—meaning the most common—point at which Americans report having first had sex in their current relationships.
Is her timing of sex intentional? No. “It just happens,” she reasoned. Trained to detect unlikely passivity, I responded skeptically with a “Nothing just happens. Tell me how this works.”
Well, it happens if there’s really strong physical chemistry. If there’s physical chemistry then usually it’s gonna, the date’s gonna end with some kind of, like, physical (activity), at least for me in my experience. [Even date number one?] Oh yeah, (laughs). Date number one, like, kissing, and then I feel like the kissing always leads to something else. [You feel like it, or you make it, or …?] It just does, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s me, I think it’s more the guy, and then I’m just OK with it. And then a lot of times, though, I will say, like, there are times when I feel comfortable with having sex on the first date, and other times I don’t feel comfortable. [How do you discern those?] Depending on if I like the guy more or not. [So if you like the guy more which one happens?] I don’t want to have sex with him. [OK. Can you explicate that a little bit?] (Laughs) … Because I wanna see him again, and I don’t want it to just be about something physical.
She nevertheless often finds herself regretting “first-date sex,” she admits, but finds it difficult to predict beforehand: During the date itself “I feel like I get (sighs) … caught up in the moment.”
So waiting for the second or third date, she asserts, is a better strategy than first-date sex, because “he’s going to stay interested.”
This, she claims, is the standard approach to dating among her peers, if not necessarily the most optimal: “I don’t think it’s unusual, but I think that for a lasting relationship, it’s not the best approach.”
As noted above, Sarah was 32 years old when we spoke with her. The 30s are notorious for their association with women’s “ticking biological clock.” Sarah was well aware of her age and the fertility challenges it might soon present, but had grown ambivalent on the matter.
Did she want children, as she noted in passing when discussing the end of her relationship with Daniel?
I don’t know. I’ve always wanted, it’s interesting because I’ve always wanted children. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be a great mom,’ and, and umm, the last couple years, I, I don’t know. I definitely want to get married, like that, I definitely wanna get married and do that deal, but I don’t know if I wanna have kids or not. … [But you used to want them?] I used to want them.
Three years later, now 35, Sarah continues to live in Austin and continues to find commitment elusive. She does not dislike her life, but it is not the one she envisioned a decade earlier.
Her account is not unusual. In fact, the relationship histories that young Americans tell us about are growing increasingly predictable: plenty of sex, starting early (before expressions of love but not necessarily before feelings of and hopes about it), underdeveloped interest in sacrificing on behalf of the other (especially but not exclusively discernable in men), accounts of “overlapping” partners, much drama, and in the end nothing but mixed memories and expired time.
Valuable “experience,” many call it. Some have fulfilling careers to focus on, steering their attention away from other, less successful areas of their lives. Others, like Sarah, find themselves frustrated there as well.
Some are becoming jaded, skeptical. Others hold out hope or redirect themselves toward a different vision of the good life. While some observers are adamant that we are making progress in sex, sexuality, and relationships, others aptly wonder about the state of our unions.
In the end, many find themselves ambivalent about it all. There are personal and relational freedoms for which many fought hard. And there are certainly technologies that seem to boost equality and simplify our lives—including how people meet and evaluate each other—but somehow they have not spelled notably greater happiness and relationship contentment.
This modified excerpt was taken with permission from Mark Regnerus’ book, “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, research associate at its Population Research Center, and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.