Saturday, June 11, 2011

Friends with Benefits & Benefits without Friends

Recently I’ve been reading a new book on relationships that raised a number of questions for me, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker. One of the first questions it raised was, “How do you pronounce Uecker?” But never mind about that now.

Mark Regnerus, the senior author, teaches sociology at the University of Texas and has a particular interest in the effects of religion and other ideologies on behavior, so it was no surprise that one of the chapters in Premarital Sex takes a close look at this question. The chapter is titled “Red Sex, Blue Sex: How to Do Sex.”

No wait, that’s the title of a little known, X-rated Dr. Seuss video.

Regnerus and Uecker’s actual chapter title is “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Relationship Norms in a Divided America.” The Red and Blue refer to conservative and liberal attitudes toward sexuality.

R and U offer us a wealth of data on the differences between conservative and liberal ideas about sex, cohabitation, marriage and family. Their focus is on young adults (i.e., 18- to 23-year-olds), and one of their biggest findings is that having or pursuing a college education is a more powerful predictor of behavior than is political ideology. Liberal male collegians, for example, report having had about four sexual partners while liberal non-collegians report twice as many.

For conservative males the ratio is similar:

Politically Conservative Males, Lifetime Sexual Partners
(so far – we’re talking about 18-23-year-olds here)

Collegians 3
Non-collegians 7

Reds and Blues do differ quite a lot in the way they think about their behavior. Both liberals and conservatives cohabit, but for conservatives, cohabitation is usually conceptualized as a step on the way to marriage. It may not actually lead to marriage, but it is important for it to be seen as aimed in that direction rather than as something done for its own sake.

We need a term for belief systems like this that have little impact on behavior. Maybe we could call them “Culture without Consequences.”

I should note here that idealizations based on marriage do have some behavioral consequences. Conservatives, for example, tend to marry younger than do liberals. But in general, the conservative inclination to define sex in relationship to marriage does not prevent them from engaging in pre-marital or non-marital sex. It just inclines them to categorize it as either marriage-oriented or as naughty.

This kind of thinking reminds me of the Marxist notion of False Consciousness: an understanding of social relationships that is misguided but that helps justify the continuation of a given social order.

In America, our biggest chunk of false consciousness is the myth that says social mobility is the norm: “This is the land of opportunity, and if you ain’t getting’ rich, it’s cuz you’re some kinda loser.”

This belief is wrong, though it is widely believed. Marxist false consciousness does, in fact, have real behavioral consequences, as when politicians promote policies based on this false idea.

Back to sex: Regnerus and Uecker spill a good deal of ink outlining the differences between male and female responses to casual sex. They report that women, in general, are more troubled by brief sexual encounters, but there are exceptions. They interviewed both cautious, sensitive males and happily promiscuous females, but these were the exceptions for each gender.

One informant from Rhode Island illustrates a nightmarishly frightening specimen of male irresponsibility. They call him Justin and they quote him at length:

“[I’m in a bad mood because it’s two weeks into the semester and] I still haven’t banged a chick.”

Furthermore, Justin elaborates, “some fucking freshman chick didn’t return my calls last night.”

Justin spends most of his time trying to access alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and sex. He had already decided that the $40 he earned by participating in R and U’s research would be spent on cocaine that he could use to “bang…this grad student …who loves this shit.”

If Justin could change anything about his life, it would be to increase his ability “to get like, more bitches and shit.”

So, what do we make of Justin? I imagine there are some women who would say, “What’s so different about him? I’ve known lots of guys like that.” But I’m inclined to think that he represents an extreme on the male irresponsibility continuum.

OK, so where is the cultural context within which his values are nurtured? People don’t just dream up the things they believe in, they get them from somewhere. In Justin’s case, I suppose he got his from some male-only context (fraternity? locker room?) within which his discourse wouldn’t attract negative attention. But certainly it would be shocking to hear him say these things in a classroom or at a family gathering.

Regnerus and Uecker’s work reminds me of an article that I recently co-authored with Rollins student Kaley Sinclair on the topic of “friends with benefits.” What we found in the interviews on which our piece was based, was the same sort of thing that Regnerus and Uecker found. For one thing, we found that men are more likely than women to find the friends with benefits relationship an acceptable long-term arrangement. But in addition to this, most of the people that described their relationships to us did not depict what we would call “friendships.” Typically the benefits were there, but the friendship was not. In fact, it seemed to us, that if a real friendship existed as the basis for such a relationship, then the relationship would evolve into a more emotionally involved thingamajig. Love, or something like that.

But we are not starry-eyed romantics, and we are not trying to promote any particular life philosophy here. We’re just scientists who happen to find relationships interesting. Like Regnerus and Uecker.

Take it for what it’s worth.