What do we see when we look at the sexual landscape of contemporary America? In a way, the title says it all. We live in a world where sex is cheap. The choice of an economic term is very deliberate here, because the whole book represents an effort to analyze American sexual practices through the quasi-economic lens of “sexual exchange.” When he claims that sex is cheap, Regnerus isn’t pricing prostitutes. He’s assessing what a person (specifically, a man) must do to secure access to sex. Nowadays the answer is: not much. It has not always been so.
If it seems odd to analyze sex in market terms, consider that people always have reasons for seeking romance. We all hope to gain something in entering into a sexual relationship, whether a marriage, a one-night stand, or anything in between. Men and women tend to want different things, though. Men have a higher sex drive, and are slower to invest emotionally in their relationships. Women enjoy sex too, but intimacy and moral support tend to be higher relationship priorities for them. (Even sex is more pleasurable for women in the context of committed relationships.) The “terms” of our sexual exchanges are continually being shaped by our appraisal of our real options. What are we obliged to give to our partners, and what can we realistically expect in return? Thinking about sex in quasi-economic terms can help us to understand this ongoing process.