Originally posted on scatterplot on 10/9/17

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mark Regnerus argues that men aren’t getting married because “sex has become rather cheap” (the op-ed is behind a paywall, but you can read excerpts here), and he elaborates the argument in a book he recently published (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book and don’t plan to). You may remember Regnerus from his article “Gay parents are bad, mmmkay?” the now-infamous study in which he used seriously flawed methods to conclude gay parenting has negative effects, by comparing the kids of gay people (many of whom had gotten divorced from the child’s other-sex parent, had never parented with a same-sex partner, or had never even lived with their child), to kids of people in intact heterosexual marriages. Turns out when comparisons are instead made between kids of people in intact heterosexual marriages and kids of those in intact same-sex couples, the kids turn out pretty much the same.

Now he’s back to tell us that the reason the marriage rate is so low these days is that these darn women keep giving it away for free and don’t face any consequences, or as multiple journalists have put it; “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” That is, sex is too easy to get these days with the rise of loose morals, internet hookup websites and even pornography, and not costly enough in consequences now that we have reliable contraception and legal abortion access (good thing the government is making it more expensive then). As a result, men don’t have to bother with commitment or fidelity or even with trying to be an appealing partner.

What is the underlying assumptions of this argument? You got it: Men like sex. A lot. Casual sex though, not relationship sex. They only wanted relationships and commitment because that was the only way to get sex. Now that they can have sex without it, they’d rather just go with the sex and not the relationships.

I had the opportunity to test out some of these ideas using a survey of over 24,000 students at 22 different colleges and universities around the United States, and recently published the results. The survey asked whether students wished they had more opportunities for hooking up, going on dates, or finding someone to have a relationship with at their college.

Our results counteract the idea that men want sex and not relationships. Yes, men want hookups more than women- more than twice as many men as women said they wanted more opportunities for hooking up. But they were much more likely to wish they had more opportunities for going on dates than for hookups, and even more likely to say they wanted to find someone to have a relationship with. In fact, they were even more likely than women to say they wanted opportunities for relationships (although the difference was small).

Our sample was only college students, who may be unique in several ways. For one, more educated people are more likely to eventually get married – the decline in marriage rates since the 1980s is largely driven by lower marriage rates among the less educated. What about the less educated men – the ones who are actually less likely to marry in recent decades?

As it happens, a few years ago I did another study focusing on educational differences in marriages in 20 cities, and why less educated men and women don’t marry as much as the highly educated. We focused on the type of couples most likely to have a good reason (and social pressure) to get married- parents who have children outside of marriage. We found that by the time their child was 5 years old, over 30% of these fathers with a college degree were married to their child’s mother, versus only 14% of fathers with a high school degree or less.

We also found that local labor market conditions explained the gap. Those with lower education had poorer job prospects, facing higher unemployment rates than those with more education. Regardless of whether an individual parent was employed, in cities where those with low levels of education had better job prospects (and lower unemployment rates), they were more likely to marry, and the marriage gap was smaller than in cities where they had worse job prospects.

Women’s employment prospects mattered for those with low levels of education (maybe because those with low levels of education were more likely to expect to depend on both spouses’ incomes), but men’s employment prospects were important at every level of education. If men had better job prospects, they were more likely to get married.

The real reason for the decline in marriage isn’t loose morals – it’s worsening economic conditions. The well-paying jobs that men could get at lower levels of education have eroded away, as have the unions that fought for and protected those wages. Although women have gained more equality in the workplace and at home, many retain traditional ideas about not “marrying down”, which for highly educated women may include not marrying men with lower levels of education or excessive student loans they can’t quickly pay off. For less educated women, that includes the many unemployed or underemployed men without a college education.

Meanwhile, the ‘transition to adulthood’- full time employment, financial independence, and a stable living situation – has been prolonged in recent years for both men and women. More and more young adults attend college, and graduate school, often moving in pursuit of education. Many then continue to move, sometimes multiple times, to build towards a well-paying career attractive to potential marriage partners, and stable enough to set down roots that can accommodate families in which both partners have careers. Many have student loans, which limits the financial stability they hope to achieve before marriage. Instead, they move in together, taking advantage of recent more liberal social norms in that regard, while building towards financial stability before entangling themselves legally. These patterns underlie drops in marriage rates, as couples wait until older ages to settle down and marry until they feel stable enough to do so.

Stability is the key feature of this equation. In his op-ed, Regnerus dismisses the idea that men’s wages underlie marriage trends, by citing a recent study finding that areas that have had a fracking boom have not had a subsequent increase in marriage rates. But fracking, a process that extracts local resources and then by necessity requires a move to new areas with new resources, hardly seems the type of long-term stable career that can underlie a 40 or 50 year marriage. The uneven sex-ratio in areas that have seen a fracking boom – 1.6 men for every woman in areas where the fracking boom is heaviest according to the New York Times – probably doesn’t help either.

The good news is that marriages that form at older ages tend to be more stable, and have lower divorce risks- leading to an overall lower divorce rate among young adults today. On the other hand, couples are more likely to have children outside of marriage, leading to less stable family situations for those children, which are associated with a number of disadvantages compared to the children of married parents.

The solution is not to tell women to shut their legs, or to make birth control more expensive. The solution is to build an economy in which young adults can get established in stable, well-paying jobs. The solution is to build an economy in which the jobs that are necessary for society to run, but don’t require a college degree, still pay a living wage. The solution is to properly fund higher education, so that graduates aren’t spending hundreds of dollars a month paying off their debt to the government until they are in their 40s. The solution is to build opportunity. If the opportunity is there, marriage rates will follow.

Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.