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SOCIETY: Person of Interest
Article originally appeared in
Mark Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several articles and two books, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marriage and Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. But he is probably most famous for his research paper, published in the journal Social Science Research, titled "How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study."
For several years the conventional wisdom, or perhaps more accurately put, the unchallenged view, had been that there is no difference between children raised by parents who have same-sex relationships and children raised by their married mother and father. Regnerus's research found otherwise. The children of women who had same-sex relationships fared significantly worse on a number of outcomes. They were more likely to be on public assistance, to suffer depression, and to be unemployed. Their income was lower, as were their educational attainments. The children of fathers with same-sex relationships didn't fare quite as badly, but reported seldom living with their fathers for very long.
Despite the fact that Regnerus's paper was peer-reviewed, the backlash was swift and harsh. A month after its publication, some of his UT colleagues wrote a scathing op-ed accusing him of an "irresponsible and reckless misrepresentation of social science research." According to The Weekly Standard, two hundred "researchers and scholars" wrote a letter to the editor of Social Science Research insisting that he "hire scholars more sensitive to 'LGBT parenting issues' to write a critique for the journal's next edition." A formal complaint of "scientific misconduct" was lodged against Regnerus, though the University of Texas later determined that no formal investigation was warranted.
Dr. Regnerus spoke with us about the fallout from the publication of that research paper, why he thinks American life is becoming sexually bipolar, and what current sociological trends he sees as significant.
Let's talk about the New Family Structures Study on same-sex parenting that you conducted, and the fallout from it. The Weekly Standard wrote that "the professional intimidation of Mark Regnerus isn't about Mark Regnerus—it's about the next researcher who might attempt a study of gay parenting." Are you concerned about intimidation impeding research on sensitive topics?
Yes. While there are more avenues of information dissemination now than there used to be, I'm anxious that journal editors won't publish something even if it's very good because they just don't want to deal with it. But there's growth in the number of journals you can publish in. You can write in blogs. Same-sex marriage is a very live issue at the moment in public opinion and in politics. Typically these things work themselves out over many years.
You recently wrote a piece for Public Discourse in which you said this: "The academy so privileges arguments in favor of same-sex marriage and parenting that every view other than resounding support—including research conclusions—has been formally or informally scolded." What does that say about the state of the academy?
I can talk about the academy as far as my experience of it goes as a sociologist. What does it say? That it's hijackable and that the pursuit of truth wherever it might be found is largely a myth in some ways. Or if it's not a myth, it's a lot more costly than people realize.
Costly in what ways?
You forego lots of opportunities; you lose the esteem of colleagues, and you kiss raises good-bye—things like that.
You wrote the following in that same piece: "[T]here is no equivalent replacement for the enduring gift to a child that a married biological mother and father offer. It's no guarantee of success. It's not always possible. But the odds of emotional struggle at least double without it." As a sociologist, why do you think that's become a controversial stance to take, especially in light of decades-old research on the negative effects of divorce on children?
There's a fair amount of groupthink that goes on, and in sociology maybe more so than in some other disciplines. There are personal commitments against a claim like that. As far as I'm aware, I've never gone on record—verbally or in writing—saying that gay couples cannot raise children to be sound adults. What I do say is that the odds are taller than they are for married mothers and fathers. You say that amidst the most popular social movement of our time, and in the academy it's like spitting in the wind. As for divorce, similar dynamics were playing out twenty or thirty years ago on that subject. Sometimes you just have to take a very long view.
You've studied a variety of subjects, including premarital sex in America, attitudes about pornography, and sex on college campuses. As a sociologist are there any current trends that you see as especially significant?
I think we're seeing a trend in secularization, harkening back to when I was studying the sociology of religion, which I did for the longest period of my career. Secularization and sexual permissiveness are really tracking together. They're feeding each other. So where one is occurring, the other is not far behind. The role of technology in this area, too, is important. Someone, I forget who, has attributed some component of secularization to technology. And I think he's on to something. Certainly technology is exacerbating sexual permissiveness, on campus, off campus, and throughout the life course.
Something else I've noticed is the bifurcation in the West, and certainly in America, between more traditional sexuality and permissive sexuality. And it's a gap that's widening, and not because traditionalists have gotten more conservative. I really don't think they have. But the permissives are still moving leftward, so to speak. So they're the ones who are increasing the gap. They look around and think, What's wrong with these prudes? Well, the prudes didn't go anywhere. They've been somewhat stable.
What do you mean when you say that technology is exacerbating sexual permissiveness? Are you talking about pornography?
It really started with contraception. It sounds bad to talk about it because it's so widely practiced and not problematized. But the older I get, the more I observe behavior patterns and trends, and the more I think that it started then, with birth control. When you take the biggest risk out of sex, a lot more people are going to do it. It blew the door open to premarital sex and extramarital sex and all sorts of things. It really started with that. People don't problematize contraception like they problematize pornography. I would also say that online dating exacerbates the hookup mentality. I'm seeing its influence among forty-somethings and even fifty-somethings.
I've written about the mating market and how it was split by the uptake of contraception into a pool of people interested in marriage and a pool of people interested more promptly in sex. There are more women in the former and more men in the latter. So men feel like they're in the driver's seat in the marriage corner of the mating market, and they are because they're rarer. People attribute male power to the patriarchy, but that's just not the case. I attribute male power in the mating market to the fact that contraception gives men all kinds of bargaining power that they didn't use to have.
You wrote an article for Slate titled "Sex Is Cheap: Why Young Men Have the Upper Hand in Bed, Even When They're Failing in Life." It was one of Slate's most downloaded articles ever. Why do you think it was so widely read? And, as a sociologist, why do you think women are so willing to have sex without asking for what they really want, which—speaking generally—is commitment?
It doesn't feel like an individual decision to them anymore. And in some ways it's not. Because when everybody else is doing the same thing, or they perceive that everyone else is doing the same thing, they think their options are really limited. And in many real senses they are. Once upon a time, women used to ostracize other women who would be quicker to sleep with a man than they were. But that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. It signals that any idea of a cartel among women—a monopoly on sexual access—has eroded and all but disappeared. So you ask why women don't navigate the mating market in a way that is more consonant with their own interests, but it's easier said than done. They recognize that they have less power than they would like.
Why was the piece popular? Not because everybody agreed with it, but because everybody has an experience of the mating market. It tapped into something real. More men than women, I think, agreed with it. But I think they have less at stake. It's harder for women to come to terms with it because it's depicting their situation as more dire than they wish it to be. We have twice as many women who have not had children by age 40 today as we did as little as thirty years ago, and that's not because twice as many women didn't want to have them.
You wrote recently about American life becoming sexually bipolar. You talked about verbal expressions of sexual libertinism being rewarded, but not libertine behavior. What did you mean by that?
There's a permissiveness that's getting more profound, even if you don't see a lot of evidence of it publicly. For example, you see campus organizations wringing their hands over sexual misbehavior. But they're reaping what they've sown. So now they're thinking about how to put the genie back in the bottle. Some of us have been talking about prudence in this domain, but nobody wants to hear it. People want good behavior, but they don't want to do what it takes to foster it. I think about how the president of Catholic University got hammered for wanting to go back to single-sex dorms, a fairly modest barrier that you're raising to help people. So it really is kind of bipolar. We want better behavior, but we're willing to do nothing to get it except trying to reconstruct the scripts that people in the throes of intimacy are supposed to say. That's ridiculous. The least likely thing that's going to change is the script around the sexual act.
But you continued in that piece to talk about the "arc of history bending toward complementarity and chastity."
Eventually it does. It's not bending that way yet. I think it works its way out over decades and centuries in that direction. But it can take a long time. I'm a short-term pessimist, long-term optimist. •
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