One researcher is claiming that women these days have less power in relationships, and so we'd all better get married young. But while relationship advice like this might make us mad (or anxious) it's not going to change our behavior.
Shockingly, Mark Regnerus and his colleague Jeremy Uecker have not scientifically determined the Optimum Age for a Lady's Wedding (so no Nobel just yet). Rather, they surveyed men and women aged 18-23 and found that their relationships became sexual relatively quickly, and that even "sub-optimal" men (a rather Brave New World way of referring to high school dropouts) were getting laid. Because of this, they claim the "price of sex" is low, and that women find themselves competing over men, who don't want to commit anyway because they can "access" sex easily. None of this is really that new — "hookup culture" hysteria has long had at its root the idea that some women are trying to buy relationships with sex, and that others "giving it away" for free disrupts this market — and the relationship advice Regnerus extrapolates from it isn't really new either. In an interview at Salon, he says,
This is where I get a little bit controversial and people don't like what I have to say. I don't think it's in women's interest to play the field for a long period of time. It can get depressing, not only about their relationships but to see the pool of men in their 30s who are available. My advice is if you find somebody who you love and who loves you, make it work, whatever it takes! To always think that something better is down the pathway, you might be mistaken.
Telling women that "playing the field" is bad for them isn't really controversial at all, although everyone who does it pretends it is. This advice has been around for ages, but it enjoyed a bit of a cultural resurgence with Lori Gottlieb's original article about "settling for Mr. Good Enough" back in 2008 (and her subsequent book last year). I was 24 when the article came out, but frankly, I'd already heard what she had to say — one consequence of spending a large chunk of your formative years on the internet is that you know a lot about other people's opinions, especially those that make you angry, anxious, or upset. Because of the ascendancy of folks like Gottlieb and Regnerus (who's been espousing early marriage for several years now) during my twenties, I often feel like I've grown up on the message that I should settle — and quick, if it's not too late already.
And yet, I haven't really followed this advice. It's not that it doesn't affect me — it would take a stronger person than I to read a whole slew of articles whose message is "you're living your life completely wrong" and not experience a little self-doubt. And other women I've talked to find the words of Regnerus et al anxiety-producing, regardless of their relationship status — dating is an area where the generalized advice of opinionators can feel uncomfortably personal, like they're talking right at you. Which they often are — hence the imperative title of Gottlieb's book, Marry Him. And yet, I firmly believe that much of this advice falls on deaf ears — because when it comes to relationships, most people are going to continue doing exactly what they feel like doing.
This is not to say that some people don't marry, or break up for that matter, for pragmatic reasons. Or that people don't feel social pressure from their families, friends, and communities. I'm well aware that few decisions happen in a vacuum. I'm just skeptical that any book or article, even one supposedly backed up by research, has the power to impact these decisions all that much. In my (admittedly limited) experience, people do what they want to do in love, to the extent that they're socially, financially, and practically able to, and all the rhetoric in the world has little power to change people's desires. What it's great at doing, though, is making us feel bad about them.
I don't think people should stop doing sociological research into sex, dating, and relationships. Early-marriage advocates can even keep on yammering about the "price of sex" if they feel like it. But I do wish they'd realize that telling women what to do with their love lives accomplishes nothing more than anxiety. And if they really want to make women happy, as they often claim, the best thing they can do is stop talking.
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