Review of “Premarital Sex in America” by Regnerus and Uecker

Book Review of Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker’s Premarital Sex in America


Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker’s Premarital Sex In America makes use of a large body of data in order to show how the two forces of sexual economics and sexual scripts—sometimes working in harmony, sometimes in conflict—heavily influence the thoughts and assumptions of unmarried emerging adults in America. While their intended audience is not explicitly confessed, it seems Regnerus and Uecker are writing simultaneously to both older generations who may desire education about younger adults, as well as to emerging adults themselves. By recounting the stories and expressed thoughts of the upcoming generation, Regnerus and Uecker’s work uncovers many unspoken and unexamined scripts, offering helpful insights into the assumptions, attitudes, and actions that unmarried young adults have about sex.

How sex happens and why it happens are the questions this book hopes to explore (12). In this work, the authors assume that, for most emerging adults, sex is complicated. This complication, according to Regnerus and Uecker, is mostly caused by a potential conflict between the voices of sexual scripting and the social reality of sexual economics. Yet the goal of this work however is deeper than only to heighten reader awareness. Regnerus and Uecker take a step further by offering data and narratives that provides readers with “alternative stories about sex” which may offer contrasting suppositions about sex (238).

In dialog with mainstream American culture, Regnerus and Uecker choose to interact with 18-25 year old heterosexuals (i.e. emerging adults) for specific reasons (1, 5). With the cultural development of adolescence comes for many Americans a “holding pattern” which Regnerus and Uecker suggest problematizes an individual’s ability to self-identify as an adult (5). This halted state, the authors conclude is typically only broken for many Americans when the pressures of marriage, career responsibilities, childbearing, and maturation “force them to recognize their adult status and identity” (5). Such pressures become so central for this book that even its chapter’s themes reflect the need for dialog concerning maturation points such as college life (chapter four), emotional development (chapter five), marriage (chapter six), and social and political loyalties (chapter seven).

The main authenticator of authority in this work, is the ubiquity of nationally representative survey data, in-person interview verbatims, and detailed statistical charts. Interviewees who provide such data also represent key demographics of emerging Americans including ages, sex, race, income, religion, and education (11). This representation is important as it shows that the data in this study comes from subjects who are likely experiencing the forces of sexual scripts and sexual economics that are so important to the thesis of Regnerus and Uecker. It is important to note here that according to the authors, sexual scripting has to do with learned narratives and assumptions that guide emerging adults in their sexual engagement and ethics, while the sexual economy is a theoretical term dealing with the idea that sex functions in society as a resource that undergoes changing cost as well as supply and demand (4, 53).

Throughout the book, Regnerus and Uecker attempt to show that sexual economics and sexual scripts truly do guide emerging adults at a functional level. In doing so, the authors share the common assumption that learned narratives shape both the morals (scripts) and the actions (economy) of emerging adults. Yet, despite this assumption, Regnerus and Uecker stop short of offering much advice on which scripts may induce healthy behavior and identity and which scripts may be damaging to one’s emotional or psychological state. This may be evidenced in chapter five in which the authors avoid much advice-giving while surveying the statistical connections between low emotional health and various practices of sexual engagement.  Indeed, at a level of application, any ethical leanings of the authors only poke through a concealing pathos not unlike the popular “to each his/her own” motto.

With such assumptions in place, it is difficult to derive any sense that Premarital Sex in America seeks to advocate for one particular sexual ethic. Concrete practices furthermore seem to lay outside the scope of authorial intent. Still, it would be an error to say that this book avoids the subject of ethics altogether. Indeed, Regnerus and Uecker seem to believe that sexual ethics in emerging adults are taught and learned amongst peers and are tied up with cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic statuses. When it comes to sex in emerging American adults, Regnerus and Uecker claim, stories are especially formative as they normalize and appropriate sexual engagement (239). In short, it seems the authors find that sexual ethics are conditional responses.

Regnerus and Uecker’s idea that sexual engagement of 18-25 year old American adults is driven by sexual economics and sexual scripts is compelling. It will be easy for many readers to notice their own stories, experiences, and assumptions in the narratives and data presented in this study. One might need only to consider their own social history to notice sexual economics at play or turn on the TV in order to see sexual scripts overtly being offered to young adults. This is why sexual scripting in particular may be a phenomena that Christians might do well in considering further. As the Christian community, the Church might do well to develop theologies of sexuality that depend on story and focus holistic health rather than to only teach a rejection of competing “secular” scripts. For youth and young adult ministers in particular, this book may serve as a tool to understand emerging adults in America and how the Church may minister to those with harmful or unhealthy scripts. The final chapter in particular may also be helpful for Christian individuals who believe certain “sexual myths” that complicate their religious convictions.

Perhaps due to the genre of the book, some readers might be left wondering how to translate the data in Premarital Sex in America into the realm of application. Are some sexual scripts healthier than others? Should the idea of a sexual economy be troubling on a moral level, and if so are there better metaphors for sexuality in social terms? Given that Regnerus and Uecker desired to educate emerging adults and others about premarital sexual engagement in America, it furthermore seemed questionable that, given recent and rather impressive social embrace, issues of homosexuality was left out of the discussion entirely. While the authors might confess that such questions are best left for other projects, many readers may finish Premarital Sex in America wondering, “Were do we go from here?”

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