The Real Sexual Revolution

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, October 2, 2017

The Real Sexual Revolution

By now you’ve read more than your fair share of stories surrounding the death of Hugh Hefner, the founder of the Playboy empire and self-styled leader of the sexual revolution.

Many have, in hindsight, lauded Hefner’s loosening of the country’s sexual standards in view of how it led to the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage. Those who do not view the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage favorably are less willing to write glowing obituaries.

But what is the real sexual revolution that has been unleashed? Could it be something even more foundationally unsettling than gay marriage?


Such as the dissolution of marriage itself.

In a Wall Street Journal article titled “Cheap Sex and the Decline of Marriage,” Mark Regnerus writes of a 24-year-old recent college graduate from Denver who is not interested in getting married any time soon “because I am not done being stupid yet. I still want to go out and have sex with a million girls.”

He’s not alone.

As Regnerus reports, marriage in the U.S. is in open retreat. As recently as 2000, those married between the ages of 25-34 outnumbered their never-married peers by a margin of 55% to 34%.  Fast forward to 2015 and those estimates had been reversed. 

Some economists and sociologists argue that the flight from marriage is about men’s low wages. If their wages were higher, the thinking goes, young men would have the confidence to marry. Yet a May 2017 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that increased wages did nothing to boost marriage rates.

Another hypothesis lays the blame squarely at the feet of men’s fear of commitment. Research does not bear this out, either.

Regnerus’ research points to a more straightforward explanation: “For American men, sex has become rather cheap. As compared to the past, many women today expect little in return for sex, in terms of time, attention, commitment or fidelity. Men, in turn, do not feel compelled to supply these goods as they once did. 

“It is,” he concludes, “the new sexual norm for Americans, men and women alike, of every age.”

Data collected in 2014 for the “Relationships in America” project — a national survey of more than 15,000 adults ages 18 to 60 for the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture — supports this conclusion. It asked respondents when they first had sex in their current or most recent relationship. After six months of dating? After two? The most common experience — reported by 32% of men under 40 — was having sex with their current partner before the relationship had begun. 

As has been widely noted, it’s pretty hard to deny the complete cultural victory of pornography in America today—not to mention the “cheap sex” ethic it imbibes.

But it has come with a cost, and a high one at that:

The institution of marriage itself.

James Emery White


Laura Mansnerus, “Hugh Hefner, Who Built the Playboy Empire and Embodied It, Dies at 91,” The New York Times, September 27, 2017, read online.

Mark Regnerus, “Cheap Sex and the Decline of Marriage,” The Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2017, read online.

Brandon Showalter, “1 in 4 Millennials Have Never Married, May Never Marry or Have Kids,” The Christian Post, September 27, 2017, read online.

Read Mercer Schuchardt, “Hugh Hefner’s Hollow Victory,” Christianity Today, December 1, 2003, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Real Sexual Revolution