UT sociology professor’s research on sex is unscientific and wrong for UT


UT associate professor of Sociology Mark Regnerus led the New Family Structures Study, which sought to answer how the children of gay parents fare in comparison to children of heterosexual parents. (Daily Texan file photo)

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

Monday, UT’s sociology department released a statement completely disassociating itself from the viewpoints of associate sociology professor Mark Regnerus. Regnerus first rose to prominence in 2012 as the author of a study that claimed that children of gay parents fared worse than those of straight parents, and, two days a week, he still teaches students in his “Intro to the Study of Society” class. This is despite the fact that the department’s statement explained the American Sociological Association had debunked Regnerus’ research as “fundamentally flawed.” Two weeks ago, the College of Liberal Arts similarly released a statement distancing the school from Regnerus. These are smart PR moves on the part of the University, but the skepticism over Regnerus’ studies should be shared by students, given that Regnerus continues to rely on some dangerously outdated assumptions about gender, sex and relationships in his research and potentially in his teaching. 

Regnerus’ academic resume is made up of one sexist, discriminatory work after another. The latest example: a study by Regnerus that details the reasons for the supposed “devaluation” of sex, for which he blames women making themselves more available to men. The Austin Institute, a conservative think tank where Regnerus is a senior research fellow, must have believed that his findings, which are lightly based in science, would be easier to understand in the form of a cartoon animation called “The Economics of Sex.” 

That animation, which as of this writing has been viewed more than 410,000 times, quite literally draws a picture of why the market price of sex has become substantially cheaper than it was before the advent of the birth control pill. Apart from the heteronormativity, objectification of women’s sexuality and overall regressive view of sexual relationships apparent in the video, all of which are problematic on their own, the animation also puts forth the idea that marriage is the most legitimate form of commitment and the only form that validates sexual activity. In Texas, where progressive social change faces great challenges, it is dangerous to advocate an idea that could reverse the sexual liberation of women in a culture that promotes social conservativism. 

In addition, the video portrays the high divorce rate and the average later age of marriage in America as indicators of serious social problems, without explaining why the decline in traditional marriage arrangements is a real social issue. Instead, it implies that the movement away from the husband and wife model is an actual problem instead of simply a move away from limiting social values. 

Regnerus’ research does acknowledge the reality that people have always engaged in premarital sex; however, he believes that people used to have sex just to find a mate. 

“I simply mean that the majority of paired sexual activity among unmarried persons was conducted in and during the search for a mate, that is, someone to marry,” Regnerus said in the paper that provided the basis for the animation. The research does not take into account the numerous reasons people cannot or choose not to marry before having sex, which is why its placement under the category of social science is dubious. 

For various reasons, more than 6 million couples in the United States live together without being married. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report last year stating that a third of these couples continue their cohabitation without getting married or breaking up. It is no surprise that Regnerus, who believes same-sex parents are not competent, does not bother to acknowledge same-sex love. In 2012, the Census Bureau estimated there are more than 600,000 unmarried same-sex households. While same-sex couples may choose not to marry for the same reasons as opposite-sex couples, for many, there are legal barriers to doing so in all but 17 states and the District of Columbia. In so many ways, “The Economics of Sex” fails to realize that people can have loving, committed relationships without being legally married, in the same way it fails to recognize adult love as more than an economic exchange. If the ideal of sex after marriage is predicated on love, two people who are in love should be able to engage in socially acceptable sexual activity. 

But “The Economics of Sex” has a subliminal subjective message meant to be understood: “Women, close your legs until there is at least the prospect of marriage (to a man).” The video, consequently, is far from being the result of objective research. The College of Liberal Arts and the sociology department made a wise decision to disassociate themselves from statements made by Regnerus, and the students in his classes would do well to question the validity of his statements as well. Making marriage and the security of a man priorities for women in today’s society does not align with the University’s goals of changing the world.

Davis is an international relations and French junior from Houston.