Penn Law Professor Amy Wax on Birth Control and Marriage

Amy Wax ’75, the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, addressed Buckley Fellows and guests on October 26th on the topic of “What Is Happening to the Family and Why?”. The following is one Fellow’s reflection on her talk.

Birth control destroyed marriage, according to Amy Wax (who cites Cheap Sex by Mark Regnerus). The advent of the pill has been the most significant change in incentive structure that has propelled the crumbling of marriage norms. Birth control came as a technological shock. The secular trend of female emancipation accelerated with the vote and with increased access to education, but that couldn’t have happened without reliable contraception. Birth control, after all, is what allowed women to participate in the workforce by allowing them to control their fertility.

Women have traditionally held the position of “gatekeeper” to sex. Women could set the terms for sex, terms with which men had to comply in order to access physical pleasure. These terms typically required men to be well-socialized enough to be a desirable marriage prospect. Put bluntly, most men had to get married or engaged to procure a steady supply of sex.

Birth control, however, allowed women both to offer “cheap” sex. Since birth control lowered the potential cost of sex by eliminating (or at least dramatically reducing) the possibility of pregnancy, the pill effectively promoted casual sex. Effective available birth control destroyed the norm of virginity until marriage.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of casual sex encourages impersonal concepts of sexual relations, unrealistic expectations, and a willingness to accommodate male tastes. Casual sex also encourages men to withdraw from the social market. Why would he bother sustaining a healthy relationship with the emotional labor and date nights, when he could instead access the desired physical pleasures with far less effort by hooking up casually?

Significant decreases in marriage rates reflect the widespread impact of birth control on cultural norms. Although marriage has been a dominant organizing institution in Western society for millennia, the percent of men who remain unmarried at age 34 has increased by about one percentage point a year since 2000. If this decline continues, marriage as a societal institution seems headed for collapse.