Organic carbon in marine sediments is a critical component of the global carbon cycle, and its degradation influences a wide range of phenomena, including the magnitude of carbon sequestration over geologic timescales, the recycling of inorganic carbon and nutrients, the dissolution and precipitation of carbonates, the production of methane and the nature of the seafloor biosphere. Although much has been learned about the factors that promote and hinder rates of organic carbon degradation in natural systems, the controls on the distribution of organic carbon in modern and ancient sediments are still not fully understood. In this review, we summarize how recent findings are changing entrenched perspectives on organic matter degradation in marine sediments: a shift from a structurally-based chemical reactivity viewpoint towards an emerging acceptance of the role of the ecosystem in organic matter degradation rates. That is, organic carbon has a range of reactivities determined by not only the nature of the organic compounds, but by the biological, geochemical, and physical attributes of its environment. This shift in mindset has gradually come about due to a greater diversity of sample sites, the molecular revolution in biology, discoveries concerning the extent and limits of life, advances in quantitative modeling, investigations of ocean carbon cycling under a variety of extreme paleo-conditions (e.g. greenhouse environments, euxinic/anoxic oceans), the application of novel analytical techniques and interdisciplinary efforts. Adopting this view across scientific disciplines will enable additional progress in understanding how marine sediments influence the global carbon cycle.