In our highly sexualized and increasingly permissive culture, you might think that young adults are having more sex than ever before. If so, you would be wrong.
In a lengthy and very popular cover story in the December 2018 issue of The Atlantic magazine, “The Sex Recession,” Kate Julian argues that “young people are launching their sex lives later and having sex less frequently than members of previous generations.” The question is why.
Among the evidence Julian cites:
- “In the space of a generation, sex has gone from something most high-school students have experienced to something most haven’t.”
- "People now in their early 20s are two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as Gen Xers were at that age; 15 percent report having had no sex since they reached adulthood.”
- In the U.S., “about 60 percent of adults under age 35 now live without a spouse or a partner.” (Of course, that does not mean they live without sex – more on that later.)
- In Japan in 2015, 43 percent of young people (ages 18 to 34) were virgins. Married people were not having much sex, either: 47 percent said it had been more than a month since they had sex.
Julian mentioned in passing many possible reasons for what she calls “the sex recession,” but underscored six as having come up most often in her research and interviews. (She combined parental pressure with hook-up culture; I’m separating them. I’ve also changed the order of the reasons.) I’ll recount her reasons first. Then I will add a seventh reason, my own. I’ll also explain what I think Julian got wrong. I’ll end by suggesting that the real issue is one of the most fundamental questions in all of psychology: What are humans really like?
Here are The Atlantic’s top reasons for the sexual recession.
1. Parental Pressure
It’s their parents’ fault. That’s one of the reasons author Kate Julian posits for the decline in sex among young adults. Invoking the term of derision, “helicopter parents,” she says that parents’ anxiety “about their children’s educational and economic prospects” has increased. Parents are urging their kids to focus on building their credentials in high school and college rather than investing in romantic relationships. They are also supervising their kids more closely, leaving them with less free time for fooling around away from watchful eyes.
2. Bodily Self-Consciousness, Distraction, Sleep Deprivation, and Other Sources of Inhibition
Young adults may be having less sex because their potential for being aroused is being undermined in many ways. Digital distractions are among the most obvious potential culprits. Sleep deprivation doesn’t help, either. Having a negative body image, or feeling self-conscious about your naked body, can also stand in the way of sexual fulfillment, and Julian suggests that today’s young adults may struggle more with these issues.
If, as some have suggested, anxiety and depression are on the rise in the younger generations, that, too, could account for some of the decrease in sex. Anti-depressants can also undermine sexual desire.
3. The Problem with Dating Apps
It might seem like the proliferation of dating apps has made it easier to find dating partners, but that is not necessarily so. Kate Julian found that Tinder tends to be a huge waste of time. It takes an average of more than 60 swipes to get one match, and many matches do not result in a two-way exchange of text messages.
And, of course, the matches are not evenly distributed. The “highly photogenic” people, as Julian tactfully puts it, are the ones finding dating apps most useful.
The expectation that people will use dating apps to connect with other people has, Julian believes, a troubling implication. The kinds of casual overtures that people used to make now seem creepy. Apparently, that even applies to striking up conversations in bars.
If dating apps are wildly inefficient and ineffective, and it is problematic to ask people out (even if you have gotten to know them a bit, for example, by working in the same building or playing on the same sports team), then finding opportunities to have sex is going to be difficult, too.
4. Hook-Ups Instead of Romantic Relationships
If young people were having copious amounts of hook-up sex, then maybe their overall rates of sex would not be decreasing, even though they are dating less often and are less likely to have special romantic relationships. Actual rates of casual sex, though, have not lived up to the hype.
Here is Kate Julian’s summary of the findings from Lisa Wade’s book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus:
“Roughly one-third were… "abstainers” – they opted out of hook-up culture entirely. A little more than a third were “dabblers” – they hooked up sometimes, but ambivalently. Less than a quarter were “enthusiasts,” who delighted in hooking up. The remainder were in long-term relationships.”
The percentages probably translate into something like this:
- 33 percent, abstainers
- 35 percent, dabblers
- 23 percent, enthusiasts
- 9 percent, long-term relationships
5. Sex Is Bad or Painful More Often Than We Realize
Another reason the rate of sex may be decreasing is that, more often than we realize, the sex that young adults are having is bad sex or painful sex. They are also more willing to say “no thanks” to having any more of it.
Young adults are experiencing more of the kinds of sex that is popularized in porn, such as anal sex and choking (erotic asphyxiation). Julian points to a study showing that the percent of women in their late 20s who had tried anal sex had doubled from 20 percent in 1992 to 40 percent in 2012. Research shows, she says, that “in the absence of high-quality sex education, teen boys look to porn for help understanding sex.”
Plenty of women are not enjoying anal sex or vaginal intercourse. In 2012, Julian notes, 30 percent of women experienced pain during vaginal intercourse and a whopping 72 percent said that the anal sex they experienced was painful.
Orgasms in the context of hookups with a new partner are strikingly rare. In the study Julian described, just 31 percent of men and a jaw-droppingly low 11 percent of women experienced orgasm under those conditions.
One of the sex researchers Julian interviewed, Debby Herbenick, suggests a positive interpretation of the decline in the frequency with which young people are having sex. Today’s adults feel freer to say no to sex they don’t want.
Julian also believes that women are now valuing their female friends more. She seems to attribute that to their disappointment with men and romantic relationships. (I think that interpretation, on its own, is demeaning. My reading of the relevant information is that appreciation for our friends is growing, even apart from any bad experiences with heterosexual romantic relationships.)
6. People Are Satisfying Their Sexual Desires, Just Not with Other People
Although rates of intercourse have been decreasing – the main finding that the Atlantic article was trying to explain – that doesn’t mean that people are not experiencing sexual pleasure. One of the studies Julian mentioned found dramatic increases in rates of masturbation from 1992 to 2014 – double for men (in 2014, 54 percent said that they masturbated in a given week) and more than triple for women (26 percent).
The increase could be linked to the greater accessibility of porn over time. Other products and services that facilitate sexual experiences without involving other humans are also becoming more popular – sex dolls, for example.
Stop Blaming Single People
Kate Julian said she started out expecting to say more about “the benefits of loosening social conventions, and of less couple-centric pathways to a happy life.” But she ended up focusing on other concerns instead. One problem, I think, is that her sources were comprised overwhelmingly of people who were not ever going to offer an affirming perspective on single life.
Perhaps she relied on what those people told her and did not read the relevant original sources. These claims that she made, for example, are somewhere between misleading and just plain wrong:
“Not having a partner – sexual or romantic – can be both a cause and effect of discontent. Moreover, as American social institutions have withered, having a life partner has become a stronger predictor than ever of well-being.”
No, getting married does not improve people’s happiness or health
You would think, from reading those claims, that people who marry become happier and healthier. But by 2012, there were already 18 studies that followed the same people over time, as they went from being single to getting married. They did not become happier than they were when they were single, except sometimes for a brief “honeymoon effect” early on. The most recent and most sophisticated studies show that people who marry do not become healthier, either, and depending on the measure, sometimes become less healthy.
What about Julian’s claim about the growing importance, over time, of having a life partner? If she were right about that, then marriage should be linked to greater well-being for younger people than for older ones. A 2017 study by Dmitri Tumin examined the links between marriage and health for people born in the decades starting in 1955, 1965, and 1975. Getting married did not mean getting healthier for the men or the women in any of the three cohorts.
Tumin looked at his data in all sorts of ways, but only found one hint that getting married was good for health: Among the oldest women (those born between 1955 and 1964), those who married for the first time and stayed married for at least 10 years become slightly healthier than when they were single. But for the comparable women in the middle group (born between 1965 and 1974), there were no health benefits whatsoever. And for the youngest group (born between 1975 and 1984), there was a slight, though statistically insignificant, deterioration in their health after marrying. That’s just the opposite of what Julian claimed.
Frequency of sex is declining most for married people, not singles
Perhaps the most relevant finding is about the rate of sex, over time, among single and married people. Analyses of survey data from 1989 through 2014 showed that Americans today are having less sex. More importantly, as I noted in my discussion of the results of that study:
“The decline in sexual frequency was not the same for everyone. The decrease in having sex was especially steep for people who were married or divorced and much less so (if at all) for lifelong single people.”
Why is it that their rates of sex are decreasing the most?
7. My Suggestion: The Rise of Individualism Means That People Have More Opportunities to Live the Lives They Want, Not the Ones Dictated by Norms or Pressures
The first sentence of “The Sex Recession” was, “These should be boom times for sex.” Continuing, Kate Julian added:
“The share of Americans who say sex between unmarried adults is “not at all wrong” is at an all-time high. New cases of HIV are at an all-time low. Most women can – at last – get birth control for free, and the morning-after pill without a prescription. [With regard to practices such as polyamory and anal sex] ... our culture has never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation.”
And yet, the frequency with which young people are having sex is declining. So is the rate at which married people are having sex.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental questions in all of psychology is, what is human nature? What are humans really like? It would be impossible to remove every social pressure, every norm, every obligation, and just see how people act. But as more and more constraints get lifted, such as the ones Julian described, we can edge a little closer to see what humans would do if left to their own devices.
“Our hunger for sex is supposed to be primal,” Julian noted, and yet people often “pick messing around online over actual messing around.” Maybe, she suggests, “the human sex drive is more fragile than we thought.” Also consistent with that interpretation is the growing recognition of asexuality as a sexual orientation and not a sexual dysfunction.
Julian quotes Emily Nagoski, author of Come as You Are, who has an apt answer to all the talk about how fundamental sex is:
“We can starve to death, die of dehydration, even die of sleep deprivation. But nobody ever died of not being able to get laid.”