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Sex

Why We're Having Less Sex

Decreased alcohol use, greater social media use, and other shifts.

Key points

  • Recent studies are finding that Americans are having sex less frequently.
  • The decrease in sexual activity preceded the COVID-19 pandemic and continued through the quarantine period of the pandemic.
  • Reasons may include new internet mediums for sexual experience, increase in social media involvement, and a decline in romantic relationships.
  • Future studies in a post-pandemic environment need to focus on sex-positive programs, definitions of sexual behaviors, and quality of sex ed.

The positive impact of sexual behaviors on health and relationships is considerable. This fact is recognized by Herbenick, et al., (2021) prior to their exploration into recent findings that sexual frequency is declining in the United States. But it’s not just the United States where a decrease in sexual frequency has been noted; other nations that have also been shown to be in decline include Japan, Germany, Australia, and the UK. This decrease in frequency has been reported in both partnered and solo sex.

To investigate this phenomenon, Herbenick, et al., relied on data they analyzed between two waves of the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) from the years 2009 and 2018. Survey participants spanned ages 14-49. The 2009 data included 4155 participants (406 adolescent females, 414 adolescent males, 1591 adult women, and 1744 adult men). In 2018, 416 adolescent females, 411 adolescent males, 2007 adult women, and 1713 adult men participated for an N=4547.

In an analysis across the two time periods, the researchers found a decrease in penile-vaginal intercourse and other partnered sexual behaviors, including oral sex and anal intercourse. A decrease was also found in solo sex endeavors in adolescents. Furthermore, a greater number of adolescents reported no sexual behaviors between the two points in time.

Possible reasons for the decline in sexual activity

Herbenick, et al., suggest several possible reasons for the decline, including:

  • The internet provides new mediums of sexual experience that shift away from physical, partnered experiences, such as through sexting and readily accessible online pornography.
  • Alcohol use has decreased in adolescents.
  • More people are engaging in an open discussion and further understanding of sexual consent.
  • There is increased ease in discussing one's number of sexual partners and sexual frequency. In the past, those numbers may have been more inflated for a variety of reasons surrounding social status than they would be today.
  • There is increased attention to social media and video games.
  • There is a decline in romantic relationships.
Juicy Juice/Pexels
Source: Juicy Juice/Pexels

The decline in sex continued into the pandemic

The NSSHB data (2009 and 2018) preceded the COVID-19 pandemic. All aspects of life changed during the time of the pandemic, so it’s not surprising that the same would be true of sexual behaviors. Early on, speculations focused on the notion that sexual activity would increase with the pandemic since many Americans were bound to a quarantine environment. If one was locked in with their significant other without going to work or the ability to go out to movies or their favorite restaurant, there would be more time for sexual relations. But, this was not the case.

Findings by Lehmiller, Garcia, Gesselman and Mark (2021) demonstrate that the decline in sexual activity continued into the pandemic environment. The research team conducted a survey between March 21 and April 14, 2020. The study included 1559 adult participants between the ages of 18-81 (a notable expansion of the age range from that of the NSSHB survey). Nearly half the respondents reported a decrease in sexual behavior, with 43.5 percent reporting a decline, 42.8 percent reporting their frequency of sexual activity remained the same, and 13.6 percent reporting an increase. This latter finding of 13.6 percent reporting an increase significantly deviates from early pandemic speculation about a potential marked increase in sexual activity. GSS data obtained in 2021 found a three-point percentage increase in Americans reporting not having sex from when data was collected in 2016 and 2018 (26 percent from 23 percent). Despite a significant decrease in sexual activity, Lehmiller, et al., also found that one in five respondents reported an expansion in their sexual behaviors by trying new sexual activities.

What to consider in future studies

As we move into a post-pandemic social environment, future studies need to address individuals’ own assessments of their sex lives in both solo and partnered behaviors, particularly in qualitative research. This will shed more light on what lies behind the decline in sexual frequency. Furthermore, a clearer understanding of how respondents define sexual behavior has a direct bearing on results. Other things to consider are whether an increase in sex-positive programs is having an influence on sexual behaviors and frequency of sexual activity and how the type of sex education being offered in America affects these results.

Trends in sexual behaviors are important to understand. With sexuality being a foundational aspect of our social lives, well-being, and who we are as both individuals and social beings, it is pivotal that we acknowledge and seek to explain patterns within sexual trends. Having a more robust understanding of ourselves only serves to enrich our lives and the lives of others, especially when we can shed a light on those things that may negatively impact us.

Facebook image: NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock

References

Herbenick, D., Rosenberg, M., Golzarri-Arroyo, L., Fortenberry, J. Dennis, & Fu, T. (2021). Changes in penile-vaginal intercourse frequency and sexual repertoire from 2009 to 2018: Finds from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 51(1), 1419-1433.

Lehmiller, J.J., Garcia, J.R., Gesselman, A.N., & Mark, K.P. (2021). Less sex, but more sexual diversity: Changes in sexual behavior during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Leisure Sciences, 43(1-2), 295-304.

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