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Sex

Why So Many Couples Are Having Less Sex

Even young adults show a decline, but they may just be more honest.

Key points

  • As populations in the developed world age, we see declines in sexual frequencies.
  • However, recent data show that even younger people are having less sex than did previous generations.
  • Modern technology may be distracting people from engaging in more intimate relationships, but other factors are also at play.

Regular sexual activity is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. In long-term, committed relationships, sex is the glue that binds the couple together. When couples encounter problems in their sex lives, their overall satisfaction with the relationship plummets. Furthermore, sexual incompatibility is one of the most common reasons that couples seek counseling.

Even short-term flings and friends-with-benefits relationships can be part of a healthy lifestyle, as long as both partners enter freely into them and communicate clearly about their expectations. And when you have no partner available, solo sex is still sufficient to relieve stress and boost mood.

Despite the health benefits of regular sexual activity, surveys have found that the frequency of sex has declined in developed countries over the last decade. There are several potential explanations for this.

Older People Have Sex Less Often

One possibility is that this decline in sexual frequency reflects the aging population of the developed world. As people progress from early adulthood to old age, they tend to have sex less often. In part, this is due to health problems that make sex difficult, and, in part, it is due to hormonal changes that decrease sexual desire.

Another possibility is that people in the modern age are shifting from penetrative sex to non-coital forms, such as oral sex or partnered masturbation. Furthermore, relaxed attitudes about masturbation as well as the widespread availability of porn and sex toys may have led to an increase in solo as opposed to partnered sex. The respondents of these surveys may have interpreted “sex” specifically as penile-vaginal intercourse, and thus underreported their frequency of sexual activity.

However, neither of these explanations are supported by a study conducted by Indiana University psychologist Debby Herbenick and her colleagues, who recently reported their results in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Younger People Are Also Having Less Sex

For their study, Herbenick and colleagues used data from two waves of the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB). This online survey collected data from 4,155 people in 2009 and 4,547 individuals in 2018. The ages of the respondents ranged from 14 to 49.

The NSSHB probes a wide range of sexual behaviors, including vaginal, oral, and anal intercourse as well as both partnered and solo masturbation. Thus, it provides more useful information about the nation’s sex life than previous surveys, which typically asked vague questions such as: “How many times did you have sex in the last year?” Since the various types of sexual activity were spelled out, there was less opportunity for respondents to misinterpret questions.

Consistent with previous surveys, this study by Herbenick and colleagues found a reduction in sexual frequency among the participants from 2009 to 2018. However, we can probably rule out the explanation that this is due to an aging population because none of the respondents were over 50. Furthermore, the researchers broke down the data by age and found that even young adults were having less sex in 2018 compared to 2009.

While some researchers have speculated that more adults in the internet age are shifting from partnered to solo sex, Herbenick and colleagues found no evidence for this. For instance, the adolescents in this study (aged 14 to 17) not only reported less sexual intercourse in 2018 compared to 2009, but they also indicated that they were masturbating less frequently as well. Although it may be true that adolescents and young adults are delaying the start of their first intimate relationship, it apparently isn’t due to the easy availability of sexual media on the internet, as many pundits have feared. Rather, it seems that these young people, who in previous generations would already have been sexually active, are, for some reason, less interested in, or have less opportunity for, engaging in either solo or partnered sex.

The reduction in sexual activity among adolescents over the last decade is especially surprising. In 2009, nearly 29 percent of young men and 50 percent of young women reported that they’d never engaged in either solo or partnered sex. By contrast, the numbers in 2018 had risen to 43 percent and 74 percent respectively.

Less Interest in Sex in the Digital Age

Although the NSSHB didn’t get at the reasons for this significant reduction in sexual frequency, especially among adolescents and young adults, Herbenick and colleagues speculated on potential reasons for this that have at least some support from other research.

First, modern technology may be distracting young people from engaging in sexual behaviors. The expected boost in solo sexual activity thanks to the internet was not found in this survey, but the researchers point out that the many hours that young people spend playing computer games and viewing social media may be diverting their attention away from sexual pursuits.

Second, alcohol consumption among those in their teens and twenties has dropped significantly over the last decade. In the past, young people spent a lot of time socializing at bars and parties, where they consumed large quantities of alcohol that impaired their judgment and left them more willing to engage in sexual intercourse than they would have otherwise.

Third, the rising generation understands the importance of sexual consent in ways that their predecessors did not. This no doubt makes them more cautious about approaching potential partners or making sexual overtures, lest these behaviors are misconstrued.

Fourth, many teens and young adults no longer view themselves in gender-binary terms. With their gender-fluid identities, they no longer see the need to subscribe to traditional gender roles. In the past, some young people may have started having sex because they perceived it was expected of them, but perhaps present-day youth feel less pressure to have sex until they are ready.

Fifth, low wages and lack of employment opportunities mean that many of today’s youth simply cannot afford an independent lifestyle that would allow them to pursue intimate relationships. Furthermore, even young couples, who are overburdened with balancing multiple jobs and childcare, are often too stressed or too exhausted to be interested in sex, whether alone or with their partner.

Finally, Herbenick and colleagues wonder if perhaps today’s youth are more honest in reporting the details of their sex lives compared to previous generations. That is to say, previous figures may have been inflated as survey participants responded according to social expectations. It’s often suspected that men overreport their number of sex partners, and likewise women may count behaviors such as kissing or heavy petting as sexual acts.

Religious conservatives may welcome the news that America’s youth is engaging in far less sex than just a decade ago. Moreover, it’s encouraging to learn that the younger generation has embraced appropriate norms of sexual consent.

However, from a developmental perspective, this decrease in sexual frequency, both partnered and solo, is alarming. Adolescents and young adults need to explore their sexuality so that they can have the necessary experience and personal insights to build and maintain romantic attachments in their more mature years. The irony of modern society is that the multitude of conveniences it provides for us also pulls us away from the very things that make life fulfilling, such as meaningful intimate relationships with other people.

Facebook image: tommaso79/Shutterstock

References

Herbenick, D., Rosen, M., Golzarri-Arroyo, L., Fortenberry, J. D., Fu, T. (2021). Changes in penile-vaginal intercourse frequency and sexual repertoire from 2009 to 2018: Findings from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-021-02125-2

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