Are Young Adults Having More Sex, or Less?

A new study describes a trend in sexual activity.

Posted Jul 02, 2020

Are young adults having more or less sex than they used to?

A new study conducted by Peter Ueda and colleagues from the University of Chicago, published on June 12, examines the trends in frequency of sexual activity and number of sexual partners among adults ages 18 to 44 in the U.S. from 2000 to 2018.

Ueda and colleagues were interested in sexual frequency because sexual activity had been related to overall health in previous publications. Lower sexual activity had been linked to higher mortality rates whereas higher sexual activity had been potentially associated with benefits such as decreased stress, more oxytocin and endorphin production, fewer heart problems, less high blood pressure and possibly lower heart rate.

The survey, which included more than 4,000 men and 5,000 women, asked how often those men and women had sex in the past year (no sex, sex less than once a month, one to 3 times a month, once a week or more) and how many sex partners they had in the past year (0, 1, 2, 3, or more than 3).

The results include the following:

  • Most men and women reported having sex once a week or more.
  • Most men and women reported having had only one sex partner in the last year. 
  • 9.5% of men and 10.3% of women reported having no sex partner in 2000 to 2002.
  • Those numbers jumped to 16.4% of men and 12% of women reporting no sex partner in 2016 to 2018.
  • More men (14.5%) than women (7.1%) reported having 3 or more partners in the last year.
  • There was an increase of women reporting 3 or more sexual partners in a year, mostly in the 24 to 35 age group. Also, black men (vs. white men) and men and women identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (vs. heterosexual) were more likely to report 3 or more sexual partners in the last year.
  • Weekly or more sexual frequency was reported by 60.4% of men in 2000 and in 46.7% of men in 2018 with a steady decrease from 2000 to 2018.
  • Weekly or more sexual frequency was reported by 66.4% of women ages 25 to 34 in 2000 and in 54.2% of women ages 25 to 34 in 2018.
  • In general, reported sexual activity decreased over the years among men 18 to 34 and among women 25 to 34 (about 1 in 3 men ages 18 to 24 reported no sexual activity in the past year). This sexual inactivity was greater among unmarried men, among men with lower income, and among students.

Why did young men and women show a decrease in sexual activity?

The authors had several hypotheses to explain a decrease of sexual activity: 

  • Stress, busyness and having to juggle work against everyday life.  
  • An abundance of online entertainment that could have priority over sexual activity. 
  • The increased rate of depression and anxiety among young individuals (depression itself and also antidepressant medications are known to decrease sexual desire).  
  • Some people may be more at ease with social media interactions compared to real-world interactions.  
  • An emphasis on “hooking up” (vs. deeper relationships) could be less pleasurable for women.
  •  A larger number of college-educated young women could be looking for men of higher economic status, making men with lower incomes less attractive. 

The authors conclude that the decrease in sexual activity among men ages 18 to 24 and among men and women ages 24 to 34 between 2000 and 2018 could have public health implications.

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