It’s a common stereotype, by turns celebrated and derided, that young people—particularly singles, particularly college students—are having a lot of wild sex. Talk about "hookup culture" is common, as are salacious images in popular media. Rampant sexual activity among the young is an understandable fascination, and it serves a purpose. As both Freud and the existentialists have recognized, a preoccupation with sex is a way for us to suppress the fear of death.
Young people are also easy on the eye. Imagining and depicting them having sex is a surefire tease; it draws eyeballs; it sells product; it excites moral and carnal passions. Conservative folk may use the trope as a warning against decaying cultural norms, while the Liberal crowd may use it to socially signal their open-mindedness. Parents of all stripes may find their myriad anxieties embodied in the dangers of sex—the unwanted pregnancies, the STIs, the heartbreak. Others may be drawn into the fuss as a means to at once feel superior to (“those kids today!”) and live vicariously through (“those were the days!”) the reckless youths. Etc.
All this is well and good, but for one small problem: the popular image has little to do with the actual shape of things on the ground. Rather than the debauchery of the cultural imagination, America in fact appears to have entered a so-called "sex recession."
Rates of sexual activity across the board have been trending downward. Writes Belinda Luscombe in TIME magazine (2018): “According to the General Social Survey… by the National Opinion Research Council at the University of Chicago since 1972, the fraction of people getting it on at least once a week fell from 45 percent in 2000 to 36 percent in 2016.” The decline in sex, moreover, appears to be driven mostly by those supposedly horny, reckless, hook-upping young people.
San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge and colleagues found in a 2016 study that “Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s (commonly known as Millennials and iGen) were more likely to report having no sexual partners as adults compared to GenX’ers born in the 1960s and 1970s in the General Social Survey, a nationally representative sample of American adults.”
Twenge and colleagues write: “Contrary to popular media conceptions of a “hookup generation” more likely to engage in frequent casual sex, a higher percentage of Americans in recent cohorts, particularly Millennials and iGen’ers born in the 1990s, had no sexual partners after age 18.” In TIME magazine, Belinda Luscombe writes: “In 2016, 4 percent fewer condoms were sold than the year before, and they fell a further 3 percent in 2017. Teen sex, which is monitored by the Centers for Disease Control, is flat and has been on a downward trend since 1985.”
More recently (2020), the Swedish epidemiologist Peter Ueda and colleagues, analyzing U.S. data from 4,291 men and 5,213 women found that, between 2000 to 2018, “sexual inactivity increased among men aged 18 to 24 years and 25 to 34 years and women aged 25 to 34 years during the study period, with the increase among men mainly occurring among unmarried individuals. Men with lower income and with part-time or no employment were more likely to be sexually inactive, as were men and women who were students… sexual inactivity increased among U.S. men such that approximately 1 in 3 men aged 18 to 24 years reported no sexual activity in the past year.”
The decline in sexual activity is surprising given the recent technological and societal changes in the U.S. “After all,“ writes Belinda Luscombe in TIME, ”this is the era when we’ve finally torn down many barriers. The social stigma around premarital sex is gone, hookups are not considered shameful, and the belief in limiting partners to one side of the gender line is no longer universal. Our many forms of contraception have reduced the risk of serious physical consequences. There are a wealth of technological assists, including apps like Tinder to help willing partners find each other, endless free online porn to rev the engines, and the Dr. Fils—tadalafil (Cialis), vardenafil (Levitra), and sildenafil (Viagra) to overcome the most common physical limitations for men.”
Ironically, while those who consult the stereotype are often up in arms about young people’s sexual activity, those who consult the data have become concerned with their inactivity. Moreover, while the problems that may attend promiscuity among the young are well researched, the consequences of sexual inactivity are less well studied, yet may present their own set of problems.
One such problem may be a reduction in happiness. New York pizza notwithstanding, few things in life are as good—and good for you—as good sex. Overall, sex is associated with better life satisfaction, health, and happiness. Ueda and colleagues write: “Sexual health and satisfaction are key components of health and well-being. Sexual relationships can positively influence life satisfaction and happiness, and sexual activity may lower heart rate and blood pressure while also reducing stress by promoting oxytocin release. Conversely, lower sexual activity has been associated with increased mortality and poor self-reported health.”
Concerned in part with young people's wellbeing, researchers have sought to identify the causes of the decline in sex. Yet the task is not simple. Complex human phenomena are multiply determined, and sexual activity is no exception; it is shaped by many factors.
One such factor may pertain to the aforementioned link between sex and happiness, which turns out to be reciprocal. Just as a lack of sex may decrease happiness, so does unhappiness decrease the desire for sex. Mental health challenges in particular are linked to lower libido. Therefore, the current sex recession among the young may have to do with the increased rates of depression and anxiety in that population.
Another factor may be the delayed age and declining rates of marriage. Despite common media depictions of marriage as the death of sex, the reality is quite the opposite. In every age group, those who are married report more sexual activity than those who are not. Currently, fewer young people are married or otherwise coupled, and hence fewer are having sex. According to Twenge, “When people are young and healthy and have the highest sex drive, they are less likely to be living with a partner… So there’s a larger proportion of people in their early 20s who are not having sex at all.”
Work stress and fatigue have also been proposed as likely culprits. People are working long and hard days, by the end of which they are too tired to get in the mood. Some research has supported this notion. For example, a 2010 study by Guy Bodenmann and colleagues found that “higher self-reported stress in daily life was associated with lower levels of sexual activity and satisfaction and a decrease in relationship satisfaction.”
The ready availability of porn may be another factor. Porn is less risky and less demanding than real-life sex. Unlike real-life sex, it can also be obtained readily and on-demand, requiring little effort, investment, or social skill. To many people, porn may become a substitute for sex. This may be particularly true for men. To wit: Most porn users are men, in part because porn satisfies males’ fundamental twin desires—novelty and abundance—better than the real world. The decline in sex is driven primarily by men. You do the math.
The jury, however, is still out on this overall notion. While some research has linked porn use to lower rates of sex, causal inferences are not easy to ascertain. It is quite possible that the lack of marriage prospects, social skill, or available sex partners may drive the increase in porn viewership, rather than the other way around. Moreover, some studies point to the sexually enhancing effects of porn viewing.
Interestingly, Twenge and colleagues, in a 2017 article, failed to find support for the roles of either workload or porn in shaping sexual activity. “With age and time period controlled, those born in the 1930s (Silent generation) had sex the most often, whereas those born in the 1990s (Millennials and iGen) had sex the least often. The decline was not linked to longer working hours or increased pornography use.”
Beyond work stress and porn, other aspects of our technology-dominated cultural climate may be at play. For one, the widely available, endless entertainment options may compete with sex for attention "market share." A recent, large cross-cultural study, for example, found that "television ownership is associated with approximately a 6 percent reduction in the likelihood of having had sex in the past week, consistent with a small degree of substitutability between television viewing and sexual activity.”
Yet TVs have been around for a long time, while the decline in sex appears to be a newer phenomenon. A likelier culprit may be social media, a more recent and ubiquitous presence than TV. Indeed, social media use has been linked to increased levels of both depression and anxiety, which in turn, as mentioned above, are known to decrease libido.
Additionally, high social media usage may decrease sexual activity by redirecting young people’s time and energy, diminishing their social skills, or degrading their self-confidence due to the constant social comparison with idealized online depictions of others’ lives. After all, the world of social media is curated for effect and designed to foster ever-increasing engagement. As more young people spend more time online, they may have less time and energy for real-world engagement, including sex.
Moreover, while social media and the proliferation of online dating sites may have made casual sex more available, such higher availability can have paradoxical effects on desire. When sex is easy to get, the desire to have it may slacken, particularly if the sex on offer is of low quality. Indeed, some evidence suggests that casual sex is often lower in quality than intimate relationship sex, especially for women. As low-quality sex "floods the market," it may over time depress some people’s appetite for sex altogether.
Yet here, too, the research is inconclusive. While social media use may have some destabilizing and negative effects on young people, these effects are likely not uniform in how they affect sexuality. In fact, some findings suggest that high social media use is linked to increased, rather than decreased, sexual behavior.
Moreover, rather than degrading the quality of sex, it is also possible that the new cultural climate allows more people to reject—or refuse to tolerate—abusive, unwanted, and otherwise bad sex. Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College has argued that more frequent sex can actually be a problem in certain contexts: “Marriages formed in the 1990s and later have been more likely to reach their 15-year mark without a divorce than marriages formed in the 1970s and 1980s, when couples were having more sex.” In other words, by relaxing its marriage and commitment demands, our culture may have freed individuals from having to enter or stay in relationships in which sex might have been abundant, but unhappy.
At the end of the day, we are yet to fully grasp the causes and meaning of the apparent decline of sex, and whether it signifies positive or negative social change. At the same time, it is useful to remember two important things: First, most people are, still, having sex. Second, in considering sex-related trends, we do well to engage the facts, rather than the myths. Friendly or not, the facts are always our friends.
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