Sex

Who's Having the Most Sex?

The usual suspects: The young, but has this changed over time? Debatable.

Posted Feb 22, 2018

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Based on surveys conducted from 1989 to 2014, Twenge and colleagues focused on the decline of sex during the past 25 years—which I’ll get to. But first, in the most recent survey, here’s what they found regarding who has the most sex:

  • men over women
  • young over old
  • black over white
  • having little education over lots of education
  • living in the West over the East
  • living together unmarried over no steady partner
  • never married over widowed
  • having young children over having teenagers
  • watching porn over not watching porn
  • working full time over working part-time or not at all

Of course, these factors can interact—perhaps more young people live in the West than East; those who watch porn have a higher sex drive and are younger; the unmarried are likely younger than the widowed; and having young children might be a function of parents’ age rather than having young children or teenagers.

It’s complicated.

The main point of the authors, however, was to find changes in “having sex” over generations—and they found the change, and it was a decline of having sex.

Why? Primarily it was because younger generations are having less sex than earlier generations. In part, this decline could be due to the reduction in the rate of marriage and having a steady partner among younger generations—being married (supposedly) gives one more opportunities to have sex. This is not about the number of sex partners but the number of times having sex. However, even among those who are married, the rate of sex has decreased, not due to the usual suspects of longer working hours or watching porn but, they speculated, due to more alternatives for entertainment and social activities (why have sex when you can watch a movie?), increases in depression (you don’t want to have sex when you’re down), and later childbearing (have to be careful).

Here’s a major problem with their research: the surveys they used defined sex in an extremely vague, unacceptable manner: “About how often did you have sex during the last 12 months?” Options were from 0 = not at all to 6 = more than three times a week. But, what is sex and does it mean the same thing now as it did in the 1930s?

Certainly we know from previous research with college students conducted by teams led by Byers and Sewell that youth have different definitions of sex. Nearly all would agree that penile-vaginal intercourse is "probably" or "definitely" sex. But with penile-anal intercourse, the percentage drops to about 90%. Only 50% believe oral stimulation is indicative of having sex. Manual stimulation drops it to around 30%, depending on who the other person is to you.

You get the idea—there is no universal agreement on what counts as sex. Clearly, various sub-groups who differ by sex, social class, religious affiliation, education, and ethnicity might vary as to what constitutes “having sex.” Perhaps men have a loose definition of “having sex” and thus report having more sex than women report.

But the big question is, has the meaning of “having sex” changed over the past several decades? Can we fairly compare the responses of those born in the 1930s to those born just before 2000? Data to address this are difficult to find but until we do, I believe it might be premature to declare such generational changes.  

What I believe is happening is that young adults today define “having sex” differently than did older generations and the bar for having sex is higher than previous generations—for example, having oral sex in a hookup situation is so common as not to count as sex. But it’s only a guess—one not considered by Twenge and associates.

References

Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (2017). Declines in sexual frequency among American adults, 1989-2014. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 2389-2401.

Byers, E. S., Henderson, J., & Hobson, K. M. (2009). University students’ definitions of sexual abstinence. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 665-674. 

Sewell, K. K., & Strassberg, D. S. (2015). How do heterosexual undergraduate students define having sex? Journal of Sex Research, 52, 507-516.