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Sex

Why Are Young People Having Less Sex?

Changes in technology and courtship patterns are reducing their sexual behavior.

Key points

  • Young people in America and other Western countries are having less sex than young people used to.
  • Courtship and sexual changes frequently accompany disruptive technologies. Social media and smartphones have changed the way people communicate.
  • Sexual decision-making typically reflects people's ideas about sexuality, relationships, and self-image.

According to research by Debby Herbenick recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, American young adults and adolescents are having less sex than young people used to. Teens are even masturbating less often.

Specifically, the number of adults aged 18-24 reporting no intercourse in the previous year increased from 24% to 28%. (Similar changes were noted with oral and other kinds of sex.) And adolescents reporting no masturbation or partner sex increased from 29% of men and 50% of women in 2009 to 43% men and 74% women in 2018.

There’s a sobering economic reality behind this trend. Today, half of young adults live with their parents—a shift which started long before COVID). That reduces the number of young couples cohabiting and it reduces privacy for those living with parents—both of which mean less sex. Young adults have disturbingly high rates of unemployment and underemployment today, and less pocket cash means less courtship, which also means less sex.

There’s also a troubling cultural reality at work: People now spend much of their free time online, and when life online feels rich, meeting people in person can seem too complicated. This, of course, further reduces sexual opportunities.

Fewer young people today even aspire to be coupled than, say, 15 years ago. Friendship groups used to be places in which adolescents and young adults found people to date. They provided a chance to learn and practice the skills of communication, reading social cues, and small risk-taking (like revealing that you like someone). They also provided a chance to experience the rewards of small interpersonal risk-taking ("He likes me too!").

Now young people are more likely to hang out in groups without much interest in finding a romantic partner. There may be cuddling and emotional support within such groups, but people are less likely to be sorting each other as potential dates—or to see themselves as potential sexual partners.

Finally, there’s a range of psychological realities going on.

With the renewed emphasis on the importance of sexual consent, many young men are worried about the possible repercussions of dating or ambiguity in sexual communication. Some may feel guilty about their sexual desires

Many young people’s thoughts about sexuality may be tied up with their and their friends' thoughts about gender identity and orientation. For many, sex is no longer simply about what you do or even how you feel, but about who you are—a subject about which young people are famously conflicted. For people wondering about their own identity, actually engaging in erotic behaviors can simply seem daunting.

Enter the Internet

Today’s young people—a generation of "digital natives"—have been having less sex than age-peers in previous generations, and the impact of the internet and smartphones on courtship and sexual patterns cannot be ignored.

First, people are so used to the internet’s instant gratification that ordinary conversation with ordinary people can seem tame. Young people may have less comfort with the ups and downs of face to face conversation. For some, dating simply doesn’t provide the kind of continuous guaranteed engagement of the internet and smartphones; almost nothing could.

In this context, the sex that young people are having can be confusing in a new way. Many young people are almost panicking during the inevitable moments when actual sex becomes boring or ambiguous, or when the unexpected (or unwanted) happens. In therapy sessions, young people are asking me—in ways they previously did not—“How am I supposed to get excited and stay excited during sex without anything else going on?”

Let's Talk About Porn

Not only are teens having less sex than previous cohorts, they’re also masturbating less than teens of a generation ago. (This includes teens of all genders.) So, is online porn turning every young person into a masturbation junkie? Hardly. Rather, young people—who now often consume porn before they’ve had any partner sex—are comparing themselves to what they see. They don’t always realize they’re watching a fantasy, and they understandably respond by feeling inadequate, ignorant, and ashamed. That anxiety translates directly into lower arousal, lower enjoyment, and lower desire.

As their lives become more mediated, young people who lack real-life sexual experience trivialize their own real-world senses, emotions, and needs—for example, for touching. As sex for young people becomes less and less about the five senses, and more about images, it also becomes less a vehicle for connection between them, and thus, connection becomes a weaker motivation for sex.

Young people are also generally less curious about sex than young people used to be. While previous generations of young people felt that much of sexuality was mysterious, today's young adults understandably but erroneously feel they’ve seen it all via porn, and so they’re simply less curious and less motivated to investigate it.

For hundreds of years, we’ve seen how everyday behavior (including sexual behavior) changes in response to the disruptions of new technologies. We can see the impact of smartphones and the Internet on many aspects of life, including child-rearing, shopping, and news consumption. Surveys finding that Americans—and Germans and Japanese and others—are having sex less frequently and masturbating less frequently are solid evidence that our sexuality isn’t exempt.

Does it matter that young people having sex less? For those of us who think sexuality can be a positive force for humanizing, connecting, and even transforming people, it definitely does.

Facebook image: tong patong/Shutterstock

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