- Rates of sexual activity have been in decline for years, but the drop is most pronounced for adults under age 25 (Gen Z).
- For Gen Z, a rise in sexlessness has coincided with a decline in mental health.
- Sexual activity can boost mood and relieve stress and may serve as a protective factor against anxiety and depressive disorders.
Generally speaking, sexual activity is good for our mental health. Sex (however you like to do it) has the potential to enhance our psychological well-being, as well as the connection we have with a spouse or partner.
However, research suggests that sexual activity is slowly receding from many people's lives. While the overall trend points to a small but steady decline in partnered sex over the last few decades, this trend obscures a massive downward spiral in sexual activity among adults under age 25—often referred to as Generation Z.
A fast-growing segment of Gen Z adults are hitting the snooze button on their sex lives. Some older adults see this as cause for celebration because, after all, less sex will likely translate to fewer sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancies, and abortions (which, in the United States, are now increasingly difficult to access).
At the same time, however, the rise in sexlessness among young adults comes with the cost of not being able to tap into the myriad benefits of sexual activity, including its positive effects on psychological well-being. And this, in part, may be worsening the mental health crisis we’re seeing in Gen Z.
Research shows that in the 1990s and early 2000s, depression among young adults was in decline, and young people were reporting better mental health than earlier generations did at the same stage of life. Flash forward to today, and these trends have completely reversed. So why might a drop in sexual activity coincide with a decline in mental health?
How Sex Is Good for Mental Health
Partnered sex can boost our psychological well-being in several ways. For one thing, it provides a temporary mood boost. In longitudinal research where young adults were asked to keep a daily diary for three weeks, researchers found that on days people reported having sex, their well-being was higher the next day.
Specifically, people reported more positive mood states, fewer negative mood states, and more meaning in life. The benefits lasted longer when intimacy was present, suggesting that it’s not just sex itself but also the connection we feel with another person through sex that matters.
Similarly, other research has found that on days people have sex, they’re actually happier on the job—and more engaged with their work—the following day.
Part of the reason for this may be the fact that sex is a well-known stress reliever. Longitudinal research on couples finds that having sex on high-stress days is linked to decreases in stress the following day—and that decrease in stress is bigger than what you see when sex doesn’t occur.
Regular sexual activity may also be a protective factor against anxiety and mood disorders. For example, in a study of sexual activity and mental health conducted during the COVID-19 lockdowns, those who were sexually active reported fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, while lack of sex was linked to a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression.
This wasn’t just due to differences in access to a partner, either. Whether people were or were not living with a partner during lockdown, sexual activity was linked to better mental health than not having sex.
In short, sex—and physical intimacy more generally—appear to have a number of positive effects on well-being. Thus, when we disengage with sex or take it off of the table entirely, we miss out on an important means of bolstering our mental health.
How Many Young Adults Are Missing the Benefits of Sex?
Adults under age 25 aren’t having as much sex as generations past—and many of them aren’t doing it at all. Results from several nationally representative surveys conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, and several other countries point to this conclusion.
Young adults are having sex less often and they’re doing it with fewer partners, and this is especially true for young men. For example, data from the US General Social Survey reveal that the number of men reporting no sex in the past year rose from about one in five (18.9 percent) in 2000 to nearly one in three (30.9 percent) by 2018.
I’ve documented something similar in my own research. For instance, in a representative survey of 2,000 American adults aged 18 to 44 conducted in 2021 by the Kinsey Institute and Lovehoney, we found that, across genders, Gen Z adults reported a lower frequency of sex than people in their 30s and 40s. Furthermore, one in four young adults say that they’ve yet to have partnered sex, with young men reporting higher rates of sexlessness than young women.
In this study, we also found that Gen Z adults reported the highest levels of stress and anxiety and, furthermore, that lower levels of sexual activity were linked to higher levels of stress.
The Link Between Sexual Activity and Mental Health Is Complex
As sexlessness has risen among young adults, so have rates of psychological distress. Of course, correlation is not causation—and I am in no way suggesting that the Gen Z mental health crisis is simply a function of what’s going on in their sex lives.
Gen Z’s mental health struggles have been tied to a large number of things, including increased technology and smartphone use, helicopter parenting, student debt, and other financial concerns, as well as anxiety about the future health of the planet.
There are clearly many potential factors fueling this mental health crisis, with growing sexlessness being just one possibility. And, at the same time, this mental health crisis is likely also part of what’s behind the drop in sexual activity. Stress is one of the biggest libido killers out there—in general, the more stressed we feel, the less likely it is that sexual desire will set in and that we’ll be able to become and stay aroused.
So there’s likely a bidirectional association here: Worsening mental health may result in less sex and, simultaneously, less sex may worsen mental health.
And when sex disappears from our lives, we lose an important and highly effective form of stress relief as well as a way to boost our mood, to feel deeply connected to someone else, and to feel meaning in life. These benefits are not easily replaced by other forms of self-care because when we don’t have sexual relationships, it can be hard to meet our need for intimate touch.
You don’t necessarily have to have sex in order to be happy, of course. But if you’re not having sex, it’s important to find other ways to meet our deep human needs for touch and connection.
Sex is good for our mental health in many ways. And what we’re seeing is that in a generation where sex is rapidly receding, this coincides with a decline in psychological well-being.
Those who see Gen Z’s growing sexual avoidance as a cause for celebration are missing the bigger picture here. Sexlessness can be both a symptom and a cause of poor mental health. That’s a cause for concern—not celebration.
Kashdan, T. B., Goodman, F. R., Stiksma, M., Milius, C. R., & McKnight, P. E. (2017). Sexuality Leads to Boosts in Mood and Meaning in Life With No Evidence for the Reverse Direction: A Daily Diary Investigation. Emotion.
Leavitt, K., Barnes, C. M., Watkins, T., & Wagner, D. T. (2019). From the bedroom to the office: Workplace spillover effects of sexual activity at home. Journal of Management, 45(3), 1173-1192.
Ein-Dor, T., & Hirschberger, G. (2012). Sexual healing: Daily diary evidence that sex relieves stress for men and women in satisfying relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 126-139.
Mollaioli, D., Sansone, A., Ciocca, G., Limoncin, E., Colonnello, E., Di Lorenzo, G., & Jannini, E. A. (2021). Benefits of sexual activity on psychological, relational, and sexual health during the COVID-19 breakout. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 18(1), 35-49.
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