our culture has never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation. But despite all this, American teenagers and young adults are having less sex.
1991 to 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey finds, the percentage of high-school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent. In other words, in the space of a generation, sex has gone from something most high-school students have experienced to something most haven’t. (And no, they aren’t having oral sex instead—that rate hasn’t changed much.) Meanwhile, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has plummeted to a third of its modern high.
From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex.
none of the many experts I interviewed for this piece seriously challenged the idea that the average young adult circa 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. Nor did anyone doubt that this reality is out of step with public perception—most of us still think that other people are having a lot more sex than they actually are.
experts, attributes the sex decline to a decline in couplehood among young people. For a quarter century, fewer people have been marrying, and those who do have been marrying later.
Over the course of many conversations with sex researchers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, therapists, sex educators, and young adults, I heard many other theories about what I have come to think of as the sex recession. I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.
And some people today may feel less pressured into sex they don’t want to have, thanks to changing gender mores and growing awareness of diverse sexual orientations, including asexuality.
From 1992 to 2014, the share of American men who reported masturbating in a given week doubled, to 54 percent, and the share of women more than tripled, to 26 percent. Easy access to porn is part of the story, of course; in 2014, 43 percent of men said they’d watched porn in the past week. The vibrator figures in, too—a major study 10 years ago found that just over half of adult women had used one, and by all indications it has only grown in popularity.
Gary Wilson, an Oregon man who runs a website called Your Brain on Porn, makes a similar claim. In a popular tedx talk, which features animal copulation as well as many (human) brain scans, Wilson argues that masturbating to internet porn is addictive, causes structural changes in the brain, and is producing an epidemic of erectile dysfunction.
There is scant evidence of an epidemic of erectile dysfunction among young men. And no researcher I spoke with had seen compelling evidence that porn is addictive.
Pornhub, the top pornography website, released its list of 2017’s most popular searches. In first place, for the third year running, was lesbian (a category beloved by men and women alike). The new runner-up, however, was hentai—anime, manga, and other animated porn.
In other words, the leading search category for porn involves sex that half the population doesn’t have the equipment to engage in, and the runner-up isn’t carnal so much as hallucinatory.
Many of the younger people I talked with see porn as just one more digital activity—a way of relieving stress, a diversion. It is related to their sex life (or lack thereof) in much the same way social media and binge-watching TV are. As one 24-year-old man emailed me: The internet has made it so easy to gratify basic social and sexual needs that there’s far less incentive to go out into the “meatworld” and chase those things. This isn’t to say that the internet can give you more satisfaction than sex or relationships, because it doesn’t … [But it can] supply you with just enough satisfaction to placate those imperatives … I think it’s healthy to ask yourself: “If I didn’t have any of this, would I be going out more? Would I be having sex more?” For a lot of people my age, I think the answer is probably yes.
An intriguing study published last year in the Journal of Population Economics examined the introduction of broadband internet access at the county-by-county
level,and found that its arrival explained 7 to 13 percent of the teen-birth-rate decline from 1999 to 2007.
Millennial college students weren’t having more sex or sexual partners than their Gen X predecessors.
Online College Social Life Survey, a survey of more than 20,000 college students that was conducted from 2005 to 2011, which found the median number of hookups over a four-year college career to be five—a third of which involved only kissing and touching.
post–World War II anxiety about a man shortage led teen girls in the late 1940s and ’50s to pursue more serious romantic relationships than had been customary before the war. “Young women, at that point, innovate ‘going steady,’ ” Wade said, adding that parents were not entirely happy about the shift away from prewar courtship, which had favored casual, nonexclusive dating. “If you [go out with someone for] one night you might get up to a little bit of necking and petting, but what happens when you spend months with them? It turns out 1957 has the highest rate of teen births in American history.”
These shifts coincide with another major change: parents’ increased anxiety about their children’s educational and economic prospects. Among the affluent and educated, especially, this anxiety has led to big changes in what’s expected of teens. “It’s hard to work in sex when the baseball team practices at 6:30, school starts at 8:15, drama club meets at 4:15, the soup kitchen starts serving at 6, and, oh yeah, your screenplay needs completion,” said a man who was a couple of years out of college, thinking back on his high-school years. He added: “There’s immense pressure” from parents and other authority figures “to focus on the self, at the expense of relationships”—pressure, quite a few 20-somethings told me, that extends right on through college.
This I think is a major factor in a lot of problems teens and young people are facing. There is no more time for them to just be kids. All the adults are shouldering them with huge amounts of pressure and anxiety.
Malcolm Harris strikes a similar note in his book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Addressing the desexing of the American teenager, he writes: A decline in unsupervised free time probably contributes a lot. At a basic level, sex at its best is unstructured play with friends, a category of experience that … time diaries … tell us has been decreasing for American adolescents. It takes idle hands to get past first base, and today’s kids have a lot to do.
“We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up.”
“my undergraduates tell me they try hard not to fall in love during college, imagining that would mess up their plans.”
“Now I need to finish school, I need to get a practice going, I need to do this and this, and then I’ll think about love. But by 30, you’re like, What is love? What’s it like to be in love?”
Tinder. “It’s like howling into the void for most guys,” he explained, “and like searching for a diamond in a sea of dick pics for most girls.” So why do people continue to use dating apps? Why not boycott them all? Simon said meeting someone offline seemed like less and less of an option. His parents had met in a chorus a few years after college, but he couldn’t see himself pulling off something similar. “I play volleyball,” he added. “I had somebody on the volleyball team two years ago who I thought was cute, and we’d been playing together for a while.” Simon wanted to ask her out, but ultimately concluded that this would be “incredibly awkward,” even “boorish.”
“No one approaches anyone in public anymore,” said a teacher in Northern Virginia. “The dating landscape has changed. People are less likely to ask you out in real life now, or even talk to begin with,” said a 28-year-old woman in Los Angeles who volunteered that she had been single for three years.
I mentioned to several of the people I interviewed for this piece that I’d met my husband in an elevator, in 2001. (We worked on different floors of the same institution, and over the months that followed struck up many more conversations—in the elevator, in the break room, on the walk to the subway.) I was fascinated by the extent to which this prompted other women to sigh and say that they’d just love to meet someone that way. And yet quite a few of them suggested that if a random guy started talking to them in an elevator, they would be weirded out. “Creeper! Get away from me,” one woman imagined thinking. “Anytime we’re in silence, we look at our phones,” explained her friend, nodding.
Many online daters spend large amounts of time pursuing people who are out of their league. Few of their messages are returned, and even fewer lead to in-person contact. At best, the experience is apt to be bewildering (Why are all these people swiping right on me, then failing to follow through?). But it can also be undermining, even painful.
some of the sex recession’s causes could be a healthy reaction to bad sex—a subset of people “not having sex that they don’t want to have anymore. People feeling more empowered to say ‘No thanks.’ ”
As Marina Adshade, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the economics of sex and love, said to me, “Men have bad sex and good sex. But when sex is bad for women, it’s really, really bad. If women are avoiding sex, are they trying to avoid the really bad sex?” Sex takes time to learn under the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances. Modeling your behavior after what you’ve seen on-screen can lead to what’s known as “spectatoring”—that is, worrying about how you look and sound while you’re having sex, a behavior the sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson long ago posited was bad for sexual functioning. Some young women told me they felt pressured to emulate porn actresses—and to achieve orgasm from penetration alone, which most women can’t do.
If young people are delaying serious relationships until later in adulthood, more and more of them may be left without any knowledge of what good sex really feels like.
“Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift,” Jonah Disend, the founder of the branding consultancy Redscout, told Bloomberg last year. He said that designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.”
people may also be newly worried about what they look like naked. A large and growing body of research reports that for both men and women, social-media use is correlated with body dissatisfaction.
In her book Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski, who trained at the Kinsey Institute, compares the brain’s excitement system to the gas pedal in a car, and its inhibition system to the brakes. The first turns you on; the second turns you off. For many people, research suggests, the brakes are more sensitive than the accelerator.
Other sources of sexual inhibition speak distinctly to the way we live today. For example, sleep deprivation strongly suppresses desire—and sleep quality is imperiled by now-common practices like checking one’s phone overnight. (For women, getting an extra hour of sleep predicts a 14 percent greater likelihood of having sex the next day.)
Among the contradictions of our time is this: We live in unprecedented physical safety, and yet something about modern life, very recent modern life, has triggered in many of us autonomic responses associated with danger—anxiety, constant scanning of our surroundings, fitful sleep. Under these circumstances, survival trumps desire.
Take for example the online hate and real-life violence waged by the so-called incels—men who claim to be “involuntarily celibate.” Their grievances, which are illegitimate and vile, offer a timely reminder that isolated young people are vulnerable to extremism of every sort. See also the populist discontent roiling Europe, driven in part by adults who have so far failed to achieve the milestones of adulthood: In Italy, half of 25-to-34-year-olds now live with their parents.
True, nobody ever died of not getting laid, but getting laid has proved adaptive over millions of years: We do it because it is fun, because it bonds us to one another, because it makes us happy.
Sex seems more fraught now. This problem has no single source; the world has changed in so many ways, so quickly. In time, maybe, we will rethink some things: The abysmal state of sex education, which was once a joke but is now, in the age of porn, a disgrace. The dysfunctional relationships so many of us have with our phones and social media, to the detriment of our relationships with humans. Efforts to “protect” teenagers from most everything, including romance, leaving them ill-equipped for both the miseries and the joys of adulthood.