Americans are in the Midst of a Sex Recession

November 14, 2018

When I called the anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies love and sex and co-directs Match.com’s annual Singles in America survey of more than 5,000 unpartnered Americans, I could almost feel her nodding over the phone. “The data is that people are having less sex,” she said, with a hint of mischief. “I’m a Baby Boomer, and apparently in my day we were having a lot more sex than they are today!” She went on to explain that the survey has been probing the intimate details of people’s lives for eight years now. “Every year the whole Match company is rather staggered at how little sex Americans are having—including the Millennials.”

Fisher, like many other 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. At first, many observers figured that the decline in marriage was explained by an increase in unmarried cohabitation—yet the share of people living together hasn’t risen enough to offset the decline in marriage:

About 60 percent of adults under age 35 now live without a spouse or a partner. One in three adults in this age range live with their parents, making that the most common living arrangement for the cohort. People who live with a romantic partner tend to have sex more than those who don’t—and living with your parents is obviously bad for your sex life. But this doesn’t explain why young people are partnering up less to begin with.

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.

Some experts I spoke with offered more hopeful explanations for the decline in sex. For example, rates of childhood sexual abuse have decreased in recent decades, and abuse can lead to both precocious and promiscuous sexual behavior. 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. Maybe more people are prioritizing school or work over love and sex, at least for a time, or maybe they’re simply being extra deliberate in choosing a life partner—and if so, good for them.

Many—or all—of these things may be true. In a famous 2007 study, people supplied researchers with 237 distinct reasons for having sex, ranging from mystical (“I wanted to feel closer to God”) to lame (“I wanted to change the topic of conversation”). The number of reasons not to have sex must be at least as high. Still, a handful of suspects came up again and again in my interviews and in the research I reviewed—and each has profound implications for our happiness.

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