Debra Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex.
Late last month, The Washington Post published findings from the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, offering yet another piece to the puzzle in understanding the current sex drought in America.
Consistent with a trend that sex researchers have been documenting for years, the findings showed that Americans – and particularly those under 30 – are having less sex than ever before. On the whole, the number of Americans who had sex once a week or more dropped from 51 per cent in 1996 to 39 per cent in 2018. Among the young, 18- to 30-year-olds were roughly twice as likely to report being celibate in the past year compared with adults in their 50s.
The decline is even more drastic when comparing the sexes. For the past 30 years, twentysomething women and men reported comparable rates of sexlessness. But in 2018, 28 per cent of young men reported having no sex in the past year, while only 18 per cent of young women said the same. Furthermore, 27 per cent of men under 30 reported not having sex since turning 18, a percentage that has more than tripled in the past 10 years.
Much like any other issue related to sex, a cultural panic has ensued, with fears that society may soon find itself overthrown by an epidemic of angry incels (or “involuntary celibates”). Some media coverage tried to leave no stone unturned in seeking possible explanations for male millennials’ lack of hooking up, pointing the finger at everything from antidepressants to social media and video games.
The Post included a study finding that there have been fewer young men entering the work force since the last recession. People who have jobs are more likely to have stable relationships and be living on their own. Young men aged 18 to 34, however, are more likely to be living at home. As one might imagine, having parents in the next room makes having overnight guests slightly more difficult.
Others have interpreted these findings as a positive sign, that perhaps young American adults are simply making better decisions about sex. But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are skyrocketing. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis totalled almost 2.3 million cases in the United States, marking the highest number of reported cases to date, particularly among those aged 15 to 24.
So, while it appears less sex is happening more generally, those who are engaging aren’t using safer sex practices.
We should also remember that those taking part in the published study may not have considered newer sexual outlets, such as sexting and webcamming, to be defined as sex, thereby leading them to underreport the amount of sexual activity they’ve partaken in. It’s possible that rates of sex haven’t actually declined as drastically as it would seem, but that young men are choosing to interact with their partners online, instead of in real life. As for the belief that pornography is to blame, some research has shown that those who view porn actually tend to have more sex.
For women who are sexually active, they are likely choosing from a smaller pool of male candidates. Although some have heralded this as good news – that perhaps women are taking greater initiative and turning down partners they see as unfit – if one plans to settle down in a committed, monogamous relationship, it is women who will eventually be partnering with currently celibate young men. When the time comes, these men will be less experienced, not only in the bedroom, but in navigating romantic relationships too.
Few seem concerned about what this signals as part of the larger picture. Imagine if a study found that women were being adversely affected because of not having the means to provide for themselves. Multiple organizations would surely be falling over themselves with initiatives to help women improve their situation.
If the numbers showed that women were having drastically less sex, no doubt there would be outrage and countless op-eds lamenting how unjust this was. Let’s not forget that when a study came out last year showing that women tended to have fewer orgasms during sex than men, the corresponding onslaught of media reportage blamed men for being bad lovers.
Abstaining from sex by choice is much different from being celibate due to a lack of prospects more broadly in life. Instead of gawking with morbid fascination at the sex recession – and in some cases, mocking men for falling short – our next step should be seeking solutions, from which both sexes will ultimately benefit.