People aren't having as much sex as they used to, and it's apparently a whole thing, according to The Atlantic's December cover story, written by Kate Julian. After combing through extensive data from the General Social Survey, a national survey that tracks trends, researchers from San Diego State University determined that people who are in their early 20s right now are two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as Gen Xers were at the same age. Specifically, between the years 1990 to 2014, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times a year, therefore, we're in a "sex recession." Damn.
Anyone can speculate why this could be the case — online dating makes it easier for people to be selective about their pursuits, masturbation is much less taboo, and people are waiting longer to have sex, for example. In The Atlantic article, Julian makes the case for a handful of reasons, including these, painful sex, and pressure from overbearing parents.
This is not the first time people have claimed that young people aren't boning enough — and there are countless think-pieces discussing this shift. But what's clear from this new research is that times are a-changin' when it comes to sex and dating, in ways that we haven't quite caught up with yet. So, to make sense of this so-called trend, we spoke with Julian about sex, and what to make of the fact that nobody is having sex anymore.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
When you say that "sexual frequency" is declining, how are you defining sex?
"Many people when they hear this assume that people are doing different things, therefore numbers aren’t capturing real behaviour — but it doesn’t seem like that's the case. The research we’re drawing on mostly is using data from the General Social Survey, which looks at a national sample of Americans. It’s not a sex survey: it devotes very few questions to sex, and it doesn’t define sex."
"With regards to sex, you could say, We need some more precise definitions. They just ask, Have you had sex? and they leave you to define it. [Jean Twenge] did a follow-up [study], and found that people today are more likely to describe a broader range of things as, 'sex.' So, if anything, you’d expect sex rates to go up over the years, because the definition has become broader. The sex recession might be steeper than it looks, because you’d expect rates to go up if people describe more things as sex."
This kind of reminds me of those stories about how "millennials are killing" different things. Are millennials really to blame here?
"Whatever's going on here is not a 'millennial trend.' It really probably pertains to people in their 20s, so younger millennials or Gen-Z. We tend to talk about millennials as if they are some group that just landed here intact, whereas it’s more useful to talk about what it's like to be a young person at this point. [Millennials are] having to deal with things previous generations haven’t dealt with, and it's useful to clarify that. Some people think online connectivity and smartphones have had a dramatic effect on how people’s lives are shaped and their behaviours. That's probably true for most generational groups, and the groups that use [technology] more, that’d be more true."
If people aren’t having sex, but they're doing other things they find fulfilling, that's fabulous. But if people are not having sex, and wish they were, that's more concerning to me.
Do you think that the current political landscape has anything to do with the lack of sex?
"Lots of Americans who I interviewed alluded to the U.S. news cycle, stress about politics, and also just general anxiety about the sort of precarity we all live with now. I do think people realize that's making them unhappy, and may also make it hard for them to focus on other things they’d like to focus on. But I don't think you could blame, for example, U.S. President Trump, because the numbers predate that."
So, knowing all of this, where do we go from here? Is the answer to have some kind of pendulum swing?
"It may take time to make sense of the changes we’re seeing right now. Not all of this is bad; the teen birth rate has declined dramatically, and that's a good thing. More people say their first sexual encounter was wanted, more people feel comfortable saying no, that's also a really good thing. The problem is, we haven’t caught up with the shifting social mores. Online dating has changed some of the norms around dating pretty quickly, and we need time to adjust to that, and see what's working and not working."
"In terms of the what to make of it? A lot of people who have looked at this get very panicked about the birth rate. It's at an all-time low, and that's definitely a serious issue. If it continues to decline, it’s got important ramifications."
"But I'm honestly more concerned about what this means about quality of life for 2018, for people already here. If people aren’t having sex, but they're doing other things they find fulfilling, that's fabulous. But if people are not having sex, and wish they were, that's more concerning to me. I just want people who may be struggling a little bit to realize they're not alone. Feeling like you haven’t hit certain norms in terms of where you’re supposed to be can be really isolating and stressful. The more people can realize, it's not just me, I'd like to spread that message."