The sex recession

September 18th, 2019

A surprising trend?

Sex is everywhere — or so it seems. It’s featured prominently in advertising and entertainment, and conversations about polyamory, sexual orientation and birth control are no longer happening only behind closed doors. But according to the cover story of the December 2018 issue of The Atlantic magazine, young adults worldwide are having less sex than previous generations. For Christians, is this a cause for concern or something to be celebrated?

Research and analysis from psychology professor Jean M. Twenge and anthropologist Helen Fisher show that young adults today are on track to have fewer sexual partners than members of the two preceding generations. In the early 1990s, the teenage pregnancy rate reached its modern high; the median age for a person’s first sexual experience was at a low of 16.9; and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 54% of high schoolers had experienced intercourse. By 2017, teen pregnancy rates were down to a third from that high, and only 39.5% of high schoolers reported that they’d had intercourse.

Despite concerns about “hookup culture” on college campuses, studies indicate that between 2010 and 2015, only a quarter of college students routinely “hooked up,” a term that could indicate anything from making out to spending the night fully clothed to intercourse. In other words, college students aren’t having sex at higher rates or with more partners than their predecessors. This fact is unsurprising to researchers such as sociology professor Lisa Wade, who stated in the Atlantic article that young people have always been more likely to have sex in the context of a relationship versus a context of casual, nonexclusive dating.

Another connected trend reveals that many millennials are delaying marriage in favor of focusing on their education and careers. According to a September 2018 Bloomberg article, both men and women are waiting until they’re more “settled” to get married and have children, pursuing educational and professional goals before more deliberately entering committed relationships. In response to the increase in the average age of marriage, the divorce rate for millennials has also declined from previous generations, a good sign for committed marriages and family stability. Since people are more likely to have sex within the context of a relationship, this trend may account for some of the decline.

Another hopeful explanation for the decline in sex is the decreased rate of childhood sexual abuse, which can lead to precocious and promiscuous sexual behavior. The familiarity of conversations about sex has reduced the stigma and shame involved in talking about sex. This can empower people to stand up for themselves and not feel pressured into unwanted sex. Additionally, discussions about diverse sexual orientations, including asexuality, are more prevalent, which helps people give a name to something that previous generations may have found unusual.

Fertility and relationship concerns

Although modern science has allowed us to de-couple sexual intercourse from childbearing through effective birth control, sex is still typically required for procreation. This means that a decline in sex is likely responsible in part for the record-low fertility rate in the United States. This isn’t only a problem in the United States. According to the Atlantic article, “fertility-challenged Japan . . . has become something of a case study in the dangers of sexlessness,” pointing out a recent survey indicating that 47% of married people in Japan hadn’t had sex in at least a month. Studies in Great Britain, Australia and Finland have also shown declines in sex. In fact, Sweden, which has one of the highest birth rates in Europe, commissioned its first national sex study in 20 years in order to address social conditions that could be causing this growing phenomenon. Some fear that a decrease in sex today could lead to a demographic crisis tomorrow.

Alexandra Solomon, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who teaches a popular course called Marriage 101, sees signs of “the romantic and sexual stunting of a generation.” In the Atlantic article, she argues that what the media has termed “hookup culture” should more accurately be described as “lack-of-relationship culture.” The adolescent and young-adult years are an important developmental stage in terms of social and romantic development. In previous generations, the majority of teenagers learned how to interact, flirt and kiss, as well as deal with heartbreak and disappointment during these formative years. However, as Solomon has discovered, many of her students have never even asked someone on a date. While teenagers might not be having sex, they also aren’t forming relationships that help them to develop emotional and relational skills that might make them good partners in the future.

Potential causes

The so-called sex recession can be blamed on almost any modern woe, from social media and dating apps to the economic concerns of late-stage capitalism. A few places where the church might address this phenomenon are in the lives of teenagers and the use of pornography.

Teenagers today are incredibly overcommitted and overscheduled by parents trying to give them a leg up in an increasingly cutthroat economy. There’s less time for unstructured play or social interactions between extracurricular obligations and demanding school work. Involvement in church can end up being just another thing to do on a long list of possible résumé builders. Even in college, students have absorbed the idea that love is secondary to academic and professional success or at least needs to be delayed until those things are achieved. Consequently, some of these young people never develop the social and emotional skills to begin and sustain meaningful romantic relationships.

The ubiquity of pornography may also be a contributing factor to the decline in partnered sex, for both men and women. While there’s no compelling research that pornography is addictive, there is evidence that increased porn use can lead to a lowered desire for real-life sex. Easy access to the internet for at least partial gratification of social and sexual needs creates a hurdle that can prevent many from going out into the world and interacting with people in person. Ultimately, the decline in sex raises important questions about the future of couples, demographic decline and loneliness. It also fosters pessimism about the future of our economy, society and world. The so-called sex recession is likely a symptom, not a cause, of a variety of cultural and technological changes that have isolated us from one another. What we’ve gained in lower teenage pregnancy rates and delayed intercourse might not make up for all that we’ve lost.

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