Why Are People Having So Little Sex?

October 27, 2018

Matt, a 34-year-old data analyst from Texas, and his wife dated for seven years before getting married in 2013. When they didn’t live together, they had sex every time they saw each other. After they moved in, however, he says things changed. Their sex life became inconsistent.

They’d have a really active week and then a month with nothing, or just one at-bat. It began to hurt their relationship. At one point early in their marriage, Matt’s wife got pregnant, but they weren’t sure the marriage was going to make it, so they terminated the pregnancy. Part of the problem for Matt, who spoke to TIME about his sex life on the condition his last name wouldn’t be printed, was that he didn’t know how to talk about sex with his wife.

“I really didn’t want to be pushy on that issue,” he says. “She has the right to say no, always and forever.” Yet he struggled with the notion that no was the automatic answer. He didn’t understand why they weren’t having more sex.

If Matt’s story sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. Americans are not having sex. They’re not having sex in droves. According the General Social Survey, a profile of American behavior that has been gathered by the National Opinion Research Council at the University of Chicago since 1972, the fraction of people getting it on at least once a week fell from 45% in 2000 to 36% in 2016. One study of the GSS data showed that more than twice as many millennials were sexually inactive in their early 20s than the prior generation was. And the sharpest drop was the most recent, in the years 2014 to 2016.

The indicators of a falling bonk rate are everywhere. In 2016, 4% fewer condoms were sold than the year before, and they fell a further 3% in 2017. Teen sex, which is monitored by the Centers for Disease Control, is flat and has been on a downward trend since 1985. And the fertility rate—the frequency at which babies are added to the population—is at a level not seen since the Great Depression.

How can this be? After all, this is the era when we’ve finally torn down many barriers. The social stigma around premarital sex is gone, hookups are not considered shameful, and the belief in limiting partners to one side of the gender line is no longer universal. Our many forms of contraception have reduced the risk of serious physical consequences. There are a wealth of technological assists, including apps like Tinder to help willing partners find each other, endless free online porn to rev the engines, and the Dr. Fils—tadalafil (Cialis), vardenafil (Levitra), and sildenafil (Viagra) to overcome the most common physical limitations for men.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that sex remains as exhilarating as it was for our ancestors. In fact, a safe, consensual romp with a loving and appropriate partner is one of life’s rarest things, a delight with no downside. It will not make you unhealthy, pollute the atmosphere, give you a hangover or a rash, deplete the ozone, put anyone out of business, increase income inequality or further divide the nation. Unlike many nocturnal diversions, it will make you feel better the next day. It’s pure, free fun.

Yet the slump in pumping doesn’t seem to be a blip. Nearly 20% of 18- to 29-year-olds reported having no sex at all in 2016, an almost 50% rise over those who were celibate in 2000. “The downward trend is very real,” says Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at University of Maryland, College Park.

Jean Twenge, professor of psychology, San Diego State University who wrote a much-cited paper for the Archives of Sexual Behavior about the downturn, says one big reason is marriage—but not for the reason everybody thinks. Married people, it shocks nearly all married people to learn, have more sex than single people of the same age.

This is just a matter of logistics: people who work at pizza parlors eat a lot more pizza than others do too, because they don’t have to go out and get it. Married people get it on more than their single peers because they’re already going to bed with someone who is theoretically willing to have sex with them. The supply side of the equation is solved, only demand remains a riddle.

The median age for first marriage in America is now 29 for men and 27 for women, up from 27 and 25 in 1999. While young people are often more likely to live together than their forbears, the number of cohabiting 20-somethings has remained constant, while the number of 20-something spouses has dropped. And increasingly, young people are eschewing having a relationship with one partner and instead hanging out with a loosely assorted group of friends. So there’s just less of that convenience sex going on.

“When people are young and healthy and have the highest sex drive, they are less likely to be living with a partner,” says Twenge. “So there’s a larger proportion of people in their early 20s who are not having sex at all.” This is not just in the U.S. Brits are delaying even longer. More than 40% of Japanese 18- to 34-year-old singles claim they are virgins.

“There’s a larger proportion of people in their early 20s who are not having sex at all.”

But married folks are falling down on the job too. “The number one issue that I deal with in my practice is discrepant libido and low libido and no libido,” says couples therapist Ian Kerner, author of the book She Comes First. Twenge’s study shows that the highest drop in sexual frequency has been among married people with higher levels of education.

Counterintuitively, parents with kids younger than six had the same amount of sex as their forbears had, but those with offspring in the 6 to 17 age range were doing less of what made them parents. This may reflect the more child-centric family lives that people are leading and the stress of modern parenting. “We know there’s more parenting anxiety,” says Cohen. “That could be turning into generalized family anxiety.” Only the 60-somethings are bucking the trend—possibly partly with a little pharmaceutical help. Unlike the retirees who came before them, they’re putting the sex back in sexagenarian, with an average coital frequency that is slightly higher than in two decades earlier.

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