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Americans are having less sex

An active sex life is the accepted norm for American singles. Media is sexually explicit, sexting is common, and our culture is more tolerant of sex in a wide range of permutations. Yet, Americans are having less sex with each other than they were 10 years ago.  There has also been a decline in sex and relationships among young people, and those who marry are marrying later.  About 60 percent of adults under age 35 now live without a spouse or partner.

I referred to the Atlantic article, “The Sex Recession: Why Young People are Retreating From Intimacy- and What This Means for Society” by Kate Julian, December 2018, to find out why.  It turns out, there may be many reasons, including economic pressures, the hookup culture, raising anxiety rates, depression, digital porn (and sex for one), helicopter parents, careerism, information overload, and sleep deprivation, to name a few. Let’s look at some of these reasons that may be problematic.

Sex for One

A study in Finland found that intercourse is declining as the frequency of masturbation is increasing; this seems to be the case in the U.S. as well.   It is a relief to most parents that young people are launching their sex lives later.  In the space of a generation, sex has gone from something most high school students experience to something that most won’t.  After high school, one-third of adults under age 35, live with their parents. With easy access to pornography and a shift in acceptance (and marketing of endless products) of masturbation, it has become easy to satisfy sexual desires without leaving the house.

The problem is that young people may be skipping a crucial stage of development, a stage that includes not only flirting and kissing but dealing with heartbreak and disappointment, possibly leaving them unprepared for adult relationships. “From 1992 to 2014”, says Julian, “the share of men who reported masturbating in a given week doubled, and the share of women tripled.” One can become less comfortable putting oneself “out there” and having an actual experience with another person.

Hookup Culture

According to Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College, who wrote, “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus”, the amount of hooking up going on at college campuses has been grossly overestimated, even by the students themselves.  (Hooking up can be anything from strenuous kissing to sexual intercourse).  In spite of the perception, most young people are more likely to have sex in the context of a serious relationship, but those are less common.  The idea of hooking up was popularized due to the perception that a “relationship” takes too much time and commitment. But hooking up without commitment is complicated and perhaps unappealing too.  As one student put it, “we hook up because we have no social skills, and we have no social skills because we hook up”.

Helicopter Parenting

In a recent article in the New York Times, called “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting”(December 25, 2018), what is called “intensive parenting” has become the dominant cultural model for how children should be raised.  Because of increased anxiety among parents about their children’s educational and economic prospects, there is more pressure for kids to focus on themselves, at the expense of relationships.  Young people have the increasing sense that every free moment has to further one’s career prospects.  Alexandra Solomon, psychology professor at Northwestern University, concludes that students have absorbed the idea that love should be delayed until professional success and financial security are obtained.

Online Dating

Asking someone out in person has become, in a short period of time, pretty much unacceptable.  Tinder, Bumble, Match, Hinge, OkCupid (there are endless varieties) are the norm of dating. , According to most young people I have spoken with, striking up a conversation with a stranger, let alone ask them out on a date is rare, even “creepy”.  The perception that online dating is efficient is a false one.  Many people use these apps just for sport, with no intention of really dating.  In reality, it’s only the exceptionally good-looking people that have online dating success.

According to Tinder’s latest data, the average person spends an hour and a half each day on the dating app.  The majority of matches don’t even lead to an email exchange, much less a date, sex, or a relationship.  Laurie Mintz, who teaches a course on the psychology of sexuality at the University of Florida, says there are a lot of lonely, confused people out there, who have no idea what to do, or how to date.  Adding to it, the MeToo movement (which is positive is so many ways), has made flirtation and in-person exchanges very stressful.


The increased use of porn and social media like Facebook and Instagram has been correlated with an increased sense of body dissatisfaction.  Emily Nagoski, who wrote “Come as You Are”, compares the brain’s excitement signal to the accelerator, and inhibition to the brakes in a car.  The brakes are much more sensitive than the accelerator.  Poor self-image, distraction, anxiety, and lack of experience can all engage the brakes.  Modern life has triggered anxiety, inhibition, depression, and low self-esteem, which may have made relationships and sex a lower priority.  Coupled with the convenience of do-it-yourself, low-commitment satisfaction, we have a sex recession.

People in relationships are happier

We know that being in a relationship increases human happiness.  Lack of relationship can lead to unhappiness, which then decreases desire.  There may be such a thing as waiting too long.  Teens and young adults are naturally more open to new experiences and falling in love.  Their brains are wired for experimentation and risk.  They need to be taught the social skills and have the opportunity to create intimate, in-person relationships in a safe manner.  Perhaps we are making a mistake putting relationship skills on the back burner of life.  Those who haven’t gained this experience by the age of 25 have much more trouble navigating the complexity of human intimacy.

If we, or someone we know, is struggling with intimacy, it is worthwhile to seek help through therapy or group work.  We can step outside of the mainstream script and be courageous. Heartbreak and rejection is a part intimate relationship, and it is worth experiencing in order to live a full and completely satisfying life.  According to the research, we are not happy as solitary beings.

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