According to Dr. Debby Herbenick’s research recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, American young adults and adolescents are having less sex than young people used to. Teens are even masturbating less often.
For example, the number of adults aged 18-24 reporting no intercourse in the previous year increased from 24% to 28% (similar changes were noted with oral and other kinds of sex). And adolescents reporting no masturbation or partner sex increased from 29% of men and 50% of women in 2009 to 43% men and 74% women in 2018.
There’s a sobering economic reality behind this trend. Today, half of young adults live with their parents (which started way before COVID). That reduces the number of couples cohabiting and the privacy of those living with parents, but of which mean less sex. Young adults have disturbingly high rates of unemployment and underemployment. Less pocket cash means less public courtship, which means less sex.
There’s also a troubling cultural reality at work. People are now spending much of their free time online (which also started before COVID). When life online feels rich, meeting people in person can seem too complicated. This of course creates reduced sexual opportunities.
Fewer young people aspire to be coupled than, say, 15 years ago. Friendship groups used to be places in which adolescents and young adults found people to date. They provided a chance to learn and practice the skills of communication, reading social cues, and small risk-taking (like revealing that you like someone). They also provided a chance to experience the rewards of small interpersonal risk-taking (He likes me too!)
Now young people are more likely to hang out in groups without much interest in finding a boyfriend or girlfriend (or themfriend?). There may be cuddling and emotional support within such groups, but people are less likely to be sorting each other as potential sexual partners. Or seeing themselves as potential sexual partners.
And finally, there’s a range of psychological realities going on.
Given #MeToo and today’s emphasis on consent, young men are worried about getting in trouble from dating ambiguity and confusion. Some are also feeling guilty about their desires and even their maleness.
And many young people’s thoughts about sexuality are about their identity and/or orientation. They’ve made sex more complicated; for many, sex is not simply about what you do or even how you feel, but about who you are—a subject about which young people are famously conflicted. For people wondering if they’re demisexual, pansexual, or graysexual, actually engaging in erotic behaviors can simply seem too daunting.
ENTER THE INTERNET
Some history: Broadband internet entered our homes and offices in 2000. The first iPod came out in 2001, and the first iPhone came out in 2007. Today’s young people—digital natives whose lives literally revolve around these devices—have been having less sex than their age-peers in previous generations.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact of the internet and smart phones on courtship and sexual patterns.
First, people are so used to the internet’s instant gratification that ordinary conversation with ordinary people can seem tame. Everyone famously talks about America’s shrinking attention span, but this change isn’t limited to books, movies, and speeches. It’s also reflected in people’s difficulties in tolerating the ups and downs of normal conversation.
That’s why we commonly see young people in pairs or small groups having blatantly disengaged from conversation to pay attention to something else—their phone.
If you were an adult before 2000, imagine being with a friend or small group and pulling out a newspaper right in the middle of the conversation. No, people had to tolerate the rules of conventional conversation: people take turns, we track what others are saying even when it’s not fascinating, we expect to respond to others and expect others to respond to us.
Dating simply can’t offer the kind of moment-by-moment guaranteed stimulation of the internet and smartphones. And less dating inevitably leads to less sex.
Similarly, actual sex is less compelling than it used to be because it simply can’t compete with the novelty and stimulation of the internet and smartphone. That stimulation doesn’t have to involve porn—it just has to be constant, novel, and instant. Nothing in real life can compare to that.
In this context, the sex that young people are having right now is confusing in a new way. Many young people are almost panicking during the inevitable moments when actual sex becomes boring or ambiguous, or the unexpected (or unwanted) happens. And young people are now asking me—in ways they did not ask before broadband internet—“how am I supposed to get excited and stay excited during sex without anything else going on?”
SO LET’S TALK ABOUT PORN
Let’s start by looking at teens. Because not only are they having less sex just like their older siblings, they’re also masturbating less than teens of a generation ago. Both male and female teens. Porn turning every teen into a masturbation junkie? Hardly.
Rather, young people—who now consume porn before they’ve had substantial (or any) partner sex—are comparing themselves to what they see (or read or listen to). They don’t realize they’re watching fiction and fantasy. Understandably, they respond by feeling inadequate, ignorant, and ashamed. Their anxiety translates directly into lower arousal, lower enjoyment, and lower desire.
While organized psychology and well-meaning advocacy groups are encouraging young people to thoughtfully explore their idiosyncratic gender and sexual orientation, there is very little attention to the way these same young people are imagining actual sexual activity as complicated, dangerous, and something that’s more symbolic than practical.
As people get more involved with the Internet, life has become more mediated, taking place on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Young people who lack previous real-life sexual experience assume that the sex portrayed on the internet (that is, porn) is real, and trivialize their real-world senses, emotions, and needs (for example, for touching).
As sex for young people becomes less and less about our five senses, and more and more about images, it also becomes less a vehicle for connections between people. Thus, connection has become a weaker motivation for sex.
Young people are also less curious about sex than young people used to be. For better or worse, previous generations of young people felt that much of sexuality was mysterious.
Understandably (but erroneously), many of today’s porn-consuming young people feel they’ve seen it all via porn, and so they’re simply less curious and less motivated to investigate it.
As 2022 gallops along, we’re living through a perfect storm of factors leading to a decline in sexual activity among young people (with just a few exceptions, like middle-class white gay males).
Economics will unfold as it always has. Along with unexpected events like the war in Ukraine and trends like the falling age of menarche, the world’s impact on our personal sexuality will precede no matter what we do.
But for hundreds of years, we’ve seen the way that everyday behavior (including sexual choices) changes in response to the disruptions of new technologies, such as electricity, the car, air conditioning, and the birth control pill.
We’re already seeing the impact of smart phones and the Internet on many aspects of life, including child-rearing, shopping, and news consumption. It would be naive to assume that sexuality would be exempt from the profound impact of smart phones and the internet. Surveys that reveal that Americans—and Germans and Japanese and others—are having sex less frequently and even masturbating less frequently are solid evidence that our sexuality isn’t exempt after all.
So why are young people having sex less? The impact of economics, 24/7 porn, and new friendship and courtship patterns driven by smartphones and the internet.
Does it matter? For those of us who think that sexuality can be a positive force for humanizing, connecting and even transforming people, it definitely does.