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Happy Valentine’s Day! Fifty years after the sexual revolution, sex in America is in decline. Americans are having less sex, the share of Americans who say they never once had sex in the past year is rising, and—perhaps most surprising—this revolution in sexual behavior is being led by the young. Although this sexual counter-revolution began before the #MeToo movement arose in response to the sexual abuse, misconduct and insensitivity of men ranging from Harvey Weinstein to Bill O’Reilly, the cultural outrage over men’s bad behavior is likely to accelerate this trend.
American adults, on average, are having sex about nine fewer times per year in the 2010s compared to adults in the late 1990s, according to a team of scholars led by the psychologist Jean Twenge. That’s a 14 percent decline in sexual frequency. Likewise, the share of adults who reported having sex “not at all” in the past year rose from 18 percent in the late 1990s to 22 percent from 2014 to 2016, according to our analysis of the General Social Survey. (The GSS, which is fielded every two years and is directed by the University of Chicago, is a large, nationally representative and federally funded survey of American adults covering a range of attitudes and behaviors.)
Similar trends are apparent among younger men and women. In the early 2000s, about 73 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 30 had sex at least twice a month. That fell to 66 percent in the period from 2014 to 2016, according to our analysis of the GSS.
Other 18- to 30-year-olds aren’t doing it at all. From 2002 to 2004, 12 percent of them reported having no sex in the preceding year. A decade later, during the two years from 2014 to 2016, that number rose to 18 percent.
Sex is also down among teenagers. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a decline in the share of high school students who said they ever had sex: from 47 percent in 2005 to 41 percent in 2015. Sexual activity among teenagers fell the most between 2013 and 2015, about the same time that sex took a real dip among 18- to 30-year-old adults.
What’s driving this sexual counter-revolution? It’s too early to offer definitive answers, but a few hypotheses seem especially plausible.
First, while they are not socially conservative, the members of the millennial (born between 1980 and the mid-1990s) and iGen (born since the mid-1990s) generations are more cautious on average than earlier generations, and hence more inclined to focus on the emotional and physical risks of sex, rather than its joys. Raised by helicopter parents, these young adults take fewer risks. As a group, they drink less, drive less, and they also hit the sheets less. Today’s young adults have gotten the message—think MTV’s 16 and Pregnant—that sex and pregnancy can be a threat to them and their future. Tyrone, a 20-year-old man, put it this way to Twenge for her book, iGen: His generation is having less sex “because of fear of pregnancy and disease.” He added, “There’s a bunch of commercials and television shows and stuff trying to teach you a lesson.”
Second, growing concerns about the ways in which unwanted or assaultive sex is dangerous, morally unacceptable and an obstacle to progress in education and the workplace for women in particular may be having an impact. Starting in 2011, for instance, the Obama administration pushed colleges and universities to reduce sexual harassment and violence with a range of Title IX-inspired measures. These measures, and the concerns they underlined, led to the expulsions of hundreds, if not thousands, of men for alleged sexual assaults on campuses. Heightened attention to sexual assault on college campuses probably left its mark on dating and mating habits among students across the country. “More and more sexual acts that previous generations might have filed under ‘Terrible College Experience’ are being reclassified as offenses that can earn banishment from the Ivory Tower,” Vanessa Grigoriadis writes in her book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus.
A recent poll in The Economist illustrates how young adults are now more concerned than their older peers about sexual assault, and more likely to view behavior related to sex and dating as troubling. Young adults in the United States were about twice as likely as Americans 64 and older to think that commenting on a woman’s attractiveness was sexual harassment. Describing all this as a “sexual counter-revolution,” Douglas Murray at The Spectator argued that “whereas the 1960s saw a freeing up of attitudes towards sex, pushing at boundaries, this counter-swing is turning sexual freedom into sexual fear, and nearly all sexual opportunities into a legalistic minefield.”
In this climate of concern about sex’s impact on the welfare of women, there are more young adults like Amelia, a 23-year-old woman spotlighted in iGen who has not had sex because she thinks there are “so many risks” and says that “women in particular are very aware of the dangers in going with a stranger back to their house.”
Third, the precarious character of the contemporary economy has made young adults increasingly likely to seek shelter with mom and/or dad rather than to live on their own or enter into marriage. In 2007, before the Great Recession, just 30 percent of men ages 18 to 34 lived with a parent. Today, 34 percent do so. Likewise, the share of women ages 18 to 34 who are living at home rose from 24 percent in 2007 to 27 percent in 2017. A 28-year-old woman recently told CBS New York why she lives with her mom and dad: “It’s too expensive to afford an apartment.” This shift away from independent living or marriage and toward the family basement undoubtedly puts a crimp on an active sex life for today’s young men and women. In fact, now, for the first time in more than a century, young adults as a whole are more likely to live at home with their parents than to be married or live with a partner.
The decline in marriage among young adults also appears to be part of the story. Unmarried young men and women have less sex than their married peers, especially in recent years. From 2014 to 2016, 89 percent of young (18 to 30) marrieds had sex twice a month or more. Only 60 percent of their unmarried peers had this much sex. Moreover, 22 percent of unmarried young adults had no sex in the preceding 12 months from 2014 to 2016, compared with an infinitesimal 0.5 percent of young marrieds. The fact that marriage has fallen among young adults in recent years would seem to help explain the decline in sex.
But these longer-term cultural and economic trends do not explain why sex has dropped most dramatically, for teens and young adults, in the past few years. For instance, the share of young adults who had no sex in the past year more than doubled, from 7 percent from 2010 to 2012, to 18 percent from 2014 to 2016. This recent dip in sex doesn’t seem to be driven by economic forces; the economy and young adult employment have improved in recent years.
The timing of this dip leads us to hypothesize that new technology has played a key role in the sexual disconnect among young adults. The proliferation of smartphones and screens, as Twenge argued in iGen, seems to be undercutting the formation and sustenance of nonvirtual relationships, including sex, among today’s young adults. This may be in part because new technology is encouraging young adults to devote more time to social media, video games and other virtual distractions, and “less time with their peers in person,” she writes.
There is certainly a correlation between the rise of smartphones and the decline of physical sex among young adults. The share of young adults who had a smartphone rose above 50 percent in 2011 and has now reached almost total ownership. The surge in smartphone ownership coincides with the marked, recent declines in sex among young adults and teenagers. The evidence is growing that the spread of highly entertaining and diverting technology discourages in-person socializing, including—we think—one of the most fundamental forms of socializing—sex.
Dating has fallen precipitously in recent years, at least among teens, as smartphones and screens have become more popular. In the past 10 years, the share of high school seniors who reported ever going out on dates fell from about 70 percent to approximately 55 percent. We don’t have data for dating among adults, but “socializing offline” is down among them, too. For all the talk about young adults’ “Netflix and chilling,” many young men and women may end up just bingeing on Netflix, not chilling.
Porn is also likely to be a factor. A decent amount of young men’s screen time and attention is devoted to virtual sex rather than the real thing. “A look at shifting attitudes and behaviors from 1973 to 2012 finds porn viewership has increased substantially among young adults,” noted a research team headed by the economist Joseph Price. For those young adults devoted to porn, Twenge speculates, “Why risk rejection, sexually transmitted diseases, relationship arguments or having to meet up with someone when you can watch porn in the privacy of your own bedroom and do things your way?” Pornhub, the leading vehicle for online porn in the United States, saw its viewership rocket from 10 million daily visits in 2009 to 25 million in 2012 to 75 million in 2017.
There are upsides to the sexual counter-revolution that appears to be unfolding, one of which is that it seems likely—especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement—to encourage women and men to be more considerate, committed and consensual about all matters sexual. This counter-revolution may be cutting down on sex, and sex-related talk and behavior, that is unwanted, awkward and abusive—and probably casual sex in general. “Now could be the time to reintroduce virtues such as prudence, temperance, respect and even love,” Christine Emba of The Washington Post wrote. “We might pursue the theory that sex possibly has a deeper significance than just recreation and that ‘consent’—that thin and gameable boundary—might not be the only moral sensibility we need respect.”
This would be good, in part, because women are, on average, more likely to derive satisfaction from sex in committed relationships, compared with casual ones. One recent study of college women by the sociologists Jessie Ford and Paula England found that women reported more orgasms in committed relationships than in hookups, and that the gender gap in orgasms between college men and women was smaller in committed relationships than in hookups. The sexual counter-revolution, then, may mean that women, especially, get to enjoy more committed, mutually gratifying sex and endure less joyless casual sex for the sake of male gratification—in other words, less Aziz Ansari-style sex (at least as reported by the website Babe.net).
Another apparent upside is that the share of babies born to teenage and unmarried mothers is falling. The birthrate for 15- to 19-year-olds is down by 51 percent since 2007. And the percent of babies born outside of marriage reached a record high of 40.6 percent in 2008 but has since fallen (to 39.8 percent in 2016) and will likely fall even more in the coming years as young adults continue to postpone sex and have fewer partners. This downturn is the first of its kind since the 1960s. It’s good news in part because children born to married parents are more likely to avoid poverty, enjoy stable families, and thrive, educationally and economically.
But the sexual counter-revolution may also have its downsides, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. One is that in an era where concerns about sexual consent are becoming more salient, false allegations of sexual assault or rape may become more likely to proliferate, driven partly by a lack of clarity about how to define consent in sexual encounters that are often ambiguous and alcohol-fueled. Think of the fraternity accused of gang rape in the retracted Rolling Stone story about the University of Virginia. Or the bizarre charges made by Columbia University’s “mattress girl,” Emma Sulkowicz, against her former friend and lover, Paul Nungesser. Or the sexual assault charges lodged against Alphonso Baity that led to his expulsion from the University of Findlay, despite the fact that multiple witnesses were willing to testify that he engaged in consensual sex with his accuser. Or the successful cases that have been brought by men thrown out of college for alleged sexual assaults. Such allegations can do untold harm to the reputations and lives of many parties—mostly men—who engaged in what seemed to them to be consensual sex.
The ongoing cultural shifts in attitudes toward sex and relationships may make some men so hesitant to express interest or affection that relationships and marriage take a noticeable downward turn. “In the complicated dance of courtship, someone has to make a move, and the way one conventionally discovers if one’s attraction is returned is to brave some gentle physical contact and perhaps accept rebuff,” wrote the novelist Lionel Shriver. She added, “I am concerned that we are well on our way to demonising, if not criminalising, all male desire.” In other words, taken too far, the emerging sexual counter-revolution could put a chill on romance, relationships and marriage if sizable numbers of single men become afraid to initiate relationships with women.
Perhaps the least surprising, but most damaging, consequence of the recent decline in sex is that the nation’s birth rate continues to fall to near record lows. In the wake of the Great Recession, births in the United States plunged. But even as the economy has improved, births have continued to decrease since 2014 among women under 30. These birth declines among young women have far outpaced modest birth increases among women 30 and older. This has brought the projected total fertility rate to a 38-year low in the United States: 1.77 children per women for 2017.
Another consequence, then, of the sexual counter-revolution is likely to be continuing declines in American births, with all that entails for the long-term health of the labor force and taxpayer base. Over time, absent increases in immigration, continuing declines in births will translate into fewer workers and consumers—which, in turn, will mean reduced economic growth, less entrepreneurial activity, and a declining ratio of taxpayers to retirees, spelling trouble for the solvency of programs like Medicare and Social Security.
To be honest, we are not sure if sex will keep declining. The sexual pendulum could start swinging in a different direction. But if it doesn’t—if the rate that people are having real sex continues to fall, if concerns about sexual misconduct end up casting a pall over romance, and if our relationship with our screens distracts us from relationships with real people, all big “ifs”—then the United States could end up in danger of following a relational and economic path already pioneered by Japan.
In Japan, sex, relationships and marriage have fallen precipitously among young adults in recent decades, partly because many young men and women are finding it more and more difficult to forge romantic relationships, and because they are devoting more and more time to Japan’s thriving online and entertainment sectors, from anime to Line, the nation’s leading social media network. So-called “herbivores,” men who have little or no interest in sex, are on the rise. Ano Matsui, a 26-year-old man recently profiled by the BBC, confessed “I don’t have self-confidence” about asking women out, after having been rebuffed by one woman. He’s not alone, in his estimation: “There a lot of men like me who find women scary.” In fact, a staggering share—more than one third—of young Japanese adults between 18 and 34 report they are virgins.
What’s the big deal? In Japan, less sex and less marriage seem to have translated into smaller and weaker families. The nation has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates—just 1.41 children per woman, and a population that shrunk by more than 1 million since 2010. Japanese companies struggle to find workers, and the government struggles to pay for public pensions as “its working-age population shrinks and its elderly population surges,” in the words of Phillip Longman and his colleagues. Japan has the largest public debt of any nation in the world. Most fundamentally, the Japanese way means that millions of people live alone. A harrowing New York Times story, for instance, recently explained how the decline of Japanese families now means that a “generation of elderly Japanese is dying alone,” living in “extreme isolation,” often left to themselves for weeks on end, even in death.
The United States has not yet taken the Japanese road of infrequent sex, minimal marriage and way-below-replacement fertility. The danger with the #MeToo movement is that, working in concert with our devotion to our screens and our fear of commitment, it could help propel us down such a road. Alternatively, if the #MeToo movement ends up boosting considerate, committed and consensual sex, we may see a revival not only of good sex but of a renewed confidence in marriage and parenthood. As is so often the case with sex, the path America chooses will have enormous consequences.
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