The sexual recession: an ace perspective

“Why are young people having so little sex?” asks the title of a new article in The Atlantic. The article is also summarized in video form. The article reports that the number of high-schoolers who have had intercourse declined from 54% to 40% in the period from 1991 to 2017. The author writes,

But now some observers are beginning to wonder whether an unambiguously good thing might have roots in less salubrious developments.

The author says the decline in sex is not just among teenagers, but among young adults too. Among people in their early 20s, 15% say they haven’t had sex since becoming adults, as compared to 6% among Gen-Xers. The author calls this a “sexual recession”. What follows is a long list of speculations about what could be causing it–be it porn, dating apps, helicopter parents, bad sex, or inhibition.

I will offer an unsympathetic, perhaps callous perspective–this being largely a straight people problem, and me being a gay ace guy. Yeah, I really don’t think this is as much of a problem as the article makes it out to be.

Flipping scripts

I’ll begin by saying that this article falls into a familiar genre, at least to me. Because I’ve read lots of articles about herbivore men in Japan. In Japanese media, talk of herbivore men might be best understood as a sort of moral panic about the younger generation, wherein the older generation complains about how young men aren’t masculine enough, and men and women are socializing with each other instead of making babies. In US media, this gets translated to “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” (actual headline). This Atlantic article is basically the same, except now the subject is young Americans instead of young Japanese people.

If you strip back the US misinterpretation, and understand what Japanese observers are actually complaining about–the younger generation refusing to conform to the restrictive gender roles of the older generation–a lot of it looks fairly absurd from a US perspective. Why is it a bad thing that men and women can sometimes be friends with each other? Why is it bad that women sometimes ask men out rather than the other way around? It looks ridiculous, because we’re looking at Japanese cultural norms that we don’t have here, so it’s obvious to us that the loss of those cultural norms is not the end of the world, and could even be a good thing.

What if we took an outsider perspective on the changes in sexual behavior in the US? Might it seem equally absurd?

Here’s one particular way to flip the script:

Why did old people have so much sex? Why is teenage pregnancy shooting through the roof (as we go backwards in time)?  What was their generation doing wrong? But now some observers are beginning to wonder if an unambiguously bad thing might have a silver lining. Maybe this means that people are using less porn, people are talking to each other at bars instead of relying on apps, parents are giving their kids more free time, and masturbation is becoming more taboo.”

The thing to realize is that there is no “normal” amount of sex for people to be having.  Young people are not having “so little sex” in absolute terms, they’re having “so little sex” in relative terms, as compared to some other group.  We could equally well say that older generations had “so much sex” relative to the younger generation.

When we take the older generation as default, this lends itself to a bunch of narratives in which young folks are doing something wrong.  But if we were to reframe the issue in an equally valid way–taking the younger generation as default–it seems more plausible to talk about how maybe there was something wrong with the older generation.  We should be suspicious of narratives that can be so easily manipulated by a simple change of framing.

A long list of concerns

This is not to say that the speculations in the article are wrong, mind you. I fully admit that I have no evidence whatsoever that the sexual recession is not related to increased discomfort with locker room nudity. Likewise, The Atlantic has no evidence whatsoever in favor of any of its speculation (except perhaps the bit about broadband internet access).

But to be fair, I think evidence-free speculation is just about the best we could ever do.  I think it’s best to read the article not as a long list of possible causes for the “sexual recession”, but as a long list of concerns and anxieties that various people have related to US dating and sex culture.  Reading it this way, I find it to be an entertaining article, despite being critical of it.

And, seriously, if dating apps are bad for us, then they’re bad for us regardless of whether they play a major role in the decline in sexual activity among young adults. If dating apps are good for us, then they’re good for us regardless of whether they cause a decline in sexual activity. The relation to sexual activity isn’t really the important bit, it’s just the article’s unifying theme.

Here are a few random bits that I’d like to comment on.

[A researcher] finds that “unpartnered gay men and unpartnered lesbians seem to have substantially more active dating lives than do heterosexuals,” a fact he attributes partly to their successful use of apps. This disparity raises the possibility that the sex recession may be a mostly heterosexual phenomenon.

So, this is the bit of the article that makes me think, yeah, this is a straight people problem alright. Gay men have some issues relating to dating apps, but the issues really aren’t equivalent.

[Herbenick] elaborated on the idea that some of the sex recession’s causes could be a healthy reaction to bad sex—a subset of people “not having sex that they don’t want to have anymore. People feeling more empowered to say ‘No thanks.’ ”

I don’t know how important this explanation is in general, but it’s the explanation that would likely resonate the most with a lot of ace people. Considering that estimates of asexuality are 1-4%, and that might not include the rest of the asexual spectrum, it’s wild to think that the fraction of Gen-Xers who didn’t have sex as young adults was only 6%. That doesn’t sound to me like everyone having sex because they’re so well-adjusted, it sounds like some people having sex because they thought it was just the thing to do. I know lots of people who have had that very experience.

Although, Herbenick’s larger argument seems to be about people experiencing painful sex, and not coming back for more. She says young people are being influenced by porn, and they just jump into sexual activities that can be painful to their partners (e.g. anal sex, choking) without planning or consent. Uh, yeah, that sounds like a problem too.  Mostly a straight people problem.

“People will be like, ‘We’re dating, we’re exclusive, but we’re not boyfriend and girlfriend.’ What does that mean?” one young woman asked, exasperated. A classmate nodded emphatically. “What does that mean? We’re in a monogamous relationship, but …” She trailed off. She trailed off. [Their professor] jumped in with a sort of relationship litmus test: “If I get the flu, are you bringing me soup?”

This is a snippet of conversation between students and a professor who teaches “Marriage 101”. To me this reads as people who are stuck within a false binary–either you have boyfriends/girlfriends, and all the things that come with that, or you have nothing at all. “Boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are social constructs, and it is possible to have other kinds of relationships without civilization collapsing.

Some 500,000 fewer American babies were born in 2017 than in 2007, even though more women were of prime childbearing age. Over the same period, the number of children the average American woman is expected to have fell from 2.1 (the so-called replacement rate, or fertility level required to sustain population levels without immigration) to 1.76. If this trend does not reverse, the long-term demographic and fiscal implications will be significant.

The falling birth rate thing is something that people also worry about in relation to declining sex, both here and in Japan. And I would say the same thing in both cases. There are plenty of immigrants knocking on our door. Declining birth rates is only really a problem from an ethnocentric (i.e. racist) perspective–it’s not really about the decline in population, it’s about the decline of the “right” population.


  1. screechymonkey says

    Interesting article. The bottom line for now seems to be a lack of data as to the cause(s). So for now, the decrease in sex seems to be a Rorschach test on to which everyone projects their pet theory. People who were already against porn “blame” this phenomenon on porn, people who already believed that millenials are socially messed up blame it on that, technophobes blame it on dating apps, people who resent #metoo blame it on dudes being afraid of being accused of creepiness, etc. So, might as well get on with my own speculation!

    I actually don’t have a particular theory. But my suspicion is that any explanation has to focus on straight women. I seem to recall that, as of a few decades ago, research confirmed the cultural stereotype that (in modern Western countries, at least), women were the sexual “gatekeepers” — for example, if you wanted to predict how soon a (straight) couple would have sex, the man’s sexual history, religion, etc. were statistically useless, while the woman’s were highly predictive. So there was already a lot of “excess” male desire going around, and it would take a pretty huge drop-off in male libido to account for a drop in actual sex — female desire/willingness was the limiting reagent, so to speak.

    Dunc, that occurred to me as well. I wonder if the internet punctured the weird myths about dating that pop culture used to perpetuate. By which I mean: in the 80s and 90s, it was considered a devastating putdown for a character on television or in a film to point out that another character didn’t have a date for that Saturday night, or worse yet, hadn’t had a date in … gasp… months! There was an entire film built around the premise that it was CRAY-ZAY for the male lead to have to give up sex for the 40 days of Lent. Imagine that — FORTY WHOLE DAYS without sex! Wacky hijinx ensued, I’m sure. On tv, characters who were, by any reasonable standard, fairly successful at dating, were still scoffed at as losers — on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xander was the butt of many jokes about what a hopeless loser he was with women, but even ignoring the instances where he was pursued by some seductive predator or victim of magic, in the space of just a few years, he had long-term relationships with Cordelia and Anya, a one-night stand with Faith, and regular makeout sessions with Willow, and I believe Kendra had a crush on him that she didn’t live long enough to act on. But I’d better stop before I fall down a TV Tropes hole.

  2. says

    No I hadn’t remembered that one. Pretty neat that the Pacific Standard writer came to a similar conclusion that I did, that there was an unquestioned assumption that baby boomers are the normal ones.

  3. says

    In addition to your comments above about how the author assumes that “less sex” is the problem and that “more sex” is normal, I think the author also makes the mistake of assuming that this is a ‘problem’ that only afflicts millenials and has never been seen before (and therefore spends a lot of time thinking of technology-related answers). I suspect this is partly because millenial-doom-and-gloom predictions are a hot trend right now, and perhaps also partly because it gets much harder to find comparable data about sexual activity the further back in time you go.

    But we do have much more data on a somewhat related proxy – marriage age (and considering that the article also worries over the lack of marriage and traditional relationships, I’d argue that it’s relevent even if it’s not a very accurate proxy). And if you look at (US) marriage rates, this decline isn’t a millenial thing – we’re just continuing a trend that seems to have started circa the 1930’s (after accounting for the really noticeable outlier of the WWII years, because, y’know, you’re more likely to try and reach those milestones now rather than later if you expect to to get drafted and possibly die at any time).


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