In the late 1980’s, while attending my small town Lutheran university, getting laid was seemingly part of the undergraduate curriculum – though not nearly as difficult as organic chemistry. Roommates would accommodate each other’s bonking time and, despite our religious facade, we were generally free of the notion that having casual sex was a blight to our moral constitution. Midlife, as well, has been a liberal arts education of carnal delights. Fifty is the new twenty – without the need for birth control.
Whether it’s online forums facilitating easy hookups or the droves of us dabbling in (or proselytizing about) non-monogamy, it has been my impression that Gen Xers are getting it on as well as, or better than, we did a few decades ago. So imagine my horror when The Atlantic proclaimed on the cover of its December issue ‘The Sex Recession: Why Young People are Retreating From Intimacy – and What This Means for Society.’
The article, written by senior editor Kate Julian, is a must read for any generation who is already of age and navigating the rocky waters of 21st Century Sex and Relationships. Because, even if this is simply a recession and not the start of a full on sexual meltdown, the data indicate a trend that I find, at worst, deeply disturbing and, at best, a pain in the ass for anyone wanting to get laid.
Julian’s piece is based on anecdotal conversations and surveys, but when it comes to sex, that’s all we’ve got. I doubt there will ever be a day when a truly representative sample will agree to the bodily monitoring of their sexual arousal and activity (those of us who would could only skew the data!) Helen Fisher, who directs Match.com’s annual survey of singles and sex, says she’s seeing every age group having less sex, as indicated by the past eight years of data collection. “Every year the whole Match company is rather staggered at how little sex Americans are having—including Millennials.”
There are any number of reasons given for the downward trend. Writes Julia:
“I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity.”
One of these alone seems enough to dampen a person’s libido. Imagine contending with multiple? I get anxious just reading that list and wondering if I should delete all my social media accounts and go back to a flip phone. So are younger people feeling that having fun with their clothes off is more trouble than it’s worth? Why deal with the possible repercussions of intercourse when there are more than enough binge-worthy TV dramas to watch until their pituitary glands dry up?
One clear trend is that many people are choosing sex with themselves over sex with a partner. I’d argue that jacking off shouldn’t count as sex because there’s no pas de deux involved, no carnal communication that requires good-natured give and take. Internet porn now makes it easy to rub one out before work (during and after even). Personally, my porn-induced orgasms take about five minutes whereas sex with another person often requires hours of preparation, navigation, seduction and uncertainty that it will even be fun. Why not streamline our lives with time hacks? Timothy Ferriss, the author of, among others, ‘The 4-Hour Body’ describes something he terms the Minimal Effective Dose (MED) needed to achieve a goal. In other words, do as little as possible for maximum effect. ‘Ah,’ I’ve thought.‘I can see where that might apply to orgasms!’
What’s worse than porn becoming our go-to for pleasure is the evidence that it has become a substitute for healthy sex education. In tandem with its rate of use, there’s been a staggering increase in the number of young women reporting that their early sexual encounters have included choking, excessive pounding, (resulting in labial tears), and unlubricated anal sex. Seriously? Give me my vibrator then and get lost, dude. Though I’ve never had truly painful sex, the few much younger men I’ve slept with did seem to employ a routine suspiciously close to a porn script.
What I find more sad than disturbing are the growing indications that both young and old are becoming increasingly inhibited. Social media has led us to constantly compare ourselves to others, leading to a sense of being less than ideal; the precipitous drop in public space conversations (does anyone these days look up from their phones?) has given us the social skills of manic rats; it’s no longer common for kids to shower together at school or sport so becoming familiar with other bodies and all their normal imperfections is being co-opted by our media-driven images of bodily ‘perfection’. And even though dating apps can make efficient work of meeting new people with whom to have sex, our ability to communicate, whether through idle chit chat or full on nakedness, is being eroded by a very real statistical increase in anxiety.
Less sex seems also to be a symptom of greater alienation. I wouldn’t be so alarmed by this article if I felt people were finding other ways to practice loving relationships. Touch, hugs, face to face conversations – these are the things that keep us human, that benefit our health, that open dialogues to understanding. They can lead to that swoon-worthy state of limerence and love. I worry for my son and his friends that they might simply shut down to sexual and relational curiosity. And that might affect their ability to succeed in having well-adjusted lives. Julian states, “If young people are delaying serious relationships until later in adulthood, more and more of them may be left without any knowledge of what good sex really feels like.” And, I would add, more of them won’t be practicing how to have a decent love life, let alone good sex. We browbeat our kids to practice violin and get good grades. Why not get a little more encouraging of their love skills? ‘Whether you practice with one person or one hundred, you’ve got to put in the hours’ is my mantra.
Is there an upside to less sex? We may be rethinking what is appropriate and desirable about sex. It’s easier now to say no to bad sex. Maybe it’s a good thing that we are stepping back from frequent sex in order to prioritize what’s better for us in the long term? If I had a daughter, I would want her to explore her sexuality but never at the expense of her mental or physical health and never under pressure from her peers. Teaching girls to speak up about what feels good and bad should become commonplace. Teaching boys to seek consent and engage playfully, not porn-like, with their partners is a benefit of social evolution we should capitalize upon.
Each generation gets to choose their own way. I won’t tell my son how he should be thinking about or having sex, though I might consider telling him that bad porn will make his dick fall off. I will, however, live by example. I will keep hugging him, talking with him at the dinner table. I’ll kiss my partner in public and hold his hand. I’ll make it clear, in subtle ways, that sex and loving is a good thing. I plan on working hard, and getting naked with my man often, through this so-called sex recession. Sexual unemployment, after all, should not be an option.
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