May17, 2019 — We are living in sexy times. The shows and channels we watch are smoking hot. From Game of Thrones to Pornhub to Netflix shows like Sex Education and Outlander, you can see more graphic intercourse — both simulated and real — on more screens than ever before. Frank discussions of BDSM, sex toys, and anal sex are so common as to barely elicit a reaction or blink of any eye.
And between all the talk of sexting and the pearl-clutching horror over dating apps, you might get the impression that your fellow Americans are all rolling around in a big sweaty and salacious pile every weekend while you order DoorDash for one.
But there’s a new reason to not feel so bad about solo Saturday nights. New data suggest there’s a rather unsexy backstory to all the steamy action portrayed on our screens both big and small. Fewer people are actually doing the deed than in the past, including young adults and teens who seem to be less sexually active than their peers in previous generations.
Why that’s the case is yet to be determined, but here’s what we know so far.
The Trend Is Showing Up in Various Types of Research
While people can be notoriously untruthful when it comes to telling researchers how much and what types of sex they have, the evidence is coming in from multiple sources suggesting that the “sex recession” trend is real.
In March, Christopher Ingraham crunched numbers from the General Social Survey (GSS), which is data from a nationally representative sample of Americans over 18 collected nearly every year. He reported in The Washington Post that in 2018, 23% of adults in the US, or nearly 1 in 4 people, reported having no sex at in the previous year — a record high (or low, depending on how you see it).
That was in part due to an aging population. About 50% of people 60 and older report having no sex in the past year, a percentage that has remained stable over time. The proportion of people in that age group increased from 18% to 23% between 1996 and 2018, which can influence the numbers in terms of overall sexual activity.
But a change is also happening among young adults ages 18 to 29. The number reporting no sex in the previous year doubled from 2008 to 2018, to 23%. Overall, 28% of men who were younger than 30 said they had no sex in the previous year.
That no-sex data seem to support a trend that has been going on for years. A 2016 study of the same data by Jean Twenge, PhD, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and colleagues found that 15% of people born in the 1990s (ages 20 to 24) had no sexual partners after age 18 at the time of the study, compared with 6% people the same age born in the 1960s.
She published another study in 2017 that found that adults had sex nine fewer times a year in the early 2010s, compared with the late 1990s. Controlling for age and time period, people born in the 1930s, or the silent generation, had the most sex, and those born in the 1990s (millennials) had the least. Adults in their 20s reported having sex 80 times a year, compared with 20 times a year for people in their 60s.
The decline in this study did not seem to be linked to longer working hours or pornography use (both of which were actually linked to more sex in the study), and the authors concluded it seemed to be mostly due to fewer people being in marriages or partnerships. Having a regular partner helps with sexual activity, although sex declined among partnered people too.
“Good sex can happen in a lot of contexts, but I think having a partner with whom you have good sex, with whom you can really develop good sex, and learn how to have good sex is important,” says New York City-based sex therapist Ian Kerner, PhD. “So if you are living in a generation where single people may always have another option for dating, or are on that dating treadmill, you may not end up getting into the kinds of relationships that lead to the trust and familiarity that can be the foundation for good sex.”
Mediocre or not-so-great sex can discourage people from seeking it out, he says.
There are also other things involved in the trend, Twenge says, noting that people get married later and that married people have more sex.
“Even living together now happens at a later age,” she says in an email. More young adults live with their parents, which “may not be a good situation for bringing sexual partners home.”
There are also more options for entertainment via streaming or social media, as well as a decline in happiness and increases in depression.
And it’s not just sex. People are more likely to have fewer or no children, or have them later, than they did in the past. The U.S. fertility rate in 2016 was 1.80 births per woman in the country, the lowest level since 1983. The fertility rate measures the number of children a woman could expect to have over a lifetime at current birth rates. A fertility rate of about 2.1 is considered necessary to maintain population levels.
Teen pregnancy is also dropping. In 2017, nearly 200,000 babies were born to women between the ages of 15 and 19, a record low, and a 7% drop from 2016, according to the CDC.
The agency reports that the drop in teen birth rates is likely due to teens having less sex and that they are more likely to use birth control than in previous years
Laura Lindberg, PhD, a principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute in New York City, who specializes in adolescent sexual and reproductive health, says teens “have really improved how they use contraception.
She notes that teens, particularly young ones, are delaying other types of behaviors as well. “I think teenagers are a very special case of this,” she says. “We are seeing less engagement in a lot of behaviors, including simple things like driver’s licenses.”
“Delays in when teens first have sex hopefully represent their increased ability to decide for themselves if and when to have sex. And we have some evidence that there’s been an increase in the share of teens who say their first sex was wanted, as opposed to having mixed feelings about it or even reporting it as unwanted,” she says. “So I think that’s good news here, but we do need to be careful and not stigmatize those who have sex, again because it’s just a normal and healthy part of human development.”
Depression, Technology, Masturbation, and Porn?
It’s long been known that both depression and some of the antidepressants used to treat it can dampen libido.
Last year, the results from the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey of U.S. high school students found that sexual activity in teens was at the lowest point since the survey began 20 years ago. Overall, 40% of teens said they had had sex in 2017, compared with 48% of people the same age polled a decade earlier. At the same time, feelings of hopelessness and despair increased from 28.5% to 31.5% between 2007 and 2017.
The survey couldn’t determine if the two were related. But depression is on the rise. A 2018 analysis of health insurance data found that depression diagnoses were increasing in every age group in the U.S. but rising fastest in teens and young adults. Diagnoses of major depression went up 63% in kids ages 12 to 17 (from 1.6% to 2.6% between 2013 and 2016) and 47% in people ages 18 to 34 (from 3% to 4.4%).
Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the most commonly prescribed class of antidepressants, are known to have sexual side effects.
“More and more teens and young adults that I have seen in my practice are taking SSRIs, and those absolutely have sexual side effects, which include a substantial dampening of libido,” says Kerner.
And if not specifically depression, stress and anxiety don’t help either. “Stress and anxiety have always played a role in inhibiting libido,” Kerner says. “I think today’s young people — at least based on what I am seeing in my practice — are experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety, both work related and socially related and in the age of social media.”
Solo sex is also more socially acceptable than it once was, he says. “Certainly, masturbation and porn are less stigmatized, more normalized than they have been in previous generations, so just access to more sexual stimulation and self-stimulation could also be playing a role.”
For the most part, porn probably does not decrease sexual activity, since porn watchers tend to be interested in sex in general, Twenge says.
“But there appears to be a substantial segment of people for whom porn is enough, and real sex seems unnecessary,” she says. “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?”
Add a lack of free time and other compelling entertainment options, and you might end up with a national sex deficit.
“People are probably way more distracted by Netflix and HBO and social media and the internet, and they just literally aren’t carving out the time for sex,” Kerner says. “I do really, more than ever, hear from people, young people, who can’t make it work, scheduling-wise.”
It may be harder for young adults to meet long-term partners, says Twenge, who is the author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. (Twenge defines iGen as anyone born between 1995 and 2012, and millennials as those born between 1980 and 1994.)
“If you’re not a looker, you’ll get swiped left on Tinder, even if you can reliably charm potential partners on the next bar stool,” she says. “With fewer people on those bar stools — and those who are there looking at Tinder on their phones instead of who’s next to them — a large group of people gets left out of the sexual scene.”
Some people might be opting out because they don’t want to take part in hookup culture, “which is often devoid of romance or even a hint of emotional intimacy,” Twenge says.
Having More Sex, if You Want It
So is a dearth of sexual activity bad for your health? Well, as Kerner points out, no one ever died from a lack of sex.
“On the other hand, sex is something that most of us are wired to do, and it triggers the brain’s opiate system in a way that’s natural and not synthetic, and it can be a relational and connecting experience,” he says. “I would say on the whole, sex is healthy and worth prioritizing.”
Research suggests that at least in couples in a positive, healthy relationship, sex can play a role in their overall happiness, Kerner says.
Sex is personal and specific, so it’s not easy to give advice that works for everyone, he says. But if you do have a partner, consider scheduling time for sex. “Sometimes people, especially younger people, think scheduled sex isn’t spontaneous and that sex should be spontaneous. I would say reframe that as prioritizing and making time for it.”
“I always think to myself, ‘Gosh, where there’s a will, there’s got to be a way.’ And if you really want to have sex with somebody, you figure out how not to be more tired and fatigued and missing the opportunities,” Kerner says. “I do hear from a lot of people who say, ‘We never really have the time to get to it.’ ”
Sex can sometimes get separated from the rest of the relationship. “They are not maintaining the erotic thread between experiences,” he says. “They are not keeping sex in the air.”
Kerner says it’s not a bad idea to think about what environment would make sex an enjoyable possibility.
“If there are a lot of stressors in your environment, think about eliminating some of those stressors. If there aren’t enough exciters or things that turn you on, then think about what does turn you on — whether it’s something physical about sex, a position, or a fantasy — and think about how to communicate that to a partner.”