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. American adults, on average, are having sex about nine fewer times per year in the s compared to adults in the late s, according to a team of scholars led by the psychologist Jean Twenge.
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. Story Continued Below Similar trends are apparent among younger men and women.
In the early s, 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 to , according to our analysis of the GSS. From to , 12 percent of them reported having no sex in the preceding year.
A decade later, during the two years from to , 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: Sexual activity among teenagers fell the most between and , about the same time that sex took a real dip among to year-old adults. First, while they are not socially conservative, the members of the millennial born between and the mids and iGen born since the mids 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.
Tyrone, a year-old man, put it this way to Twenge for her book, iGen: Starting in , 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.
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.
In , 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 to 27 percent in 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 to , 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 to , compared with an infinitesimal 0.
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 to , to 18 percent from to The timing of this dip leads us to hypothesize that new technology has played a key role in the sexual disconnect among young adults.
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 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. Porn is also likely to be a factor. 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.
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.
Another apparent upside is that the share of babies born to teenage and unmarried mothers is falling. The birthrate for to year-olds is down by 51 percent since And the percent of babies born outside of marriage reached a record high of This downturn is the first of its kind since the s.
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 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 wake of the Great Recession, births in the United States plunged.
But even as the economy has improved, births have continued to decrease since among women under 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 year low in the United States: 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. The sexual pendulum could start swinging in a different direction.
In Japan, less sex and less marriage seem to have translated into smaller and weaker families. Japan has the largest public debt of any nation in the world. Most fundamentally, the Japanese way means that millions of people live alone. 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.
He is the co-author of Soul Mates: Samuel Sturgeon is president of Demographic Intelligence , a demographic forecasting firm. This article tagged under: