- In its December issue, The Atlantic published a story titled “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” detailing what author Kate Julian referred to as a “sex recession.”
- The article and responses to the article suggest a variety of factors contribute to the sex recession, like technology, hookup culture, and straight people.
- The sex recession phenomenon focuses primarily on heterosexual people, largely leaving the LGBTQ+ community out of the conversation.
In its December issue, The Atlantic published a story titled “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” detailing what writer Kate Julian referred to as a sex recession.
She asserted that a cultural shift in pre-marital sex, better birth control access, and online dating should, in theory, make it easier for people to have more sex than generations prior. Despite these advantages, the number of people having sex is at an all-time low, Julian wrote. In fact, a 2017 report from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that between the years of 2007 and 2017, the percentage of high school students who reported ever having sex dropped from 47.8% to 39.5%.
2/ This phenomenon—I’m calling it a Sex Recession—really surprised me. It seemed improbable in the age of Tinder, digital porn, and attitudes that are generally permissive and sex-positive.
— Kate Julian (@katejulian) November 13, 2018
Julian’s piece, plus responses from other media outlets and social media networks like Twitter, explained many of the potential reasons why sex is seemingly less popular than it used to be, like hookup culture, a rise in women’s autonomy, and our obsession with digital technology, among other factors.
Hookup culture is on the rise, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to having more sex
The stereotype of horny teenagers and 20-somethings often leads people to overestimate how prevalent sex is, Julian noted in her piece. She spoke with Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College and author of “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus” and found that hookup culture isn’t the sex-all-the-time picture we conjure up in our heads.
Rather, Wade’s research found that one-third of students chose not to participate in hookup culture at all. A bit more than one-third would occasionally dabble in hookups, while less than a quarter considered themselves active and consistent participants in hookup culture. The rest of the students in Wade’s research identified as being in long-term relationships.
Although singledom can play a major role in having less sex, according to Julian’s research, being in a committed relationship or living with your partner doesn’t exempt you from the sex recession.
Screens are taking up time when sex could occur
Online entertainment, like Netflix, Instagram, and other social media sites, also plays a part in the sex recession. As Julian noted, people – especially romantic couples who cohabitate – browse Instagram or watch Netflix’s latest hit instead of spending time together in the bedroom.
5/ But I also found other explanations, each with profound implications. The first, unsurprisingly, has to do with internet enticements. Netflix and other online entertainment may be substituting for sex. pic.twitter.com/zctO0CTQw6
— Kate Julian (@katejulian) November 13, 2018
Women have more independence to pick and choose their sexual encounters
The sex recession isn’t necessarily bad, though. In response to Julian’s piece, Jessica Valenti attributed the sex recession to the increasing power of women and their rights bodily autonomy. It makes sense: why have bad sex when you don’t have to? Whether it’s an experience where the man doesn’t know how to pleasure his partner or one that makes a woman feel uncomfortable or unsafe, there are plenty of reasons to say no to sex, Valenti said.
“In my interviews with young women, I heard too many iterations to count of ‘He did something I didn’t like that I later learned is a staple in porn,’ choking being one widely cited example,” Julian wrote in her story for The Atlantic.
It’s easier to say no to sex, too, as heterosexual women have increasingly independent roles in society, Valenti wrote. According to the United States Census Bureau, fewer straight women are getting married than ever before, making life without a man and his wants and needs a greater reality, one that is increasingly common for straight women to navigate.
The so-called recession focuses, for the most part, on straight people
Heterosexual women certainly play a role in how often and the ways in which society navigates sex, but when discussing the sex recession, one group is largely ignored: the LGBTQ+ community. Julian briefly touches on gay people, saying they “tend to use online dating services at much higher rates than do straight people.”
She also mentions the work of Michael Rosenfeld, a Stanford University researcher who found single gays and lesbians have “more active dating lives” than heterosexuals due in part to their more successful use of dating apps.
“This disparity raises the possibility that the sex recession may be a mostly heterosexual phenomenon,” Julian wrote, comparing her findings with Rosenfeld’s findings.
On Twitter, others noticed the lack of insight into sex and the LGBTQ community, questioning whether this phenomenon could be more of a straight thing.
My favorite part of this 10,000-word cover story presented as a definitive account of 'young people' is the parenthetical two-thirds of the way through that says "the sex recession may be a mostly heterosexual phenomenon." https://t.co/NklC9PpPua
— George Civeris (@georgeciveris) November 19, 2018
Question, was this sex recession true for LGBT folks as well?
— J.M. Hall (@JMHall628) November 13, 2018
Currently, sex and relationship research tends to focus on heterosexual relationships, making it difficult to discern which populations the sex recession actually reaches. A 2015 study from the Journal of marriage and the family discussed the lack of data on same-sex relationships. The data that does exist on same-sex couples, wrote the study’s authors, is gleaned through outdated methods and is “comparable to those gained through research on different-sex couples 30 or more years ago.”
When it comes to learning more about how and why we have sex (or don’t have sex), Julian’s findings are a start, but more research needs to be done.