Why Aren’t People Having Sex?

Reader question: “My long-term girlfriend and I broke up right before the pandemic hit, which was a real treat. I remember dating being fairly hard back in college but it’s extra difficult now. The apps are a nightmare: no one seems to have any real follow through. It also seems like people are less into randomly hooking up with someone they just met, but I can’t tell if that’s just my experience or if it’s a broader trend. At first I thought it was just me off my game, but my coupled-up friends keep dropping hints they’re having less sex too. Is this a pandemic thing? Are other people having this weirdly hard time getting laid?”

Dear reader, you are — most definitely — not alone. A lot of recent research has been devoted to this phenomenon, including a study that found 1 in 3 young men in the U.S. has had no partnered sex in the last year. A national survey found that — compared to ten years earlier — people in the US are having less PVI (penile-vaginal intercourse), regardless of age. And while researchers assumed that they’d find a rise in other sexual behaviors, like oral sex, hand play and masturbation, it turned out that people are engaging in that less often, too!

I don’t know if I can restate that clearly enough.

Not only are people not fucking as often, they are even masturbating less. And it’s not just the U.S. These trends are being seen across the globe with studies in the UK, Australia and Japan finding similar results. Truly trying times.

Obviously, there’s the damn pandemic. Folks are more anxious, depressed, and literally discouraged from getting close to strangers.

But it’s been happening for a while, so it’s not simply that. A study published in 2017 that looked at sexual behavior in the ‘90s compared to the early 2010s found that Americans were having sex an average of 9 times fewer per year, even then.

The researchers assumed the drop would be among single adults because young people are less likely to be married or shacked up, but they found that partnered people were also having less sex across all demographics, regions, and educational levels. Shockingly, the people who were getting it on the most were the Silent Generation (folks born in the 1930s) while the least sexually active were those born in the 1990s.

What is to blame for all this relative celibacy?

Maybe people are more choosy

A supremely interesting finding out of study in 2013 was that 45% of Japanese women between ages 16 to 24 said they were not interested in or even despised sex. More than half of young unmarried adults in Japan say they have no interest in getting married or having any kind of romantic relationship.

Perhaps the reality is that there used to be a lot of bad or unwanted sex. Perhaps now — with a greater variety of options available — people are saying “nah, I’m good.” Who needs an unsatisfying hookup with risk of pregnancy and STIs?

Maybe we’re too sad to bang

Despite the fact we have better contraceptive technology, more societal acceptance towards diversity of sexual orientations and lots of other reasons to be sexually optimistic, we are experiencing a lot of rough stuff too. As a result, depression and loneliness are a big public health crisis.

Research has shown over and over again that being depressed is an absolute libido killer. We’re less motivated to get it on and we experience more dysfunctions around arousal and orgasm.

This theory goes a long way to explain why the most precipitous drop in sexual activity is among young people. This is the generation most likely to face insecurity around jobs and housing and to be concerned about global issues like climate change. Their grandparents are gleefully banging away, knowing they’re gonna get to check out before the sea levels rise.

Maybe we’re stuck in our phones

Some researchers argue that our habituation to social media, and the availability of streaming entertainment and video games means we’re just interfacing with each other less and seeking out dopamine and serotonin from the screen instead of getting railed.

That seems a likely enough culprit. It’s a running joke that couples now spend their nights in front of the TV, both buried in their phones instead of getting it on. It’s a lot less labor to scroll and switch between apps to get that dose of brain chemicals.

What are we to do with this information? If you’re happy with less banging, then congratulations. If you are missing sex from your life, seek out like-minded people. Sex-positive communities are heavily censored, but they very much exist. And if you’re partnered and miss getting it on, maybe this is your cue to go do that thing to your boo that you know always gets them hot. Good luck, everyone!

Have a question for Dr. Timaree? Send an email to asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com.

    • Timaree Schmit Headshot

      Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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