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National surveys suggest Americans are having less sex. Here’s why — or if — it matters to the future

Is the country’s ‘sex recession’ turning into a ‘sex depression,’ or is the recent pattern a blip?

A growing share of American adults under age 50 were celibate in 2018, compared to national survey findings in previous years. That, combined with a long-tail trend of fewer teens having sex has created speculation that America is in a “sex recession” — or even a “sex depression.”

But a new analysis for the Institute for Family Studies of national data by Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah, suggests it’s too soon to play “Taps” for sexual activity. There’s not a long enough timeline on the available data, which “should lead us to hold on a second before we make pronouncements about the death of sex,” he said.

The observed recent decrease in sexual activity includes that deemed good for strengthening intimate bonds in relationships and types of sex considered bad by most. Experts don’t worry about sexually inactive teens and universally agree that teen pregnancy can derail young lives and lead to challenges like higher rates of poverty and less educational attainment.

But Wolfinger points out implications for well-being related to sexual relationships. “Most people want to be married; an even larger majority aspires to some sort of intimate relationship,” he writes. “Furthermore, Americans are having fewer children than they’d like.”

Most of the existing sexual activity findings rest on data from the General Social Survey. Wolfinger, who is also an adjunct professor of sociology, looked at that, but also the most recent 10 years of what he called “arguably better data” from the National Survey of Family Growth. When he considered both surveys, he told the Deseret News he did not find what could yet be called a “trend” in protracted celibacy.

“But 2018 was definitely a bad year for sex,” he said.

The family growth survey finds America “may be trending towards more widespread sexlessness, but it’s really too soon to tell whether the upticks of the past few years represent a sustained trend or just noise,” Wolfinger writes. He said his survey offers less evidence of a sexlessness trend for women than for men and less overall evidence than the General Social Survey suggests.

Differing definitions

The term “sex recession” was coined by Kate Julian in a 2019 article in The Atlantic. She wrote that a number of studies found American teens and young adults were having less sex. Among experts she cited was Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has extensively studied the impact of screens and social media on young people and their interactions.

Twenge reported that early 20-somethings are 2.5 times as likely to abstain from sex as members of Generation X — those now in their 40s to mid-50s — were when they were the same age. Twenge separately found adults were engaging in sex less often.

Writes Wolfinger, “About two-thirds of this decline is attributable to the waning probability of being married or cohabiting. The other third is a decline in how often married couples get it on, a downturn with few apparent causes. It cannot be explained by hours spent at work or pornography consumption,” findings he wrote about earlier.

Wolfinger notes shortcomings in both sets of surveys. The General Social Survey doesn’t define what it considers sex, possibly excluding acts besides intercourse. It offers two celibacy options: the past year or since age 18. Data on intimate same-sex encounters are limited.

The National Survey of Family Growth, conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, has limitations, too — including measuring either lifetime celibacy or celibacy over the last year. It does define what it considers sex, capturing both same-sex and heterosexual intimacy for men, while measuring celibacy for women as lack of heterosexual intercourse. However, marriage and cohabitation are only identified for opposite-sex unions. Although same-sex marriage is legal, those married or cohabiting with a same-sex partner are treated as single.

While it’s not clear if the apparent decrease in sexual activity is a trend, Wolfinger said some facts about sexual activity are certain, including that teenagers have been having less sex for years. Both teen pregnancies and unwanted pregnancies overall are down — statistics that don’t result from abortion, which is at a 40-year low, according to a recently updated fact sheet from the Guttmacher Institute.

What other studies say

During a Sutherland Institute discussion Tuesday about a child tax credit proposal by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted how economic and social forces are changing how the sexes interact. He credits or blames, depending on perspective, the internet for altering how young people date and interact, noting the shift from 1990s worries about teens and young adults having too much sex to concerns today that they are having too little.

“There’s a decline of sex, dating, relationships, marriage and kids. It’s a continuum of sort of relational failure. This is something for families, churches, communities. Everybody has to reckon with this. There isn’t a perfect policy solution,” Douthat said.

A number of studies note a decline or delay in sexual activity. Some offer theories about what’s happening.

The annual American Family Survey’s 2020 poll conducted during the pandemic found that couples in committed relationships reported having sex less than in the past. The annual, nationally representative study is conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

That study called romantic partnerships largely stable, but noted that couples had less sex, down 5 percentage points in 2020 compared to 2019 and down 10 points from 2015. It also said couples discussed their relationships 4 points less often than the year before and 11 points less since 2015.

A 2016 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior led by Twenge found higher rates of sexual inactivity among those born in the 1980s and 1990s was more pronounced for women and absent for both college-educated young adults and Black Americans. “Contrary to popular media conceptions of a ‘hookup generation’ more likely to engage in frequent casual sex,” she wrote, more of them had no sexual partners after age 18 compared to other recent cohorts.

A study in the Journal of Marriage and Family published in late 2020 by sociologists at Rutgers and State University of New York at Albany also noted “the frequency with which young adults have sexual intercourse has declined over recent decades, but the sources of this trend are not well understood.” According to this research, “trends in economic insecurity, relationship formation, parental co-residence, use of electronic media, psychological distress and alcohol consumption have all been suggested as possible causes.”

The researchers concluded that a decrease in romantic ties and less alcohol consumption were the most important, while a drop in earnings and more time spent playing video games also mattered.

Even though married couples seem to be having less sex, Wolfinger points out they’re having some. He writes that long-term celibacy “remains extremely uncommon for people in relationships overall,” adding that fewer than 1 % of heterosexual married or cohabiting couples reported not having sex in the last year.

“Trends in sexlessness are therefore driven by two phenomena,” said Wolfinger. They are: “changing rates of union formation and the sexual (in)activity of people who don’t live with a partner.”

Whether it’s a trend or a blip, Wolfinger said it’s worth noting that almost 30% of single respondents in either of the surveys he analyzed reported having no sex in the last year and 1 in 7 of those who never married said they don’t hope to do so.

The sex recession chronicles some details of modern life, however long- or short-lived it proves to be, said Wolfinger. He points out a decadeslong withdrawal from various social institutions that was chronicled in Robert D. Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone.”

Is stepping back from sexual intimacy next? Wolfinger wonders. “Some Americans have somehow sublimated, submerged or substituted their intrinsically human desire for sex in lives increasingly lived online, in social media and video games” — a trend he thinks has grown in pandemic-induced isolation.

The question becomes what happens next, Wolfinger said.

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