Four months ago I started a three-part series on a longstanding social problem only then starting to graze national media’s consciousness. Titled “For Free Thinkers Only: America’s Sexual Shortcoming” (see the archive under July and August 2018 at this site), it took an independent view on the main failing of the 1960s sexual revolution, that, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat had put it, sex has been unevenly distributed, with its bounty failing to reach many Americans. In the series I responded to Douthat’s ideas, assessed where we actually are sexually as a nation, and proposed eight changes to minimize the shortfall. The final installment has been viewed over 800 times, so clearly there is much interest in this topic.
That may also have influenced Atlantic magazine senior editor Kate Julian, as she wrote an article, now featured on the December 2018 cover and long enough to print out to 38 pages, titled “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” It named some stunning facts and developments, such as high-schoolers’ intercourse experience dropping from 54% to 40% in the 26 years ending 2017 contrasted with Teen Vogue running a guide to anal sex, and ran off a list of no fewer than 19 possible causes mentioned by “sex researchers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, therapists, sex educators, and young adults.” She zeroed in on five reasons or combinations of same that could be most responsible. After making points I had also, such as the lack of sex not being immediately life-threatening, she found no solid single conclusion, and ended with the statement that “sex seems more fraught now” and a gloomy story about a 28-year-old woman – not even a man – losing a good emerging relationship by admitting she was a virgin. The closest Julian had to an overall message seemed to be that we will get through this, which, itself, is sad, not to mention insufficient.
If we are going to mitigate this trend, we need to assess its grounds. Which of the ones Julian discovered, researched, and wrote more on are truly responsible? The 19 she first mentioned are a mixed bag. “Hookup culture” I consider illusory, as it has served only to facilitate opportunities for those with plenty already, and is not a cause in itself. “Crushing economic pressures” is only a source of possible reasons, as we will see. “Surging anxiety rates” are not responsible for more than a few. “Psychological frailty” is not an original cause, and neither is “widespread antidepressant use.” The distracting effects of “streaming TV,” “the news cycle,” “smartphones,” and “information overload,” and the possible impediments of “sleep deprivation” and “obesity” would, if there were no other issue, be easily brushed aside. “Environmental estrogens” are only a nit, and “dropping testosterone” is clearly, per Julian’s first detailed assessment, not the problem. “Digital porn” and “the vibrator’s golden age” cannot replace sex by themselves.
The remaining 4 of the 19 have more causal merit, and are covered in Julian’s “handful of suspects,” discussion of which took up 27 of its 38 pages. The first was “Sex for One,” or more frequent masturbation enhanced with better pornography and physical devices. I see two main things wrong with it as a less-sex cause. One, masturbation is like an economic inferior good, such as margarine, which becomes more popular when the superior alternative is unavailable or too expensive. Two, therefore, the causality is reversed; masturbating at a frequency that Julian-cited sex therapists would consider excessive is primarily a result of insufficient intercourse opportunities, not a reason for them.
The second “suspect” was the combination of “Hookup Culture and Helicopter Parents,” which also brings in “careerism” and “option paralysis” from the 19. While “hookup culture” is old under the skin, “option paralysis” can be a result of having so many choices in immediate view, especially for young women, that they settle on nothing, parallel to a Harvard Business Review finding that retailers would sell more cola or chocolate-chip cookies if they had 5 different kinds instead of 30. As for the other two, we can’t dispute one of Julian’s sources when he said that “it’s hard to work in sex when the baseball team practices at 6:30, school starts at 8:15, drama club meets at 4:15, the soup kitchen starts serving at 6, and, oh yeah, your screenplay needs completion.” If high school and college students are denied free time, they will not date. In a truly informed society, such as, per Julian, where the Netherlands might be headed, parents would schedule romance time for their adult and nearly-adult children.
The third major cause Julian called “The Tinder Mirage.” The problem here is that dating sites which allow men and women to respond freely to each other’s posts will precipitate vastly more contacts from men, most of whom soon find they can never expect responses from women they have right-swiped, Liked, messaged, or the equivalent. A model such as what eHarmony used in the past decade, where people of both sexes are paired with a more limited set of others, does not have this problem. However, the real damage done by such apps is, apparently, cutting the viability of trying to pick up people in person, with one of Julian’s respondents considering it now “borderline creepy.” That, along with such photo-based tools overemphasizing appearance, is reason enough to label modern romance-seeking methods deficient.
Fourth, we get “Bad Sex (Painfully Bad).” Pornography is unfairly vilified in many ways, but deserves some blame for distorting how it often shows the act, from emphasis on anal sex, which hurts much or most of the time, entering without lubrication or foreplay, to even choking partners to heighten their orgasms. The real problem here is not with porn but with communication, with good sources for technique buried among bad ones and the near-complete-failure of school sex education, which could have become as much of a foundation and valid information source as has that for driving, and is of course compounded by so many men’s lack of opportunities that would get them experience.
Last, surprisingly to me, was “Inhibition.” Did you know that “by the mid-1990s, most high schools had stopped requiring students to shower after gym class”? I did not. An apparent unintended consequence of the end of that innocuous part of daily life is that many Millennials “want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” After literally thousands of grade school through college nude locker-room appearances in front of other males, which precipitated a total of zero sexually improper comments or actions, it seems bizarre to me not to accept sometimes being undressed in front of someone with whom I’m having intimate relations. A real cause indeed – if for no reason more than, as one of my gym teachers used to say, “getting in that (dirty) uniform is enough to take a shower,” can we bring them back?
There are more explanations than Julian named for our lack of physical intimacy. The inflection point we are at, where people differ on whether women should be protected, have full equal rights, have equality of income outcomes, or some combination of these, is one. The probably about 3-to-1 ratio of unattached, romantically-interested high school or college males to the same in females is discouraging. We are in our infancy in working to understand and solve this problem – what otherwise could I conclude from an article named “We’re All in Sales Now,” written by a woman apparently naïve that men in the bottom 60% of romantic desirability have been forced to be there since Ford was president, making a November 2018, not 1978, New York Times Sunday Review first page? Yet there is much more in Julian’s article, which I heartily recommend. You can find it at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/the-sex-recession/573949/. In the meantime, free thinkers should keep the faith, and everyone else should join us. Too little sex for too many people may not kill us, but its effect on our collective happiness is devastating and unnecessary. Let’s fix it.