Americans are having less sex than they used to.
That’s not a huge surprise on the whole—we are also getting a lot older, after all. But what is surprising is that, according to new data from the General Social Survey, men in their twenties are abstaining from sex at what talking heads appear to consider an alarming rate.
About 28 percent of men and 18 percent of women between 18 and 30 reported that they’ve had no sex in the past year. Various explanations for these numbers have been offered by pundits: men of this age group are much more likely to live with their parents and less likely to have jobs than generations before them; sex has never been as complicated as it is now in the #MeToo moment; there are other interesting things to do on a Saturday night, like play Call of Duty or binge watch something on Netflix.
All of these are plausible explanations—although all of them are speculative, since the survey didn’t just ask young people why they weren’t having sex. But I just finished a book on modern love and would like to offer a few guesses of my own.
#1: This Is NOT Sex
A rose is a rose is a rose—but sex is not always sex. All sorts of sociological research shows that young people “hook up” in ways that many of us would define as “sex,” but which they might not. As Lisa Wade tells us in American Hook-Up, the hook-up is “a drunken sexual encounter with ambiguous content…” It is the hook-up’s ambiguity that can transform oral sex, especially when performed on a man, or mutual masturbation or even anal sex into “not sex, just a hook-up.”
#2: Technology Is Not An Aphrodisiac
We live in an age where technology gives all of us both endless options for dates and a decreased sense of satisfaction with the pleasures of dating. Plus, Americans are working more hours than they ever have before—which leaves us with precious little time to light candles and pop champagne.
When I was conducting research for my book on romance, people talked about dating as something you had to get through, like the prince fighting off the dragon to get to the princess. They also spoke of how utterly frustrating it was to “waste” so much time on such a thing—and explained that they had invented a variety of ways to perform romantic triage on the thousands of potential dating partners who awaited them on apps like Tinder.
#3: Isn’t It Romantic?
Romance is completely at odds with the realities of modern life—which makes sense, since romance as we know it was invented in the nineteenth century when people started associating falling in love with marriage and marriage with a “happily ever after.” It’s not that people didn’t have strong romantic attachments before then; it’s just those attachments didn’t guarantee people a safe and secure future. (Think Romeo and Juliet.)
Modern romantic love enveloped us in the fairy dust of true love—and it worked pretty well, sort of. Even though marriage rates have mostly been declining for the past century or so, many of us believed that we could have our own happily ever after if we just met “the one.” (And had the most spectacular engagement, the most perfect wedding and the most romantic honeymoon and moved to the best suburb.)
But we know now that we need a lot more than romance to keep us safe in the future.
Most of us keep getting poorer, except the few of us who get a lot richer. The effects of global climate change are increasingly visible and dangerous. Our Prince/ss Charming can’t save us from the real world. None of the sociopolitical problems that occupy our waking lives are going to be fixed by a love story.
This leaves young people trapped: continuing to desire all the trappings of romance, but living in a historical moment that couldn’t be less romantic. They feel stressed and unhappy, because it’s increasingly clear that their future won’t play out like a fairytale.
Republican Senator Mike Lee recently claimed that getting married and having more (American) babies will solve the environmental crisis, but today’s twenty-somethings are far too clear-eyed to believe that romance or even just sex will make things better. What they need is a future where they would have less student debt, more time, some sort of social safety net that includes things like healthcare and an environment that wasn’t collapsing before their very eyes.