We might be in a 'sex recession', but not for the reasons you'd think

According to surveys, we're having less sex than our forebears. Are we all less horny, or is there something else at work?

by James Greig
13 May 2021, 11:35am

People today are obsessed with the idea that young people aren’t having sex anymore. Even before intimate contact was effectively criminalised for a year, a consensus had already emerged that sex was in a state of decline. Just last week, The Telegraph published a study suggesting university students are having less sex, which was only the latest in a long line of similar surveys and articles. A 2019 survey in the British Medical Journal suggested that people across the board in the UK were having less sex than they were in 2001, and the pandemic did nobody’s sex life any favours. Combined with concerns about declining birth rates in the global north, worries about the supposed celibacy of the young is taking on a prurient, slightly frenzied air, one that’s beginning to resemble a moral panic.

If the ‘sex recession’ idea is widely accepted, the reasons behind it are still highly contested. Conservative think-tank the Institute of Family Studies, for example, has suggested that the problem is that young people are getting married later, which is a convenient explanation for an organisation dedicated to the promotion of marriage. Others, including a psychiatrist quoted in The Telegraph article mentioned above, have argued that the sex recession is caused by young men being bamboozled by the concept of consent. The argument goes that they would like to be having more sex, but have been made too anxious by feminist harridans and are now too brow-beaten and “woke” to experience desire. People also argue that internet porn and dating apps have all contributed to some vague collapse in character, which means we no longer have the get-up-and-go to pursue sex, unlike earlier, spunkier generations. We are instead trapped inside masturbating to hentai and setting up an OnlyFans account (the conservative panic that young people aren’t having sex is matched only by the concern that too many young people are becoming sex workers.) 

These ideas are all pretty reactionary, but the sex surveys have also inspired some decent arguments. You could, for instance, lay the blame at the door of the housing crisis which plagues both millennials and Gen Z. It’s harder to get your end away when you’re living with your parents, and many of us are familiar with the strain which living with flatmates can place on our sex lives (the creakier your bed-frame, the more dramatic this problem becomes.) There’s also “the general malaise of life under capitalism” theory: young people today are generally poorer and more anxious and depressed than those before them. They can’t afford to go out as much; bars and clubs are more expensive, and even before the pandemic, there were fewer and fewer places to go. If more young people are staying inside and staring at their screens, as older generations like to allege, this is not just a matter of culture or personal preference. With all of these stresses and constraints, is it any wonder Gen Z might be shagging less? This account of the sex recession is more plausible to me than delayed marriage, consent workshops or “feminism”. But still, I’m not convinced that we should be taking these surveys -- and the idea of a sex recession -- at face value in the first place. 

For a start, surveys are inherently unreliable. Respondents aren’t always truthful and this is particularly true when it comes to sex. Sometimes they are motivated by fantasy, dishonesty or the desire to say what the researchers want to hear. As such, surveys can offer wildly disparate conclusions. In perhaps the most influential sex survey of all time, Alfred Kinsey reported in 1948 that 37% of men had had a homosexual experience to orgasm. A study carried out in 2011 suggested it was only about 6%. After 60 years of gay liberation and the birth of Grindr, you’d expect the opposite result, right? This isn’t to suggest that the 2011 survey is correct, but rather that we should be taking all surveys with a generous pinch of salt.

“As well as being inaccurate, surveys may also shape attitudes as much as measuring them. As the academic John Law argued in ‘Seeing Like A Survey’, “it is possible to say that [surveys] are practices that do not simply describe realities but also tend to enact these into being.’”

As well as being inaccurate, surveys may also shape attitudes as much as measuring them. As the academic John Law argued in “Seeing Like A Survey”, “it is possible to say that [surveys] are practices that do not simply describe realities but also tend to enact these into being.” In the past, sex surveys have been utilised towards emancipatory ends. Gay men and women, throughout the twentieth century, were often keen to contribute to sex surveys, as a way of making their demographic known -- many of them believed that being counted would be a way of increasing social tolerance and achieving liberation. But what reality are the sex recession surveys helping to create today? For a start, these surveys are often spoken about in tandem with incel culture, a misogynistic (and occasionally murderous) subculture of men who are not having sex and not happy about it. 

However accurately it may be quantified, the idea that there’s a sex recession helps to create and perpetuate a sense of scarcity around sex, which is one of the animating forces of incel ideology. This makes sense: if you think that sex is a rare, finite resource and you’re not having any, you might be concerned that what little there is of it in the world has already been snapped up by the Chads, Staceys and “muscle gays”. It’s easy to feel as though you are being structurally deprived of sex, rather than its absence being a matter of time, circumstances or changing your own approach. We have all, at one point or another, been involuntarily celibate, just like most of us have experienced romantic happiness and sexual bliss. Where you find yourself on this spectrum is sometimes simply a fluke. If you are on the sexually unfulfilled end, it’s worth bearing in mind this isn’t necessarily evidence of an insurmountable societal problem, a biological flaw, or the position you find yourself on a fixed hierarchy, as incels would have it. 

None of this is to say we should stop commissioning sex surveys for fear that they might inspire someone to become an incel. But it does mean we should view them as something which helps to generate reality, rather than neutral documents which describe it. So what kind of effect might the sex recession surveys might be having? What realities might they be bringing into place? According to Amia Srinivasan, a professor at the University of the Oxford and the author of the forthcoming The Right to Sex, a book about the ethics and politics of sex, “The discourse around [sex surveys] expresses a fairly pathological view of sex: either as a status-conferring luxury good (the incel perspective), or as a basic necessity akin to food or water.” The problem with viewing sex “as just a basic resource to which people do or don't have sufficient access to”, according to Amia, “is that sex is something that happens between people. If people are having less sex, it means that they are having less sex with each other. Is that necessarily a bad thing? To answer that, I'd want to know more about how people are relating to each other, the role that sex is playing in their lives, what forms of commune and intimacy they're experiencing, and so on. Without that context, the 'sex scarcity' numbers are, at best, sociological curiosities.”

Herein lies one of the key problems with these sex surveys: they measure quantity and not quality. It could be the case that people are having better sex less frequently or that whatever dip has occurred is a result of women feeling more empowered to say no, which is obviously a good thing. But still, despite the ways these surveys are both unreliable and generative, the sheer critical mass of data does at least seem to gesture towards the idea that many of us are leading less sociable and sexually satisfying lives. Sex surveys might tell us more about the nature of sex surveys themselves than anything else, but they can also be a record of the societal conditions under which they were administered. If that is the case, then they’re not saying anything good. That said, a survey is not a prophecy or a curse, and we would do well to remember the sex recession is at least partly a media invention. We don’t have to internalise it or draw any conclusions about our own prospects. We can reject the narrative and choose instead to burn bright with the belief that someone, somewhere out there, wants to fuck us.

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