The sex recession

From Kate Julian at The Atlantic:

Gen Xers and Baby Boomers may also be having less sex today than previous generations did at the same age. From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex. Twenge recently took a look at the latest General Social Survey data, from 2016, and told me that in the two years following her study, sexual frequency fell even further.

Some social scientists take issue with aspects of Twenge’s analysis; others say that her data source, although highly regarded, is not ideally suited to sex research. And yet none of the many experts I interviewed for this piece seriously challenged the idea that the average young adult circa 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. Nor did anyone doubt that this reality is out of step with public perception—most of us still think that other people are having a lot more sex than they actually are.

I enjoyed this sentence:

In a famous 2007 study, people supplied researchers with 237 distinct reasons for having sex, ranging from mystical (“I wanted to feel closer to God”) to lame (“I wanted to change the topic of conversation”). The number of reasons not to have sex must be at least as high.

This is interesting too:

“Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift,” Jonah Disend, the founder of the branding consultancy Redscout, told Bloomberg last year. He said that designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” The article concluded that however “digitally nonchalant” Millennials might seem—an allusion, maybe, to sexting—“they’re prudish in person.”

The sex recession remains a puzzle.  Here is my much earlier blog post on why people don’t have more sex.


Not tonight dear, I've gotta blog.

Angry, sexually frustrated men vote for Orange Stable Genius out of impotence and insecurity. Combine that with the rise of incels and cuckolds. It all makes sense. Freud was right, it all comes down to sex.

The fact that Trump still has to not just pay, but overpay bigly, for sex even though the guy is a celebrity and billionaire should tell you what a big beta male he really is.

You don't pay for the sex, you pay for her to go away.

Yeah the not getting naked in locker rooms bugs me. Old Asian men don't give one shit, but you're median man sure is sensitive about someone seeing his genitals.

But how much of this is obesity and inactive lifestyles, and how much is pornography?

Are we younger people working more (or leisuring less) than our parents?

54 days of sex means more than once per weekend, which might be challenging to reach for a demographic cohabiting less, marrying less, and maybe monogamizing less.

Anyways now that I've commented, suppose I should read.

Your you're sorry

This is just an American thing though right? Young people in Japan don't care, and I've heard the same about saunas in Germany.

In Germany, young people have no more problem getting naked now than they did a generation ago. And the idea that a married couple would not see each other naked is considered the sort of unbelievable exaggeration about the U.S. that no one could possibly take seriously, at least from a German perspective.

It's not the nudity that leads them to want separate bathrooms. It's the pooping.

I'm guessing you did not actually bother to read the quote - '“They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.”'

Oh I did. I was commenting mainly from my experience with my in-laws. Gassy people, changing room is where MIL farts, so as to protect FIL from the messiness of reality and preserve romance. SIL wanted two bathrooms for her and husband (both teachers!) in their first apartment because she has GI issues and doesn't want to gross out her husband. None of this is made explicit, by the way, but they are all slim and fit people who don't mind being around each other in skimpy bathing suits, but who, like most Americans, think of marriage as primarily a place for romance and erotics. My experience might be narrow though! I grew up in a house with one bathroom for 5, so it all seems weird to me.

Eh, that's not quite true. In Japan and Germany (and France) they are still more tolerant of shared nudity than in America, just as was true before, but in all three shared nudity is somewhat less common than before. Holds in Europe as well as in Japan. (In Japan "couples" private onsen baths, though, if anything seem to be slightly more popular, at the expense of mixed sex large baths.)

You can see the body shame thing in other small changes too: in men's rooms urinal partitions are ubiquitous now whereas I don't remember those at all in my youth (I'm 51). Heck my high school, fairly new when I was there, didn't even have doors on the toilet stalls for guys, which is something you never find nowadays except in really divey bars.

I also remember when a lot of sporting facilities had just plain shared troughs for urinals.

But how much of this is obesity and inactive lifestyles, and how much is pornography?

Yes, obesity. People won't admit it, but it's true. Women feel less inclined when they're worried about their bodies; and certainly less inclined when what they have to look forward to is dad-bods.

I would say the link is even simpler. Sex requires at least moderate physical exertion. People with low physical fitness find exercise more straining and less enjoyable. Therefore they're less likely to engage or pursue it on the margin.

Do you have data on this? This is not my experience and not when I have seen elsewhere in the literature. Sex frequency and weight have always shown a U shaped distribution and shifting the curve towards the heavier side would need a much larger effect size than I have ever read about.

I can identify with the person quoted saying that school, career goals, and achievements matter most, and relationships are secondary - entanglements to be avoided. As I was reading the article I actually wondered if my parents had hopes that I might have a family with children one day. They certainly encouraged me to work hard and do well in school, but I can't recall even once a future family being cited as an aspirational life goal. I wonder if many other younger people feel the same way - that a family is viewed as just a side-quest?

Having children is the expensive DLC that's full of bugs and keeps crashing when you try to play with others.

Well one might think the read access to birth control would work against that aspect. That said, maybe it's a risk assessment -- > 0 probability of children and perhaps a shotgun wedding situation . If the relative costs of both raising a family and being married have increased over the generations less sex would be one expected equilibrium.

The managerial class has brainwashed people into thinking that "self-actualization" thru career is everyone's telos.

And of course they reap their stupendous profits while the wannabe cognitive elite cuts each others throats in pursuit of tenure, partnership, IPO stock options etc. while neglecting things like health, relationships, and building a family.

+1. This has been my experience.

Yes, also this in a very major way. Have you seen how many articles there are about how to be more productive? Like producing more desk work is the greatest thing ever. Ducking out a little early to show your lady a nice night on the town and maybe get caught in the rain somewhere? Who has time for that?!

I agree 100% but must add that the decline in sex seems to be happening in Europe also.

+1. We've also lost some of the language to legibly express the values that in the past would have led people toward a family. Children will not increase your second-by-second utility. They're inconvenient and will make you less productive. Yet (my claim) a world where smart, otherwise-productive individuals are willing to sacrifice to build a family is better than one where they don't.

A long article to basically say one thing - substitutes for sex have great improved both in quality and access. So marginal sex has declined..

This cuts to the essence of the issue. Is sex decreasing for supply reasons (like it being harder to meet people, make time, exert an effort) or demand reasons (we have better things to do)?

Because the former's a tragedy, but the latter is hard to get worked up about. Humans spend a lot less time stargazing or telling each other stories around the fire.

Both men and women work and support themselves independently. Hence, it is more difficult to align schedules for dating, coupling up, and having sex. Women also have less motivation to find a man. In the past, finding a husband was like finding a job/career today. That's how woman gained financial support. Even marriage-minded women today do not perform husband searches as zealously as job searches. (Also, if husband searching is not a norm, then that makes it harder for women that do want to husband search to do so without seeming over-eager.)

None of this implies, by the way, that women entering the workforce is a bad thing.

All of this certainly implies that women entering the workforce is a bad thing.

People have more freedom today. Thus, the preferences being revealed now are their true preferences.

Women entered massively in the workforce 3 ou 4 generations ago - this does not explain the current "sex recession" (the main impact should have been perhaps in the 1970s - a decade that, if anything, has the opposite reputation)

Women may have been working in the 70s, but they were not nearly as financially independent as today. Children born in the mid to late 60s were probably the first generation to grow up believing that women would pursue careers in the same way as men.

Yeah, once a week does pass the smell test.

You should wash more often.

A sexless society is a happy society. But since that isn't really possible without massive immigration, in which case the society won't last long because the immigrants will probably want to have sex, the less sex the better.** It's a testable hypothesis.

"the share of people living together hasn’t risen enough to offset the decline in marriage"

aha, is the rent too high?

On such a long well-researched article, obesity was only mentioned once. No further discussion.

When discussing technology smartphones and porn on the web grab all the attention, however suburbs and exurbs are also technological choices that put people as far from each other as possible. Then this part: quite a few of them suggested that if a random guy started talking to them in an elevator, they would be weirded out. “Creeper! Get away from me,”. Helicopter parents put Millenials in golden cages in an exurb and then the article author wonder why they're scared of random interactions.

This quote is awesome. I'd like to be a fatherly figure to this guy and tell him to not worry because he's doing the right thing. I don't like the term working on sex, but being a self-sufficient man that exercises regularly is really working on sex. He might be surrounded with willing partners, just open the eyes little grasshopper: "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,” I think I made the same mistake of low self-esteem 20 years ago during college, it took me a while to realize being busy in different things was hot =)

Finally: alcohol, marijuana, MDMA, ketamine, whatever helps to get rid of that inhibition is good. The article frames inhibition as a new problem instead of a thing hardwired in our brains. Fortunately, people from the past have developed technologies to deal with it.

Yeah, obesity was the first thing that came to mind for me as the likeliest explanation. Excess flesh is just so much higher than it used to be. Most people don't follow a healthful dietary pattern and are ignorant about what one might look like. Nor does the government doesn't help, as it encourages foods we know to cause disease.

Sex has a biological purpose. If you are transmitting "pregnant" or "slow and less capable" with excess weight, you are reducing your attractiveness to potential sex partners; you're going to cause fewer hormones to fire in their head. That means less sex.

Extra weight may also make people more self-conscious and it no doubt makes sex harder or sometimes impossible as well, i.e., when atherosclerosis suffocates people's ...apparatuses.

Once upon a time some visible excess fat telegraphed "healthy, prosperous, has leisure, has some reserves to survive lean times or serious illness" excessively svelte women were regarded as poor childbirth risks. These sorts of things have more to do with cultural norms than biology.

What's the typical Rubenesque painting subject, a size eight?

Cultural norms reflect biology. Ecologies are constantly changing. Whether a feature is well adapted or not depends on the environment. Fur, for a non-human example. Cold climate dogs have thicker coats than warm climate dogs. Calling something culture does not make it meaningless.

Excess weight is an option. When unspoilt food is scarce, that option is in the money. When unspoilt food is abundant and vigor scarce, it looks like wasted premium. This dymamic expresses itself in many ways, culture is just one.

No, males did not on the whole prefer fat women - it isn't a cultural preference. Just because paintings of the time featured fat women doesn't mean men preferred them. The women were fat and they were the ones paying the artists. So they're the ones who got painted.

You might prefer a plump woman to an emaciated one, but that's different from suggesting that fat women were preferred to regular weight women (aside from wealth signals being conveyed).

I don't believe for a second that your average man preferred a fat woman to a well-proportioned one.

Really depends on your definition of 'well proportioned,' doesn't it?

I'm not using "well-proportioned" as a euphemism. It has to do with waist to hip ratio and amount of belly fat.

Ratings of attractiveness will vary, but are measurable; they are tall, skinny, unimodal distributions.

'they are tall, skinny, unimodal distributions'

In which case, you will likely find that Polynesians have a different idea of well proportioned than you do. As would also be true for a number of Africans living near the equator.

And as a remark - belly fat is much more a sign of age/having borne children from a human historical perspective than of being poorly proportioned.

But the definition of well proportioned has changed. The modern concept verges on "heroin chic". Morbid obesity was never an ideal, but a degree of full figuredness was preferred. Note that for a good long time women's clothing tended to add heft to them, all the way down to the 19th century (hoop skirts and bustles). Empire gowns (think Jane Austin) are the main exception.

Too much focus on societal reasons in the article, not enough on biological seasons.

Estrogen-like-chemicals in plastics and corresponding sinking testosterone in men are probably the main reason for less sex.

Totally agree. I'd add lack of sunlight to the causes.

Watch any testimonials of guys who go on TRT, like Matt Serra. Test is the approach and make happen chemical.

I’d also bet the fall in sex is driven more by demand (lower sex drive due to lower testosterone) than supply (higher standards, less time, higher costs of raising family). Culturally specific explanations can’t explain why it’s happening across the world.

Lower testosterone affects only men. But this phenomenon affects both men and women. But not apparently gay men or lesbians.

Estrogen mimics have been around for a while This phenomenon is about ten years old. Also the article points out that gays and lesbians are not experiencing the sexual recession. If environmental factors were at fault they should be affected too- as should other animals for that matter.

The New York Times ran an article on high school students' growing aversion to locker room showering way back in 1996:

My vague impression is that Europeans went through long historical up and down cycles involving public bathing in the nude, with the Greeks and Romans loving it, the medievals being moderate about it, and early moderns getting dirtier and dirtier, until there was a fairly sharp push toward cleaning up the masses around or before WWI when modern plumbing made warm water cheap all of a sudden.

So.....bathing frequency is mostly a function of cost of warm water, right? The rich have always bathed more.

You don't get ubiquitous cheap hot water until early modern period. And even then coal towns bathe before country.

"Here is my much earlier blog post on why people don't have more sex"

Does using complex vocabulary in writing actually increase the perception of higher author intelligence among readers? According to Professor Daniel M. Oppenheimer, the answer is No.

Rx for Ty Cowen: if you can't express yourself simply & directly, you're doing something wrong.

If people pay attention to you, you're doing something right.

You think that was a complex and consulted sentence? Enough to bother to post? Wow. You’re not quick.

Big reason not cited: sex is no longer a taboo, except in conservative bible thumper regions. It's no longer a big secret, mystery, with only experimentation as the way to gain data about why the taboo. This led to the creation of secret cults, which still remain as part of "tradition".

(Here in NH we have the prep school rape cult which resulted in a conviction for soliciting sex by Internet, a sex crime, by acquittal for rape because my guess is jurors know older than boys initiate their younger peers into the secrets of sex by instructing them on how to rape younger teens. Sure, it's statutory rape, but everyone does it, so no big deal. If you're white, rich, respectable.... Those laws are only to replace lynching of non-whites.)

You are so messed up

How crazy do you have to be to think that this explains the data described in the post?

Mulp is a good argument against long-term marijuana use.

When everyone's carrying a camera in their phone, best not to get naked around other people unless you want to get blackmailed or humiliated.

The government is always watching and listening.

Good point, I never thought of that! I guess that reveals my age.

Professor Cowen is covering up the real scandal!

The Rich must be getting more sex at the expense of everyone else. Sexual average is over.

This was always the case. Reading the old-fashioned moral advice about restraining sexual appetite, as though anyone can have as much sex as he wants to, makes me wonder -- who are these privileged people who are in a position to restrain their sexual appetites, evidently being able to have whatever sex they want to have? Are these moralists directing their advice at wealthy men who can easily pick up very poor girls or have sex with their own female slaves (who would probably be happy to oblige)? Are they actually talking mainly about masturbation?

I’ll bet people masturbated quite a bit less than they do now. Probably no reliable data on that.

One thing that might be measurable is a decline in the stigma over admitting to the occasional wank

For men at least, prostitutes were an option.

Yes, I read this article yesterday. It's long for those who intend to read it (but the author repeatedly indicates what's coming later in the article to keep the reader's interest, an interesting device). I came away from the article with the impression that millennials are maturing much later in life and have a fear of intimacy. Here's something I have noticed about millennials: they are afraid of people and situations that are unfamiliar. No, I don't try to have sex with millennials, but I do come in contact with them, and my experience is that they avoid contact of all kinds. Cowen's next blog entry about the effectiveness of propaganda (propaganda works!) may relate to this: from the violence of 9/11, the Iraq War, and the savagery of Sunni extremists in the Middle East, to the fake news and lies on social media and Donald Trump, the experience of millennials is that the world is a scary place and people cannot be trusted. Safe spaces, indeed: for Millennials, not even the bedroom is a safe space.

The article is chock-full of bizarre behavior. One example: in Japan, there are businesses which cater to men who want to be watched by a woman. Watched? Yes, while the man masturbates. I suppose the women's occupation might be called "watchers". They watch, but they don't catch.

If you think about it, even the missionary position is bizarre. Was it intelligent design that gave us sex or comic relief? Maybe millennials have come to the conclusion that sex is, well, humiliating.

The missionary position is that savages should become Christians.

Sex requires trust and vulnerability. Both of these quantities have been shrinking dramatically in society.

Trust used to be mediated by a large number of traditional social institutions (church, civic groups, government), all of which our society has systematically undermined. Further, there is an ever decreasing sphere of people we trust have our best interests at heart. All of commerce is being eaten by corporations who are profit maximizing and answer to people vastly unlike the majority of society. Even when they function well and give us exactly what we want ... we have lost the sense of trust that came from living in a world where we knew who had agency and could see them looking out for us.

Even among our friends, it is hard to trust. They are, after all, competitors for college slots, internships, and job prospects. With the rise of internet permanence we must be guarded even around our closest associates, as mistakes can now easily follow us for decades (particularly with video proof).

Vulnerability is much harder in our society as well. If you happen to hold contrary opinions you learn to shut up. Further the acceptable ways to be "transgressive" are an ever moving target (somehow "Walk on the Wild Side" became trans-oppressive). Being "yourself" is risky. Being accepting of other people, even when they disagree, are wrong, or cause problems ... is just hard.

When it comes to sex, our culture is saturated with concerns about consent, but nobody cares what happens once you give consent. Once you say "yes" all the responsibility is on you and we explicitly say that each individual is responsible for themselves throughout sexual encounters. Being vulnerable during sex is not acknowledged and rarely sought out.

And we hate being vulnerable anywhere in life. Finances - get a good college education to get a good job, preferably in an area with near assured employment. Marriage - always have divorce as an option for "incompatability". Health - HIPAA, "pre-existing condition" protections, patient advocates. And of course how can say that we are more comfortable with end of life care when ever more of the populace endorses suicide so people do not have to "endure" a drop in "quality of life" or "dependence".

We had a revolution of trust in the 60s. We had a revolution of safety in the 70s (and especially 80s). The days when one partner trusted the other and was willing to be vulnerable and "just have sex" are long gone; now you have all manner of effort needed to "be sure" sex is "wanted" and "good". Frankly, I suspect we are slowly adopting some of the Japanese pathologies. Sex is too hard relative to competing options and will only get harder the more people are socialized with low trust and low vulnerability as the norm.

This is an interesting comment -- but could you develop it by speaking of trust- and vulnerability-related concerns from specifically male and female points of view? This seems especially necessary where actual f---ing (sex-having) is the context: a man might not trust a woman he's having sex with to not claim that he's raped her; he might feel vulnerable to such a claim -- but as far as the having-sex itself goes, he's only going to feel immediately vulnerable if she's fellating him.

Ah, you delineate material risks.

There is a purely psychological fear of intimacy for both men and women. One is that, in union with another, you will lose oneself. And you do. Think of the Aerosmith song 'Walk this Way". Initiation to sex is a transformation. The caterpillar dies so the butterfly can be, that sort of thing. It happens more subtly on a rolling continuous basis as well. There is not only the fear that part of you will die, compounding it is the fear that what is left will be under the influence of the other. This is the Samson and Delilah myth, or the Vagina Dentata, etc. There is some truth in that, too. If you believe you are what others reflect back to you (narcissism) and you do not like how they see you, you are in a bind. This is why fat women feel vulnerable undressing. They are in no physical peril. But you understand why they do feel vulnerable, don't you? Now their obesity has two witnesses and has been made more durable. It's been reified, like the fingerpainting tacked up on the fridge. Ouch!

Even without all the concerns about allegations the fact is that when you ask someone else for things-related-to-sex, you become vulnerable. Will she think you are being "creepy" and will that haunt your reputation forever? Will she believe that she is out of your league and mock you to her friends? Will she feel threatened and attack you directly (or her brother/father/lover)? Will your friends approve of her if she says yes; will they abandon you because you like girls "like her"?

We are social creatures and not that many generations ago the social relationships of women could get you shunned where you were highly likely to die. Sure in some intellectual sense threats to social standing are not rationally all that threatening ... and yet most humans do not perceive them as such. Certainly I have treated enough GSWs that resulted from "disrespect" that I would be an idiot to believe that people don't treat social threats like threats to heath or life.


Also related:

Yes I know it's Yiannapoulis. Yes I know it's Breitbart. But read it. There are truth nuggets in both pieces that are relevant, especially the "feminist panics" creating a "quagmire of previously understood norms regarding consent".


Okay, but you’re a doctor.

60% of Americans are on pharmaceutical drugs.

17% on SSRIs specifically. Which we know have related side effects.

Testosterone is down, even accounting for obesity.

Do we really need a just so story about trust? What I don’t trust most of all are narratives. Narratives, especially moralistic ones, are crack for a species that communicates via storytelling.

Yet the patients I see on testosterone supplementation are still having below trend line sex. Likewise patients on SERMs, Aromatase inhibitors, and the rest don't report increases in libido or in sexual frequency. Frankly I suspect that the SSRIs and medications are merely associations of a common cause. Sex does not magically seem to rebound when I take people off or put them on non-SSRIs without libido effects.

There certainly is nothing resembling a dose response curve at the societal level. Korea, for instance, has ~one tenth of the US exposure to SSRIs, yet their drop off in sexual frequency has greater in absolute amount, relative amount, and at a faster rate.

Nor does this inform demographic variation in sexual frequency. For instance the trendlines are diverging between say married Evangelical Protestants and married Nones (controlling for SES and the normal gamut). You could tell me a Just So Story about patriarchal religion ... except for the fact that it does not seem to hold for other patriarchal religions (e.g. Islam) nor show drop off for less patriarchal forms of strict religion (e.g. Pentecostalism ordains women yet has Evangelical levels of sexual frequency among its members). We see statistically significant variations in both quantity and trendline; and these are repeatable.

And lastly, there is dramatic within group variation even among those on SSRIs. I have not seen formal data, but the "from the trenches" view shows me that patients who have identical doseages of SSRIs vary heavily in their amount of sexual activity. And yet they do so in predictable ways. If I am told that someone is a married Evangelical I can easily predict higher rates of sexual activity (and other fun things like ectopic pregnancy), ceteris parabis. Even for couples both on SSRIs, I am not seeing clear relationships between sexual frequency and SSRI dose. I am, however seeing a pretty good correlation between a host of sociological markers (length of marriage, are friends married, low ACE count, church membership).

I can completely buy that SSRIs have lopped off a few percentage points, but SSRIs would have to have far larger effects than is evidenced in the data to show me these end values.

Great response.

Maybe a counter intuitive answer here is that the link between sex and the intimate emotional connections have been separated. Prior generations need linked the sex and emotional intimacy. If that link is broken and sex becomes a more purely physical experience while the emotional intimacies are formed independently....maybe less sex is the outcome.

Every measure I have ever read of "intimate emotional connections" shows abysmal trendlines heading down (normally at ever steeper rates).

The number of "close friends" for instance has dropped from three per capita down to two. And the data for those two show that we confide less in them and have lower belief in their willingness to forgive, help out, or have our backs.

Basically all the data I've read and my daily experience is that modern society gives some gains to a small skim of those endowed with some combination of wealth, connections/education, or intelligence. Average people of average means just do not show all that much better in their day to day lives. Maybe they have more/better amusement, but for things they explicitly endorse as wanting they are able/willing to achieve them ever less frequently.

Excellent post.

The data from Putnam's study of declining social capital supports your first paragraph.

I would add, we are such a fractured (diverse?) society that we no longer have shared norms, rituals, and context for dating - in the past the first step toward sex. We don't have shared expectations. All this in a background of fear of being filmed, recorded, and having our history follow us around on social media, even if the 'history' is a distortion.

The loss of social capital and shared expectations means we are on our own to improvise, with a very good chance the improvisation might be ineffective or even destructive. It is as if we are all playing modern free jazz, with no format, no rules, with a discordant outcome.

As a soon to be single boomer, I guess I should only date other boomers and hope we have similar expectations about appropriate dating behaviour. To be improvising at all times scares the heck out of me, given the repercussions.

Big reason for not being naked in locker-rooms and shower-areas in public schools and gyms: you're mixed together with people from different demographic backgrounds and you don't trust them -- you feel as though you have to be on guard again assault (the normal kind of assault from enemy tribesmen, not the sexual kind) and being naked makes you feel less able to defend yourself.

No. No, not even a little. You deranged man.

'Big reason for not being naked in locker-rooms and shower-areas in public schools and gyms: you're mixed together with people from different demographic backgrounds'

And yet, bizarrely enough, the one place you will find naked people fulfilling all of your demographic conditions are U.S. military recruits - who actually shower naked together.

The military tries, or used to try, to break old 'stubborn attachments' and replace them with a new bond between the recruits.

Absolutely. But then, don't high school athletic teams still shower in the afternoon? The point about team spirit - for lack of a better word in considering these two comparable example - is not only applicable to the military.

Not in my son's high school.

Seriously? After a couple of hours of doing things like wind sprints/running stairs/etc., everyone on the team just hops on the late bus without doing anything but changing from gym clothes to street clothes?

Sounds strange to me, to be honest, but then, things change over time.

Military personnel don't have much choice. Unlike in the private economy where you can join Ritzy Gym with private showers and avoid Sleezy Gym with gang showers.

Looking carefully at the quote that prompted my comment - 'Big reason for not being naked in locker-rooms and shower-areas in public schools and gyms' reveals that I assumed the gyms were in were public schools.

When it comes to kids there's been another big change: very few kids these days grow up sharing a room with a sibling, something once very common. So they aren't accustomed to dressing and undressing in front of others as a matter of course.

If you restrict the sample to heterosexuals, I wonder how the frequency of sex has changed. Less male sodomy is a good thing in terms of public health.

The article claims data that shows gays are NOT having less sex.

I think the way the internet has saturated society is somewhat involved with the big reduction in openness we seem to be seeing in studies.

In my personal experience at least, interaction on the internet is much more openly hostile and toxic than anything you'd see it meatspace. The natural implication when you grow up in front of a screen is that yes, basically everyone DOES hate you, and you specifically (also, you're ugly). It seems to be spilling over into mass political "discourse" as well, since I can't walk past a television anymore without hearing some variation of "Let me tell you why [group of people] are just terrible!"

It's pretty logical to view other people suspiciously and avoid exposure to uncertain social interactions (especially loaded ones like sex) when a large portion of your peers would appear to like nothing better than to find some leverage and then publicly destroy you with it.

I just don't remember people treating each other this way when I was a kid. I'd be inclined to think I'm just getting older and this is something everyone thinks as they age, but then again we didn't have kids pushing other kids into hanging themselves in grade school when I was young.

I've got young children of my own and what my wife and I have concluded is that exposing them to the web (and, increasingly, the 24-hour news cycle) is something we really need to grapple with. I'm not interested in allowing my sons to be filled up with caustic nonsense when they should be busy just being kids.

+1 Good comment.

A lot of interesting comments on this. Would be good of Tyler to cull a few and research to see what evidence supports the various thesis and report.

I mostly blame the Internet. Porn/Instagram gives people high expectations for how attractive other people are (though I agree that obesity is another big problem), rape horror stories make women much more afraid of being alone with a man (maybe they were too lax pre Internet, but I'd say it's escalated to the point of irrationality), social media makes it easier than ever for women to taunt/shame other women for having an active sex life, and Internet romance advice is dominated by bitter single people ("if you like her, you should insult her nails"/"if you like him, you should ignore his texts").

The American Left: Declares war on marriage (oppressive to women), and all men (rapists in waiting), and female sex appeal (it's objectifying). and females valuing relationships over careers (too 1950s), and childbirth (too CO2-emitting)..... and then writes blog posts about the baffling decline of sex.

American Left? Pure dialectical mumble. You must be a jew. Everything you posted, I could reverse.

Now here's a guy who isn't getting any.

When i think sex-positive, i think conservatives

That's kind of the point of the article, right? People are theoretically "sex positive" and yet are having less sex. As the article notes, teen pregnancy peaked in 1957.

A lot of good points in the article about porn, and the decline of the real-life meet-cute, delaying family formation, etc. could actually have "conservative" remedies.

I'd like to see the evidence that marriage leads to more frequent sex. My anecdotal research came to a different conclusion.

In any case, I was simply reacting to the blame-the-liberals troll.

I would, in fact, expect liberalizing and removal of taboos to lead to MORE sex (think 1960s and 1970s). Think of all the conservative hand-wringing about how Clinton was unleashing a tsunami of sex.

Which is I guess what makes the declining sex frequency counter-intuitive.

Teen pregnancy decline I would assume is linked to more availability and less taboos around birth control.

My guess, it has more to do with inward looking technology time, body anxiety, fear of others and a general social uneasiness, more availability of porn, and increases in depression.

I wonder also about the convenience and instant gratification culture. Face it, seeking and getting sex can be quite inconvenient and time consuming. And sometimes downright uncomfortable.

Married people have a lot more sex.

That is unequivocally the opposite experience of most everyone I know, once you take out the first couple years. And especially after having kids.

Very few single people have sex even monthly. Most married people have sex pretty close to weekly. I don’t know what to tell you.

Most of the young single people I know have a partner, and they are basically at their sexual peak. Most married people have a lot of sex early in their marriage but after they have kids it falls off, and eventually old age sets in, so I wouldn't bet on single adults having less sex that (all) married ones. Married childless young adults are a different story.

Isn't it possible we're coming off a 40 or 50 year period of greater than normal sex frequency and the current pattern is just the long-term historical average?

Compare people of the same age, and married people are likely to have more sex regardless of age, even lumping people with and without kids together. It's possible that the small number of extremely successful single people make the average somewhat different that the median, as the distribution of sex among single people is more unequal.

As the age of marriage has gotten later, it's unsurprising that the average amount of sex has decreased, regardless of what you think the flow of causation is.

It is what I see everyday when I have to ask people about their sexual practices.

By basically every measure sex improves with marriage. Only a very small set of outliers show any decrease not attributable to age alone.

Yeah, I mean, dude, less than what? Married people who have been married for a long time less than "just married" people. Still more than average single people of any description. C'mon.

"The sex recession remains a puzzle."

Does it? A whole generation that were more sheltered, less allowed to be on their own, spent all their time on the internet and being awkward in-person, having learned of the issues of sexual harassment of women, and of course able to access a near-infinite amount of free pornography.

Isn't this a recipe for less sex, in every way?

Everyone is becoming nerdy and awkward. Same reason sci-fi/fantasy is becoming more popular.

They are afraid of everything, even innocent little words get them screaming. Obviously they simply aren't competent to get sex to happen.

I think of how the word "camp" has mutated, from a place where kids went to do largely physical activities in something approximating nature.

My heart fell when I saw a bandit sign - among the coding camp, math tutoring, soccer league signs - advertising "handwriting camp."

America has become decadent.

You see, in Brazil when we want to be decadent we avoid sex. We have different meanings for words here.

I see no reason wives and husbands should avoid consensual sex.

Americans have become weak and impotent.

Also American brains are scientifically rpoven to be much smaller than Brazilian brains.


I think the studies show American brains are only 1/6 the size of Brazilian ones. The scientists running the experiments were shocked the Americans could even learn to speak or use computers.

It would be interesting to see the difference in change in the average vs. median. I think the decline in sex is because the alternatives are rapidly improving. Even in today’s environment, sex is already less enjoyable than the alternatives unless your partner is beautiful, skilled, into you, and conscientious enough to minimize risks—and even then it is a fine example of the law of diminishing marginal utility. Because such partners are not available to the median person, one might expect the median to be falling even faster than the average. I think this is a good thing; improving sexual technologies are just another example of human progress in making goods and experiences previously available only to the privileged (or at least reasonable substitutes of them) more available to the ordinary people.

Women, while they enjoy sex, want it less frequently than men. Women are less likely to feel obligated to have sex when their partners initiate than in the recent past.

I could not agree more.

Lots of great and very comments above, a rarity for this blog.

I'll add one more possibility: There may have been a reduction in the quality of sex. On average, we're all less healthy and more obese than we used to be, we have less testosterone, we do more drugs. We're more depressed. We're more demanding of romantic relationships than ever before. We work more and sleep less. We spend more time watching Netflix and less time going outside and doing stuff.

Does that sound like your ideal lover?

Fatty Liver. Less Estrogen removal. Once I changed my diet and added cycles of NAC/Theanine, you get where the yellow man is coming from. Poor estrogen removal causes DHT to spike as well, creating sexual frustration, pc muscle dysfunction and poor behavior around women, turning them off.

It's the internet stupid. Nothing else matters. There is no sex recession.

To an economist the sex recession should be easy to understand. Sex is a social technology that has two functionally related consumer value propositions, oxytocinrelease and reproduction. In the past it had a high value because of a relative lack of competition, low supply and social regulations restricting access. However, since 1968 we have seen a very high level of deregulation and increase in overall production capacity. More importantly perhaps, through the addon of other technologies, sex has been decoupled from its reproductive feature set. Without the reproductive function, sex is actually a very mediocre neurotransmitter release system that is in many ways strictly inferior to drugs, pornography, jogging and even spicy foods. Combine this with the aforementioned overexpansion of the supply side, and it should be no surprise that the relative value of sex has collapsed.

Good comment, but aren't we trying to explain a decline in equilibrium quantity (rather than "value")? Expansion of supply should counteract the decrease in demand due to availability of substitutes, no?

I must be missing something regarding the supply argument here. One typically expects to both an outward shift of the supply curve or an outward move on an existing S curve to result in the increase of the observer quantity of whatever good is in question.

Unless it is a veblen good.

Goodness, did anyone notice that the Proud Boys appear in that article, with a "policy" even?

Strange days.

Average (sex) is over

Was there a sex decline during the Roman times as the mores were loosened?

Roman sexual moresby fluctuated a lot. The really crazy stuff you read about was fairly limited to the elite. The upper classes are always more or less debauched.

I wasn't (and am not) familiar with the details. Thanks for the clarification.

When Tacitus and Suetonius wrote about imperial orgies they were writing for an audience that would be shocked if also a bit titillated by that sort of thing.

dunno about Romans, but there was a decline infertility in France after 1790.

Decline in fertility. Not decline infertility.

What is the proposed mechanism? The loose mores of the elites percolated to the rest of the society?

TL;DR. I read thru this thread, but not the article. I can think of probably two dozen potential factors not mentioned (explicitly) here. For example: much higher awareness of, and gross exaggeration of prevalence of homosexuals. This surely impacts locker rooms. As does the (imho bizarre) fad of waxing/ shaving pubic hair. I've never had sex with a bristling crotch, but seems that razor burn is gonna be a problem. Condoms. Yeah, definitely diminish the experience. Social roles. Was a time when most would agree that sex was a wife's duty. And many other factors. If the #MeToo movement has called out (mostly old white men) the relationship between power and sexual appetite, then perhaps even flat wages have had an impact, IDK. And then how about underemployment? And on, and on. If I had to guess, I'd guess the major factor is opportunity cost (mentioned in numerous posts). Finally, should we be concerned with quantity or quality (or some combination of the two)? I'd say the latter. And what about the many women who don't enjoy sex? I'd bet they've had a disproportionate effect on the statistics. I'd rather have good sex twice a month than bad sex weekly, but I'd rather have bad sex weekly than good sex once a month. ymmv.

The Amish will inherit the earth.

I found this interesting, not so surprising to me, but might be for some.:
It turns out 1957 has the highest rate of teen births in American history.

You young people should end this:

Over and over,” she has written, “my undergraduates tell me they try hard not to fall in love during college, imagining that would mess up their plans.

I mean you could study together.

BTW no recession in food, food is all the rage. Is there a connection there IE obesity? , Avocado toast anyone?

Women/girls and parents (even among evangelicals) today act like they/their daughters will have to earn a living for themselves. Girls are not going to college just to find a good mate.

These things hit society and you do not know how they will turn out. I think much of women's equality push today will result in women and men being less happy.

Oh and BTW maybe people are answering the surveys more honestly now because trust in the surveyors has grown. When I was young guys I knew better about were weaving tales of sex that never happened.

"if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift"

As a borderline Millennial (1983 counts! I'm young!), changing under a towel seems totally normal, and the almost performative nudity of creepy old dudes in gym locker room seems abnormal.

"Performative" is the window into your psyche that demands your attention. What makes you think those old guys are doing it for you?

It's been a long century. While some of the group nudity came from central and Eastern European immigrants at the start of the 20th century, there was a concerted effort by social scientists advising the Great War call up to use group nudity, bay living, rows of toilets, etc, to break down the individualism of American men in favor of the collective. Of course, this has value in breaking the individual for submission to military orders and devotion to the unit as well. This was continued as phys ed was incorporated in the progressive education and in the follow-on wars and drafts.

Slowly, the norm of individualism, at least in body, has returned, even as the schools concentrated on breaking individualist thinking and promoting thought conformance to the collective.

Once they've seen the virtues of liberty how are you going to keep them broken to the State?

Given the limits of the possible and the need to save money for more vital wartime needs I don't think any more ersatz explanation is needed for the lack of privacy among soldiers. Even today that's still largely true, although the presence of female personnel has had some effect on the old style communal facilities. But if you could back to, say, the Civil War you would have found soldiers bathing together and using open latrine trenches.

I wonder what you would think of a typical German sauna, which does not normally even have separate dressing areas for men and women (why would they? - everyone is going to be nude together anyways).

Would you think that the women undressing (or dressing, for that matter) in front of you are doing it as a performance for you?

I have to agree with RP Long on this one - your framework says much more about you than anything else.

However, if a normal German sauna visitor (male or female) saw you using a towel to cover yourself while dressing/undressing, they just might wonder what you were performing at.

Seems like there might be something of a disconnect between the frequency for Baby Boomers and the articles -- which presumably focuses on younger people (or is really mis-titled).

That said, just how reliable is the data for the generations before the baby boomers?

Vastly better than anything modern. Prior to the pill and legalized abortion we could much more easily track population levels of sexual activity with the birth rate.

Yes people could time their sexual activity to avoid births, but when the population reported an increase or decrease in sexual activity in say 1954, you could look at the birth rate of 1955 and see how truthful they were being.

The correlation between changes in sexual activity and changes in birth rate unraveled in the 70s and is basically gone now.

Losing the ability to check changes with the birth register makes data accuracy far harder today.

Having sex two vs. three times a week, in the absence of contraceptives, has so little effect on the birth rate that even an undergraduate would not try to put that in a research paper.

Really, do tell. At what point does it show up?

In reality it has a major impact, absent active contraception. Per cycle chances of conception are highest with intercourse the day before ovulation. On this day they are roughly double the chances of 3 days prior or one day post. An average sampling of twice per week means you have about a 25% chance of missing the peak fertility window. A random sampling three times a week means you have a 7% chance of missing the peak fertility window. Net gain is ~10% per cycle. This compounds over multiple cycles.

And in reality this gets worse. Average rates are typically lower than 2 so you have a much larger effect. Times are also much more likely to be on the weekend for the first two so moving to a third is an even larger increase in hitting ovulation.

So please show me your data or calculations.

Because I really want to know how much change it takes to explain the Christmas conception bump. Even today there is a 33% increase in December conception rates compared to average and a still statistically significant increase compared to January or November. We see this increase in teenagers, fertility treatment couples, and basically every demographic. Exactly how much more sex do you believe people are having during Christmas?

And conversely, August has a large drop in conceptions. How much less sex do you think is happening in August due to being outdoors or on vacation?

A couple that has sex either two or three times a week over an extended period without protection will eventually get pregnant. The limitation on the birth rate among sexually active couples is the nine month gestation period. What really limits the birth rate are people who have sex very rarely or not at all, or who always use contraception. I do not have to be a sex researcher to use some common sense and draw obvious conclusions, which are along the lines of if I play on the freeway I will eventually get hit by a car.

My second sentence should have included "who do not use contraception." PLEASE ADD AN EDIT FUNCTION

The putting on underwear under a towel thing is probably related to increased acceptance/awareness of homosexuality.
Other guys/girls in locker rooms might be gay. Displaying your naked body in the awareness that other people might be aroused by it is a form of advertising. If one doesn't wish to advertise, one covers one's body. It doesn't need to be homophobic - just a shift in perceptions of what nakedness signals. A generation ago, nakedness signaled that you understood yourself to be among people who were NOT sexually interested in you. Now it signals that you might be sexually interested in them.

'The putting on underwear under a towel thing is probably related to increased acceptance/awareness of homosexuality.'

Maybe - Metafilter has certainly bandied that idea about over the past decade or so. And it is definitely true that in the 70s, all males in high school in Northern Virginia showered naked, which was completely normal (and subject to being disciplined when not being done - though this might have been a bit of a military aspect too). I have heard that females in a North American high school were not as rigorously treated in this fashion.

'Displaying your naked body in the awareness that other people might be aroused by it is a form of advertising.'

This, however, is a North American perspective.

'If one doesn't wish to advertise, one covers one's body.'

Or instead, one simply accepts the idea that nudity is not an advertisement, it merely means one is unclothed, whether at a public sauna or public nude lake/beach.

'Now it signals that you might be sexually interested in them.'

This is completely beyond my ken - you mean when I take off my sweaty athletic clothes to shower, dry myself off, then get dressed, I am indicating that I might be sexually interested in whoever else might be around? No offense, but that makes no sense.

Mores change, of course, but this perspective just seems completely foreign.

I'm not applying any judgement about whether it's good or bad, here. Or whether people should think that nudity signals potential sexual interest.

The thing is that it doesn't matter if you think it should signal sexual interst. If you think other people might think it does you may choose not to send what you believe other people might interpret as a signal of interest.

In other words, lets say that locker rooms are commonly regarded as a place where gay guys/girls can check out eachothers bods. If you THINK that's what other people think, you're going to modify your behavior to avoid sending what you think are signals of interest.

'If you think other people might think it does you may choose not to send what you believe other people might interpret as a signal of interest. '

Being nude is simply not wearing clothes.

'In other words, lets say that locker rooms are commonly regarded as a place where gay guys/girls can check out eachothers bods.'

Well, in a German sauna dressing room (or the sauna itself, obviously), everyone can 'check out' everyone. And in that case, it is not the nudity that effects 'signals of interest,' it is actual signals of interest, exactly the same as if one were clothed.

This idea that nudity, in and of itself, is always sexual seems to have been massively internalized by younger North Americans at this point. Which is another subject, admittedly.

Cultural practices vary. There is no right or wrong here.

People are having less sex for the same reason I cut right to the comments on an MR post: lots of options.

The decline in marriage is likely the biggest culprit. Married people have sex more often.

My hypothesis: it has nothing to do with xenoestrogens or Internet porn or Tinder or any esoteric explanation like that.

The great fallacy here is to assume that the distribution of sex drives naturally skews more towards the hornier end of the spectrum than it actually does.

I'd expect that the prevalence of low libido has always been quite high, but in the past, for fairly obvious social/cultural reasons (early marriage, small communities, etc), the aggregate amount of sex being had was significantly higher than the aggregate amount of sex being desired.

Nowadays, due to e.g. better sex education, larger communities with weaker social ties, and greater cultural respect for individual autonomy, people with lower-than-average libido are under less pressure to have sex, and are adjusting their consumption of sex accordingly.

This could perhaps also explain why homosexuals are still apparently having lots of sex: there's increased cultural/social pressure to have sex in the gay community both because it's smaller (so stronger ties) and because sex is strongly tied to gay identity. A low-libido gay person might therefore feel slightly more of an cultural imperative to have sex than a low-libido straight person.

Are you different from both Joel and Attila Smith?

That sounds very reasonable.

So, normalizing sex results in less of it, but we should still actively discourage alcohol and drug use? (85% facetious)

The only married couple I can recall ever been portrayed as physically attracted to each other in US television were Gomez and Morticia Addams.

Lucy and Ricky (The Lucille Ball show), The Jeffersons, Mad About You, The Brady Bunch, Little House on the Prarie, Bewitched, Family Ties, etc.

Not familiar with most of them, but the parents in the Brady Bunch count as physically attracted to each other? I'm not saying that they were as lacking in chemistry as two noble gases in separate jars at opposite ends of a laboratory, but compared to Gomez and Mortica they may as well have been.

I see people blaming obesity for the decline in sex. Well, sex is down in Japan as well and they're a lot thinner on average than Americans. Their culture is also less puritanical than in the US. But the tool kit that is used to transmit middle class class values has won and that is opposed to helping young people have a sexy time.

In my country sex is viewed as something working class people engage in and the are looked down upon it. In the United States perhaps you can substitute black people as the group instead of working class as the "other" that is looked down on. Young people are taught that self control is the most highly regarded of virtues. And sex, or at least good sex, is the opposite of that.

We have a biological drive to have sex, but we also have a biological drive to eat food loaded with sugar and fat and salt. Junk food in other words. But now that we can afford to eat as much of that as we want, most of us don't and we look down on those who have difficulty controlling their appetites. So just as our society helps us to control our appetites and defeat our desire to eat junk, it also encourages us to control our sexual appetites and defeat our desire to have sex.

I pretty much think all of this is later, lower marriage and relationship formation rates, and relatively high divorce rates at older ages. Sex frequency differences tend to majorly be driven by difference's between people in relationships and out of them, I find in survey data. Sorry people with "sexier" hypotheses!

Drivers for that probably most economic and legal - marriage relatively more expensive for males and female, divorce relatively cheaper or stable. Plus some spillover when long term singledom becomes more of a new normal.

It's true that this stuff was going on earlier during the "sexual revolution", but I think at that point there was probably more margin in people who were having less sex than they'd like that social effects from later and lesser and weaker relationship formation weren't as important.

Too much estrogen in the environment. See how much less sperm many fish have, and many men have. Thus, far fewer genuine Alpha-males, hitting less on women.

Men with too much estrogen have less sex drive; so push for less sex, and especially less sex before marriage. Most women have long wanted less sex before marriage, and more "relationship". Women are getting more of what they've been claiming they want more of.

Part of the #MeToo movement is a reaction against being sex objects.

Part of it is likely related to ... so many women getting less good treatment than previously because they don't get an "attractive sex object" premium treatment. They're just one more of the "guys".

I will mention is sex is normally portrayed as being pleasurable in US culture but this is not universal. Some cultures view sex more as a drive that has to be satisfied rather than something intrinsically enjoyable. Personally, I would not describe the sensations of sex to be particularly pleasurable, but I find it relieves the pain of not having sex. I don't know if this is the result of my cultural and religious upbringing or something that is common among humans and suppressed by United States culture.

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