Is America in a “sex recession?”
Researchers have observed for years that despite America’s increasingly permissive views on sexual morality, young people appear to be having less sex today than did previous generations.
In the last year, it’s become common in some corners even to say that a sex slowdown among Americans is the result of pandemic fatigue. There might be some truth to that, but it doesn’t explain the whole story. Nor does increasing social isolation, or the ubiquity of pornography.
In fact, one element of the sex recession might come as a surprise: Data shows that part of the “sex recession” may well be a religious choice on the part of some young people — that those who identity as religious may be living out their stated religious principles to a greater extent than did young people in previous decades.
Love and marriage (and sex)
The General Social Survey has since 1989 asked respondents about whether they have had sex within the last year. From 1989 to 1998, an average of 9% of adults 18 to 35 reported that they had not had sex within the last year. From 2014 to 2021, that percentage has increased modestly, to 14%.
And despite reports of “pandemic fatigue,” the rate of young adults who said in 2021 that had not had sex within a year was nearly unchanged from previous surveys, in 2016 and 2018.
According to Lyman Stone at the Institute of Family Studies, one reason why young people might be having less sex is that fewer of them are married. From 1989 to 1998, an average 43% of GSS respondents aged 18 to 35 were married, while from 2012 to 2021, that number was only 32%.
While television might celebrate the romantic adventures of the single life, in practical terms it’s hardly surprising that married people have sex significantly more often than those who are not married.
What’s porn got to do with sex?
Leaving married people aside, the GSS data shows that an increasing number of even among never-married adults between 18 and 35 are not having sex.
Seventeen percent of never-married 18 to 35-year-olds were not having sex in the 1990s. In the early 2000s it was 16%. But in the 2014 to 2021 surveys, 21% of never-married young adults reported having had no sex in the last year.
Some analysts have proposed that the near-ubiquity of pornography on the internet has discouraged some people from pursuing real-life sexual relationships.
But in fact, the number of those who report having no sex within a year has been on the rise in recent years among both viewers and non-viewers of pornography, and a higher share of never-married people who do not watch pornography also say they do not have sex.
Over the last decade, roughly half of never-married GSS respondents between 18 and 35 said they had viewed pornography within a year of being asked.
Among unmarried pornography viewers between 18-35, an average of 14% since 2014 have said they had not sex within a year. Among people in the same demographic who said they did not watch pornography, 30% said they had not had sex within the last year.
Those answers suggest that viewing pornography does not decrease people’s likelihood of having premarital sex, and that there is some common factor between avoiding pornography and avoiding premarital sex.
Two questions on the General Social Survey did show a divergence on sexual frequency among unmarried young adults.
One such question asks about the morality of premarital sex.
In the last decade, an average 68% of young adults have responded that premarital sex is never wrong, while 32% say that sex before marriage is sometimes or always wrong. The percentage who believe premarital sex is wrong has been decreasing over time. In the 1990s, 47% believed sex before marriage was at least sometimes wrong.
In recent years, thought, a greater share of the young adults who believe that sex before marriage is wrong seem to be living out their beliefs.
In the last four surveys, 36% of never-married young adults who said that premarital sex was at least sometimes wrong had not had sex within the last year, while in the early 2000s only 25% reported not having had sex within the last year.
This was a much larger change than for the majority of young adults, who said that premarital sex was never wrong. In the early 2000s, nine percent of them reported having no sex in the last year, while from 2014 to 2021, 12% reported the same.
The other significant change was based on church attendance.
Most young adults do not report going to church frequently. From 2014 to 2021, 14% said they went to church weekly or more often, while 58% reported that they went to church once a year or less.
The number of young adults who go to church yearly or less has been increasing over the decades; in the 1990s, it was only 43%.
However, unmarried young adults who do go to church regularly seem to be avoiding premarital sex more than they were in the recent past.
From 2000 to 2006, 40% of unmarried young adults who reported going to church at least once a week said that they also had not had sex within the last year. In the 2014 to 2021 surveys, 50% of church-going young adults said they had not had sex within a year.
Among those who go to church once a year or less, the change was only from 13% to 16%.
Changes in social and moral behaviors as complex and personal as sexuality have many causes. There are doubtless many factors which are at play in the “sex recession.”
But it does appear that at least one of the factors is that among the minority of young people who are attending church regularly or who believe that sex before marriage is wrong, there is an increasing tendency for them to successfully live out their beliefs, despite the messages of a sometimes hostile culture.