Sex & Relationships

Latest Sex Hysteria: Everyone Worried Young People No Longer Having Sex (Don't Worry, They Are)

No matter how young people are doing it, they’re doing it wrong, according to the mainstream media.

No matter how young people (defined in American culture as “anyone younger than the Baby Boomers”) are doing it, they’re doing it wrong.  That’s the message I’ve been getting from the various mainstream media hysterics over young people, especially young women, and sex.  If we’re not subjected to panicked articles about a supposed surge in blow jobs or anal sex, we’re subjected to articles claiming young women aren’t getting busy enough.  As Tracy Clark-Flory chronicles at Salon, there’s been a mini-trend this year of articles claiming young and young-ish women have given up on sex, an assertion that is unsurprisingly backed up with zero statistical evidence.  Instead trend stories about sexless singles and youthful but sexless marriages rely mainly on anecdotal evidence.  

The most shocking contributor to this trend has to be Erica Jong.  Yes, the same one who made a name for herself by aligning feminism and sexual liberation.Her evidence-free claim that young women are turning their nose up to fun sexy times is coupled with a standard and typically fact-free assertion that young women also don’t care about feminism, and that our asexuality and a-feminism are intertwined.  Jong studiously ignores Slutwalks, the overwhelming show of support for Planned Parenthood, and the largely sex-positive feminist blogosphere when making her argument that young women today have abandoned both sexual liberation and feminism.  

Interestingly, a common cause tends to be cited for the competing claims that young women are doing it too much or that young women aren’t doing it enough.  In both instances, the finger points at our sex-saturated culture.  People panicking about “the hook-up culture” allege that all the sex in the media is giving young women ideas, and people panicking about the supposed sex strike tend to argue that sex saturation causes over-familiarity and boredom with sex.  Jong suggests that young women are turning their nose up to sex to reject their mothers’ freedom.  Trend articles usually invoke internet pornography and media distractions, as well, suggesting these are drawing people away from their beds and towards their digital devices.  

Is there truth to these claims that young women have had so much exposure to sex that we’ve lost interest in it? There’s a strong reason to be skeptical.   

To begin with, the claim that over-exposure to sex is causing boredom all too closely resembles conservative arguments in support of abstinence-only education.  In both views, sex, or interest in sex, is a finite resource that can be used up.  Abstinence-only materials often compare female sexuality to a rose that loses a petal every time a woman has sex with a different partner, or to a lollipop that disappears as it’s used, or to a toothbrush, which is used by one man and becomes therefore disgusting to everyone else. Most of the people writing the “women are bored with sex” articles would flinch at the comparison, but aren’t they invoking the same model of sexuality as a finite resource?  Jong suggests that the constant ability to titillate yourself online somehow makes women less interested in having actual sex, and quotes Elisa Albert saying, “Sex is overexposed. It needs to take a vacation, turn off its phone, get off the grid.”   

Once you start playing footsie with the idea that sex becomes boring once titillation is easy to access, it’s a short leap to agreeing with religious fundamentalists who insist that sex is better if tightly controlled.  

Leave it to Naomi Wolf to make the leap. She's taken to adopting pseudo-science usually peddled by right wingers to argue that heavy exposure to sexual materials makes people (in this case, men) less interested in actual sex, and she openly longs for the modesty rules of religious fundamentalists, on the grounds that depriving men of a view of women’s cleavage, legs and hair increases male longing.  Most writers peddling the “sex is boring” trend stories are unwilling to make that leap, but it’s a glimpse into where this argument is headed.   

I propose that there’s alternative---and more accurate---model to “sex is a finite resource”.  I believe sex is more like a muscle, and keeping desire strong is a matter of regularly working the muscle.  And unlike the “sex is a finite resource” model, the “sex is a muscle” model actually has evidence to support it. 

Everyone in this debate agrees that our culture is more sex-saturated than in the past.  The points of contention are whether or not people are having more or less sex, more or fewer sex partners, and whether or not they are reporting satisfaction with the sex they’re having.   

Jong claims that younger women are more eager to settle down into monogamous relationships than her generation, but actual surveys show the opposite.  In fact, a British survey shows that each subsequent generation of women has more sex partners on average than the last, and there’s no sign of this trend reversing.  In the United States, the overwhelming evidence indicates that women, far from wanting to marry young, are delaying marriage far longer than previous generations. The median age for a woman's first marriage was 20.8 in 1970, and 26.1 in 2011. In the more liberal areas of the country, where women have the most exposure to sexual liberation, the trend has not been to react negatively by marrying younger.  On the contrary, women in New York wait to marry on average until 28 and women in D.C. wait on average until 30.  

For the first time in history, more than half of American women are living without a spouse.  The 51% of women that are spouse-free are a mish-mash of sexual diversity: some cohabitating, some living as single women and playing the field, some divorced, and some creating lives that are hard to categorize.  One thing you can say is that women are definitely not reacting to their newfound freedoms by rushing towards traditional marriage.  On the contrary, women have more partners and more of their lives outside of marriage than they had in the past.   

I suppose that critics could suggest that none of this disproves the notion that women are using up their finite amount of sex at young ages, and burning out as they get older.  However, the U.S. sex census conducted by Trojan indicates that Americans are far from bored or unhappy with sex, with over three quarters of Americans claiming to be sexually satisfied.  And contrary to the claims that a little repression makes sex more exciting, the fact of the matter is that sexual satisfaction rates are high in more liberal urban areas. Nate Freeman of the Observer may believe that New York singles are too busy updating their blogs to have sex, but Trojan’s research indicates that singles have more sex on average than married people, and New Yorkers of all statuses have sex on average 114 times a year, a little over twice a week.  Not really the picture of a sex-starved city full of lonely narcissists.    

Stories about young people getting bored with sex sell not because they’re insightful or truthful in any way, but because they’re counterintuitive, with a dose of schadenfreude to help boost page views. But sometimes people act exactly how you’d imagine.  In the 21st century, sex has become less taboo and much safer, and subsequently people are going at it like it was calorie-free ice cream.