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The many reasons that people are having less sex

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The average sex life appears to be dwindling – and it may reflect some troubling anxieties at the heart of modern society, says Simon Copland.

We live in one of the most sexually liberated times of human history. Access to new technologies over the past 40 years, whether it is the contraceptive pill, or dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder, have opened a new world of possibilities. As the sexual revolution of the 1970s matured, societal norms shifted with it, with increasing acceptance of homosexuality, divorce, pre-marital sex, and alternative relationships such as polyamory and swinging.

Despite this, research suggests that we’re actually having less sex now than we have for decades.

In March, American researchers Jean Twenge, Ryne Sherman and Brooke Wells published an article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior showing that  Americans were having sex on average nine fewer times per year  in the early 2010s compared to the late 1990s – a 15% drop from 62 times a year to just 53. The declines were similar across gender, race, region, educational level and work status, with married people reporting the most significant drops.

While it could be easy to dismiss this as a one-off, or a symptom of the challenges of researching people’s sex lives, this is another point in a growing trend across the world. In 2013,  the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) found  that British people between ages 16 and 44 had sex just under five times per month. This was a drop from the previous survey, released in 2000, where men were recorded to have sex 6.2 times a month, and women 6.3 times. In 2014  the Australian National Survey of Sexual Activity showed  that people in heterosexual relationships were having sex on average 1.4 times per week, down from 1.8 times 10 years earlier. The situation is perhaps most severe in Japan,  where recent data has shown  that 46% of women and 25% of men between the ages of 16 and 25 ‘despise’ sexual contact.

Why is this happening?

While there are many simple conclusions available, BBC Future dug deeper and found a situation that is quite complex.

Porn blame

An easy first conclusion to make is that increased access to technology is to blame. Two technologies are usually targeted: online pornography and social media.

With the growth of online pornography, researchers have focused on its addictive potential, with  some trying to label ‘internet sex addiction’ as an official psychiatric disorder. As an addiction, it is argued that porn acts as a replacement for real-life sex, limiting our sexual desire in the bedroom.

Porn is also blamed for its unrealistic imagery, with researchers arguing this can create symptoms such as  ‘sexual anorexia’, or  ‘porn induced sexual dysfunction’. In 2011,  a survey of 28,000 porn viewers in Italy  found that many engaged in an “excessive” consumption of porn sites. The daily use of porn, researcher Carlo Foresta argued, means that these people became inured to “even the most violent” images. According to this theory, these unrealistic images found in porn make it difficult for men in particular to get aroused when encountering the real thing,  resulting in them becoming ‘hopeless’ in the bedroom.

Some researchers have even argued there is a link between porn and marriage rates.  In a study in 2014, researchers Michael Malcolm and George Naufal surveyed 1,500 participants in the United States to analyse how 18 to 35 year-olds used the internet, and what impact this had on their romantic lives. The results, published in the Eastern Economic Journal, found a strong correlation between high levels of internet use and low marriage rates, a factor that was even more significant for men who viewed online pornography on a regular basis.

And it’s not just pornography. Social media in particular has been blamed as a distraction, with people obsessing over their screens instead of their sexual lives. This is an extension of research  that previously suggested having a TV in a couple’s bedroom significantly reduces sexual activity.  It would make sense that the intrusion of social media devices into all aspects of our lives could have a similar effect.

But there are good reasons to question both of these conclusions. Researchers are split on the impact of pornography on our sexual lives,  with many debating the existence of ‘internet sex addiction’ in the first place. Others  have noted the potential for pornography to enhance sexual activity. For example,  in 2015 an article in the journal Sexual Medicine  found that watching at least 40 minutes of porn at least twice a week boosted people’s libido and desire to have sex. This study tested the libido of 280 men measured against their use of pornography. The research found a strong correlation between the amount of time spent viewing porn and the desire to have sex, with those who watched over two hours of porn per week having the highest levels of arousal. These results were noted as well by Twenge, Sherman and Wells in their research, who, despite finding overall drops in sexual activity, found no difference in sexual activity amongst those who frequently watched pornography.

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