Are we really living through a ‘sex recession’?

Originally published by Drugstore Culture, December 2018

Justin Bieber and Hayley Baldwin, who were famously celibate before their marriage

Too much porn. Too much screen-time. Too much anxiety. Too little alcohol. There are myriad theories as to why younger millennials (aged 18 to 29, and in some cases older) aren’t having as much sex as their parents. But none of them seems to get to the nub of the issue that is driving their elders oh-so-insensibly wild: most recently in response to a long and much-discussed article in the Atlantic by Kate Julian on the so-called ‘sex recession’.

I’ve been writing about sex and relationships for some years now, and it’s become evident to me that anxiety about sex – who is having it, when and why – is, culturally and politically, at a ten-year high. Foucault famously re-interpreted the Victorians’ excessive discussion of sex and all its ills as the opposite of the censoriousness that was its official face: strict public conventions masked private libidinousness and transgression.

Today, it is the other way round. The etiquette manuals of old proclaimed that chastity and modesty made for good citizens; whereas, in the early 21st Century, we fret publicly that the next generation aren’t having enough sex, and that this may be, in all sorts of ways, bad for them and for society.

First, let’s look at the phenomenon itself. Yes, young people are, in theory, afforded greater opportunities than ever to have casual sex, thanks to the algorithms of Tinder and comparable apps. Yet, as the leading relationship anthropologist Helen Fisher points out, the majority of sex is still had by couples – and younger people today are taking longer to form relationships.

More subtly: is it possible that the greater freedom to have different kinds of sex with different kinds of people, openly and without difficulty, is, at some psychological level, a turn-off?

Kate Moyle, whose beautifully-curated Instagram feed ‘Kate Moyle Therapy’ injects sound expertise into an airy platform best-known for its fashion focus and filtered images, detects the following unintended consequence of greater sexual freedom: ‘There is more sexual anxiety present for young people. We are more worried about the consequences of things not going right or being perfect, rather than being open to seeing how things go in a way that is different to generations before. Sex is everywhere for us to see at any time and is accessible – which means we are constantly comparing ourselves to others.’

With social media, of course, comes a new but often pitiless form of judgment. As Emma Kenny, the in-house psychologist at the upscale sex party company, Killing Kittens, explains: ‘Sex used to be a fun activity that happened between you, your lucky date and perhaps one or two of your mates in your circle of trust. These days, however, young adults have spent their entire childhoods with access to smartphones, and you would have to be either dead or living in a cave to not have had some experience of social shaming, either personally, or through a friend’s eyes to see how what was once a private affair, is now potentially public domain. Millennials are less likely, to drink, take drugs, or have sex underage than ever before and whilst we could theorise that they may simply be more sensible than any previous generation, the likelihood is they are simply more fearful of sexual consequences on a social level.’ (Full disclosure: I have done consultancy work for Killing Kittens on communications strategy).

And then there’s porn. As some studies and many politicians (including the Women and Equalities Select Committee report published this October) have concluded, internet porn is damaging young people’s sexual self-esteem. But I think it’s also important to say that their exposure to it has partly desensitised them to its true, and potentially healthy purpose.

Porn now wends its way into social media and instant messaging in a way that is not only arousing but also simply a way to fill time, to provoke or to amuse (as Professor Clarissa Smith of the University of Sunderland has pointed out, sharing explicit clips is a form of social bonding for many youngsters, or a means of establishing group hierarchy). Ministers worry (unduly) that young people merely mimic what they see online with one another – although it worth nothing that, according to a report from the Children’s Commissioner, this extent of this digital-to-real-life emulation varies greatly from country to country). But politicians tend to give less thought to the possibility that just as many youthful consumers – both girls and boys – may instead feel paralysed and ostracised by what they view.

Bear in mind that our current programme of sex education has not been updated for more than 18 years. Alternative, ethical porn – the kind that focuses on personal pleasure, mutual arousal, and shifts its focus from orgasm to connection – is a growing genre but far from dominant. In this context, many young people are, quite understandably, asking: ‘If this is sex, do I even want it?’

As for those that report positive experiences associated with porn, a rapid research assessment conducted by Middlesex University found that they tend to be driven by curiosity, an interest in enhanced sexual knowledge and erotic inspiration. The same study also found that if its subjects were acquiring this information elsewhere, they might not look at porn in the first place. Before the internet, when my generation was anxious about whether we were doing it right, we were pretty much restricted to consulting Nancy Friday or the Kama Sutra, or (better yet) simply to asking the people we slept with – which any sex therapist will tell you is exactly what successful pleasure depends upon.

There is also the thorny question of when and were young people are meant to find the physical and psychic space and time to have sex . According to the Office for National statistics, one in four 20-to-34 year olds is living at home. it’s impossible to exaggerate the impact this social shift – accompanied by increased levels of flat-sharing in poorer conditions – has had on young people’s freedom to be intimate.

Many also now find themselves living in much more cramped conditions than those in which they grew up. Yes, there are plenty of people around the world who live at incredibly close quarters and are not remotely deterred from having sex. But this hasn’t been the norm for our millennials; and whilst corridor-creeping might have been a teen rite of passage for previous generations, today’s young people have a much keener sense of personal boundaries and need for personal space. This has more to do with their generational mores than a sense of entitlement.

Baby-boomers often accuse so-called ‘snowflake’ millennials of being lazy and having immediate expectations for life after school that are much too grandiose. But such glib assertions are very distant from reality. University, once a time for unfettered ‘sexploration’ away from prying parental eyes has become a time of acute anxiety: diabolical student fee increases; fears about post-graduation employment, and the increased necessity for students to squash is as many unpaid internships as possible, before they’ve even handed in their dissertations, to give them a fighting chance of getting a job.

Nearly 60 per cent of all undergraduate students work a minimum of 20 hours a week on top of their studies (UCAS recommends no more than 15, and Oxford University bans students entirely from working during term time apart from ‘in exceptional circumstances’). Meanwhile the number of students simultaneously working full-time and studying is on the rise: the Guardian reported last year that some were even turning to foodbanks to survive.

Young adults in peak physical health are still not immune to dog tiredness. Add in the evidence that, according to Action from Children, one in three young people suffers from insomnia, depressive thoughts, or an inability to concentrate and feeling motivated, and it’s obvious why satisfying your sexual urges may not be, for many, the top priority. This kind of preoccupation and incipient mental illness is the enemy of libido.

All the same, it would be a big mistake to assume that sex is dying among young people or that their generation is in the grip of anything as dramatic as a ‘sex recession’: talk to the new ‘sextrepreneurs’ – those designing new pleasure products and refined condoms – and they will tell you that business amongst consumers in the millennial age group is booming. Why would people who are having less sex be investing in items designed to expand their pleasure?

‘My interpretation would be that people are actually shouting less about their sexual conquests -perhaps because it is not seen as “cool” anymore especially amongst the young Gen Zers [those born from the mid 90s to 2000s] we talk to,” say Farah Kabir, who, along with sexual health doctor Sarah Welsh, founded the luxury vegan condom brand Hanx in 2016.

STIs are on the rise (across generations), not because people are having more sex but because sexual health services have been cut so savagely. But Hanx is optimistic about the quality rather than the quantity of sex that millennials are having – as is indeed suggested by the sell-out sex salons that the company runs, and the kinds of questions the participants ask – particularly the women.
Emma Sayle, the founder of Killing Kittens, agrees. ‘Rather than celibacy syndrome being a global crisis perhaps it’s a sign that girls, in particular, are deciding when they want to have sex. Women are very much the ones calling the shots most of the time now – I’ve built an empire on this fact, after all – and are now very comfortable saying ‘no’. Plus there is no longer this whole “got to find a husband and have babies in my twenties” expectation. Maybe people are having less sex because they are simply focused on other things that enrich their lives.’

The message that women are seeking ‘enrichment’ away from the bedroom does not seem to have got through to men. At a recent Salon London talk, former Ipsos MORI Director and current Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, Bobby Duffy asked the audience to guess how much sex young men thought young women were having. Their answer, to great collective laughter, was approximately four-fold the real figure.

All of which suggests to me that, with apologies to the Atlantic, we’re not really in the middle of a ‘sex recession’ at all. That is much too reductive an analysis. Yes, there is a whole host of pressures bearing down upon young people that are not ideal for those seeking erotic self-fulfilment and exploration. And yes digital technology is in this, as in every other area, a game-changer.

But the broader context is more subtle, and more interesting: society is in transition. We stand at the threshold of a new kind of sexual expression and connection. Nobody has meaningfully quantified whether people 50 years ago were happier with their sex lives, after all. And maybe young women – and reluctantly, young men – are starting to be more honest about the sex they were never having in the first place. What looks like a recession is in fact nothing more than the arrival of statistical transparency.

More to the point: we are expanding the very definition of sex. Penetration by the penis is no longer the endgame of every heterosexual encounter, or even the focus; and sexual preference is self-evidently becoming more fluid, especially among young people. We are not as preoccupied by the ‘cumshot’ as mainstream pornography suggests. We are becoming more open to the limitless pleasures that our minds and bodies and smartphones have to offer, a gradual but comprehensive re-definition of what it means to be sexual: less a recession, in other words, and more of a renaissance.

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