Less sex? What? Surely not. Like many others I shared this news with, you might be surprised and slightly sceptical to hear this. How can it be true when apps like Tinder, Grindr and Bumble offer the prospect of casual sex within the hour, when pornography consumption is at an all-time high and when sexual wellness companies seem to be thriving? What about the baby boomers who ushered in a new era of sexual liberation some 30 years ago? Have they also lost their desire for sex?
Studies conducted across multiple countries and all ages demonstrate that in the last decade, there have been declines in all forms of partnered sexuality. This led Kate Julian, in an article in The Atlantic, to warn people that we are in, what she coined, a “sex recession”. Researchers and commentators suspect it is for a number of reasons and most of them aren’t good. So, what’s going on and why the decline?
what the stats are telling us
Between 2009 and 2018, the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behaviour found that in the United States, the proportion of adolescents reporting no sexual activity rose from 28.8 per cent to 44.2 per cent among males and 49.5 per cent to 74 per cent among females. Another study showed that one in three men aged 18–24 reported no sexual activity in 2018—a surprising statistic considering how easy online dating makes it look.
Jean M Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, confirmed these statistics and discovered that adults, married and unmarried, were also engaging in sex less often, with the average adult having sex on average 62 times a year in 1990 compared to 54 times a year in 2014.
The United States isn’t alone. The United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and Japan have also observed similar declines over time in every partnered sexual behaviour. The National Fertility Survey of Japan found an increase in those aged 18–39 reporting having never had sex with someone of the opposite sex, and 42 per cent of unmarried men and 44 per cent of unmarried women said they had never had sex by the age of 35. In the United Kingdom, The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle found that the frequency of sex has declined in the past decade, particularly for those aged 16–44 years old, more so among married participants between the ages of 35 and 44. From 2005–2016, sexual activity declined for men and women of all ages, mainly due to fewer people cohabitating with a partner.
why the decline?
Many theories are flying around amongst researchers and commentators as to the cause of the decline. Of them, these are the most popular:
Digital distractions. Although the internet should theoretically make it easier to find sexual partners, social media, television and electronic gaming are distracting people from developing real-life interactions. Statistics from as recently as 2023 revealed that globally, people are averaging 6 hours and 58 minutes of screen time per day, with social media taking up approximately 2 hours and 27 minutes of that.
Rise in mental health problems. Depression and anxiety have increased worldwide, affecting people’s confidence and motivation to socialise.
Delayed adulthood. Not only are young people these days having sex less, they’re also having it later. Statistics show that young people are doing a lot later: dating, moving out of home, getting a paid job, having children and so on.
Physical insecurities. Young people today are struggling more than any other generation with body image issues due to the proliferation of “picture-perfect” people in the media, making them feel self-conscious and preventing many from feeling comfortable enough to have sex.
Self-pleasure. Over the decade, pornography has become far easier to access and masturbation and self-pleasure have drastically increased. In Japan, there has been a surge in services that make masturbation more enjoyable to the point that young people are describing sex with partners as mendokusai, meaning “tiring”.
Other common speculations for the decline include: economic insecurity; increasingly busy lives; and toxins in our environment playing havoc with our hormones and making us desire sex less.
But it’s not all negative. Researchers from The Journal of Marriage and Family stated that one of the most significant factors for the decline was the decrease in alcohol consumption, which can be associated with disinhibition.
sex and God
Christians have different views on sexuality compared to the wider culture. In the Bible, we see that God’s vision of sex is between a male and a female within a marriage. Genesis 2:24 gives us a picture of how God meant for sex to look: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The word “one flesh” in Hebrew is echad—it is the bonding between two people at the deepest parts of their being—it’s physical and spiritual, body and soul. Inside a committed marriage, God calls sex a “good” and “beautiful” thing.
In response, we may consider this decline (especially amongst the young and unmarried) a blessing; a miracle even. However, as we can see, the decline is not due to a purified generation that has suddenly become sex-averse outside of marriage; nor is it a sign of a generation doing an exceptional job of harnessing self-control. Rather, it is a continuum of a lack of connection and a breakdown of relationships of almost every kind. That is, perhaps, the biggest problem of them all and is what has researchers around the world concerned.
Statistics also show that people are struggling to date, form meaningful friendships, feel a part of a community, find a life partner and create a family compared to adolescents in previous decades. The proliferation of dating apps has made finding a partner seem like an easier task. But a study done on Tinder showed that for every 57 matches, there was just one meet-up (that’s less than two per cent of matches resulting in an in-person meeting). For about every five meet-ups, only one sexual event occurred.
For many young people these days, the idea of being in a healthy, stable and sexually healthy long-term relationship has come to seem like both a privilege and a rarity of sorts. In her book, The Lonely Century, economist Noreena Hertz describes “a world that’s pulling apart” in which increasing rates of social isolation and digital distractions are threatening our relationships. She, too, commented on the sexual decline, saying that it was a symptom of a much broader “loneliness epidemic”.
hardwired for connection
God created us for closeness and hardwired us physically, emotionally and spiritually for connection. We crave it right from the moment we are born; not just occasionally, but as part of our day-in, day-out lives. Yet as a generation we have seemingly broken every loneliness record. These statistics should raise concerns for all of us, irrespective of what boat we sit in regarding our sexual beliefs, because it points to a world that feels more isolated, insecure, distracted and disconnected than ever.
Of course, we should continue to have conversations about what healthy sexuality looks like, help young people foster healthy long- term relationships and uphold our own standards to God’s design. But more than that, we must lean into each other’s lives and find ways to form the kind of deep, meaningful connections we were created for—a solution that is not so simple and takes time and effort—but a direction we must commit to and work towards. We can’t just sit around and wait for these connections to find us or create themselves. As author Jennie Allen said in her book, Find Your People, “We [need to] learn to come together—showing up, speaking up, and calling each other up to a new way of life—instead of defiantly pulling ourselves apart.”
Zanita Fletcher is an assistant editor for Signs of the Times. She writes from the Gold Coast, Queensland.