People are having less sex, and the decline is being seen among younger adults, particularly men.
The trend may have more to do with the internet and dating apps than morality, fear of pregnancy, or easy access to porn.
About 1 in 3 men ages 18 to 24 years reported no sexual activity in the past year, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open.
Between 2000-2002 and 2016-2018, past-year sexual inactivity rose from almost 19 percent to almost 31 percent among men ages 18 to 24, according to researchers led by Dr. Peter Ueda, a postdoctoral researcher at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden.
Sexual inactivity among women of the same age remained relatively constant, rising from 15 percent to 19 percent over the same time period.
The study also found that sexual activity declined significantly among men and women ages 25 to 34 years old (7 percent versus 14 percent among men, 7 percent versus 12 percent among women).
Sexual activity did not decline among adults ages 35 to 44 years old.
Fewer adults also reported having sex weekly or more frequently.
Unmarried, low-income, and unemployed or part-time employed men were more likely to have had no sex within the past year than those who were married, had higher income, or had jobs.
“It seems like in the U.S. and elsewhere, it might be harder for a proportion of the population to establish themselves in society, in the labor market, and perhaps also in the dating market,” Ueda told Healthline.
The study also found that even among people who were having sex, frequency has declined.
“While the mean sexual frequency among those who were sexually active may reflect their priorities and preferences, sexual inactivity may reflect an absence of sexually intimate relationships, with substantially different implications for individuals and society,” Ueda said.
The findings were drawn from the responses of 4,291 men and 5,213 women who took part in the U.S. General Social Survey between 2000 and 2018.
In a commentary accompanying the survey results, Jean M. Twenge, PhD, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, said that similar declines in sexual activity have been shown in surveys conducted in Great Britain, suggesting that the trend isn’t limited to the United States.
Twenge said that young adults may be having less sex because they’re taking longer to progress to adulthood.
“This includes the postponement of not just sexual activity but also other activities related to mating and reproduction, including dating, living with a partner, pregnancy, and birth,” she said. “However, these reproductive trends have not occurred in isolation; instead, they are part of a broader cultural trend toward delayed development. For example, adolescents in the 2010s were also less likely to drive, drink alcohol, go out without their parents, and work at paid jobs compared with adolescents in previous decades.”
“It’s not just young men who are having less sex than a generation ago, it’s young women, too,” said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, a research professor at Clark University in Massachusetts and originator of the theory of “emerging adulthood” — defined as the time from the end of adolescence to the beginning of young-adult responsibilities such as a stable job, marriage, and parenthood.
“It’s part of an overall trend toward less risky behavior since 1990, including not only sex but alcohol use, risky driving, and criminal activity,” Dr. Arnett told Healthline.
Porn probably isn’t the problem, added Twenge, since research shows that pornography users are actually more sexually active.
Rather, she suggested, the vast entertainment options offered by the internet and digital media as a whole may be distracting young people from developing real-life relationships.
“Although internet sites and social media should theoretically make it easier to find new sexual partners, time spent online has also displaced time once spent on face-to-face social interaction,” Twenge said.
“Between the 24-hour availability of entertainment and the temptation to use smartphones and social media, sexual activity may not be as attractive as it once was. Put simply, there are now many more choices of things to do in the late evening than there once were and fewer opportunities to initiate sexual activity if both partners are engrossed in social media, electronic gaming, or binge-watching.”
Nancy Sutton Pierce, a clinical sexologist, told Healthline that decades-long decline in male testosterone levels also may play a role in sexual inactivity, and that the #MeToo movement also may be playing a part.
“Women are more empowered to say both yes and no and intolerant of coercion and forced sex,” Dr. Pierce said.
She added that fewer unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases might be some of the positive benefits associated with declining sexual activity.
Quarantines and physical distancing mandates associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to make sexual inactivity even more common, at least in the short term.
“If the increase in sexual inactivity is partly driven by unemployment and lower income, the economic downturn will certainly not make it better,” Ueda said.
“Lockdown and concern for disease transmission may also not be an optimal situation for finding partners,” he added.
“I think the whole world is less sexual because of COVID,” Pierce said.
The findings also may have implications beyond sexuality.
“A key question is to what extent sexual inactivity is associated with dissatisfaction,” said Ueda. “While being sexually inactive is a choice for some individuals, it could be a source of distress for others.”
“Sexual inactivity and potential dissatisfaction with it seem to be sensitive topics, perhaps more so than sex,” he added. “While much work has been done to promote a frank and nuanced discussion about sex and sexual activity, it would be in our best interest to also be better at talking about not having sex. We need to improve the public discussion regarding this topic.”
Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH, a sex and relationships researcher and director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky, told Healthline that while the study bases sexual inactivity on the survey question, “About how often did you have sex during the last 12 months?,” it does not provide a clear definition of sex.
“Some participants may have interpreted the terms have sex and sex partners using a definition of vaginal intercourse (or sex partners as referring only to relational partners), whereas others may have considered sex to include oral sex or mutual masturbation,” said Ueda.
“It’s possible that young men are having less penis-in-vagina intercourse but not actually engaging in less sexual activity,” Dr. Mark said. “So one of the potential explanations for a perceived decline in sexual activity is actually an increase in sexual diversity and acceptance of sexual variety.”
Cyndi Darnell, a clinical sexologist and sex therapist, agreed.
“While heteronormative assumptions of what constitutes so-called real sex remain the defining feature of sex, we omit all the other kinds of things people enjoy as sex,” Darnell told Healthline. “If we include sex with other genders, masturbation, oral sex, and anal sex, I am not sure the stats would say young men are having less sex. Perhaps they’d say young men are having more sex that’s pleasure-focused rather that replaying heteronormative scripts.”