The sexual recession: An ace perspective

I’ve written many articles for various blogs, and there are a few that I published elsewhere that I wish I had also published on The Asexual Agenda. I’m going to slowly repost these here.  This article was published in 2018, responding to an article in The Atlantic from the time.

“Why are young people having so little sex?” asks the title of a new article in The Atlantic. The article is also summarized in video form. The article reports that the number of high-schoolers who have had intercourse declined from 54% to 40% in the period from 1991 to 2017. The author writes,

But now some observers are beginning to wonder whether an unambiguously good thing might have roots in less salubrious developments.

The author says the decline in sex is not just among teenagers, but among young adults too. Among people in their early 20s, 15% say they haven’t had sex since becoming adults, as compared to 6% among Gen-Xers. The author calls this a “sexual recession”. What follows is a long list of speculations about what could be causing it–be it porn, dating apps, helicopter parents, bad sex, or inhibition.

I will offer an unsympathetic, perhaps callous perspective–this being largely a straight people problem, and me being a gay ace guy. Yeah, I really don’t think this is as much of a problem as the article makes it out to be.

Flipping scripts

I’ll begin by saying that this article falls into a familiar genre, at least to me. Because I’ve read lots of articles about herbivore men in Japan. In Japanese media, talk of herbivore men might be best understood as a sort of moral panic about the younger generation, wherein the older generation complains about how young men aren’t masculine enough, and men and women are socializing with each other instead of making babies. In US media, this gets translated to “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” (actual headline). This Atlantic article is basically the same, except now the subject is young Americans instead of young Japanese people.

If you strip back the US misinterpretation, and understand what Japanese observers are actually complaining about–the younger generation refusing to conform to the restrictive gender roles of the older generation–a lot of it looks fairly absurd from a US perspective. Why is it a bad thing that men and women can sometimes be friends with each other? Why is it bad that women sometimes ask men out rather than the other way around? It looks ridiculous, because we’re looking at Japanese cultural norms that we don’t have here, so it’s obvious to us that the loss of those cultural norms is not the end of the world, and could even be a good thing.

What if we took an outsider perspective on the changes in sexual behavior in the US? Might it seem equally absurd?

Here’s one particular way to flip the script:

Why did old people have so much sex? Why is teenage pregnancy shooting through the roof (as we go backwards in time)?  What was their generation doing wrong? But now some observers are beginning to wonder if an unambiguously bad thing might have a silver lining. Maybe this means that people are using less porn, people are talking to each other at bars instead of relying on apps, parents are giving their kids more free time, and masturbation is becoming more taboo.”

The thing to realize is that there is no “normal” amount of sex for people to be having.  Young people are not having “so little sex” in absolute terms, they’re having “so little sex” in relative terms, as compared to some other group.  We could equally well say that older generations had “so much sex” relative to the younger generation.

When we take the older generation as default, this lends itself to a bunch of narratives in which young folks are doing something wrong.  But if we were to reframe the issue in an equally valid way–taking the younger generation as default–it seems more plausible to talk about how maybe there was something wrong with the older generation.  We should be suspicious of narratives that can be so easily manipulated by a simple change of framing.

A long list of concerns

This is not to say that the speculations in the article are wrong, mind you. I fully admit that I have no evidence whatsoever that the sexual recession is not related to increased discomfort with locker room nudity. Likewise, The Atlantic has no evidence whatsoever in favor of any of its speculation (except perhaps the bit about broadband internet access).

But to be fair, I think evidence-free speculation is just about the best we could ever do.  I think it’s best to read the article not as a long list of possible causes for the “sexual recession”, but as a long list of concerns and anxieties that various people have related to US dating and sex culture.  Reading it this way, I find it to be an entertaining article, despite being critical of it.

And, seriously, if dating apps are bad for us, then they’re bad for us regardless of whether they play a major role in the decline in sexual activity among young adults. If dating apps are good for us, then they’re good for us regardless of whether they cause a decline in sexual activity. The relation to sexual activity isn’t really the important bit, it’s just the article’s unifying theme.

Here are a few random bits that I’d like to comment on.

[A researcher] finds that “unpartnered gay men and unpartnered lesbians seem to have substantially more active dating lives than do heterosexuals,” a fact he attributes partly to their successful use of apps. This disparity raises the possibility that the sex recession may be a mostly heterosexual phenomenon.

So, this is the bit of the article that makes me think, yeah, this is a straight people problem alright. Gay men have some issues relating to dating apps, but the issues really aren’t equivalent.

[Herbenick] elaborated on the idea that some of the sex recession’s causes could be a healthy reaction to bad sex—a subset of people “not having sex that they don’t want to have anymore. People feeling more empowered to say ‘No thanks.’ ”

I don’t know how important this explanation is in general, but it’s the explanation that would likely resonate the most with a lot of ace people. Considering that estimates of asexuality are 1-4%, and that might not include the rest of the asexual spectrum, it’s wild to think that the fraction of Gen-Xers who didn’t have sex as young adults was only 6%. That doesn’t sound to me like everyone having sex because they’re so well-adjusted, it sounds like some people having sex because they thought it was just the thing to do. I know lots of people who have had that very experience.

Although, Herbenick’s larger argument seems to be about people experiencing painful sex, and not coming back for more. She says young people are being influenced by porn, and they just jump into sexual activities that can be painful to their partners (e.g. anal sex, choking) without planning or consent. Uh, yeah, that sounds like a problem too.  Mostly a straight people problem.

“People will be like, ‘We’re dating, we’re exclusive, but we’re not boyfriend and girlfriend.’ What does that mean?” one young woman asked, exasperated. A classmate nodded emphatically. “What does that mean? We’re in a monogamous relationship, but …” She trailed off. She trailed off. [Their professor] jumped in with a sort of relationship litmus test: “If I get the flu, are you bringing me soup?”

This is a snippet of conversation between students and a professor who teaches “Marriage 101”. To me this reads as people who are stuck within a false binary–either you have boyfriends/girlfriends, and all the things that come with that, or you have nothing at all. “Boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are social constructs, and it is possible to have other kinds of relationships without civilization collapsing.

Some 500,000 fewer American babies were born in 2017 than in 2007, even though more women were of prime childbearing age. Over the same period, the number of children the average American woman is expected to have fell from 2.1 (the so-called replacement rate, or fertility level required to sustain population levels without immigration) to 1.76. If this trend does not reverse, the long-term demographic and fiscal implications will be significant.

The falling birth rate thing is something that people also worry about in relation to declining sex, both here and in Japan. And I would say the same thing in both cases. There are plenty of immigrants knocking on our door. Declining birth rates is only really a problem from an ethnocentric (i.e. racist) perspective–it’s not really about the decline in population, it’s about the decline of the “right” population.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, Media, Sexual normativity. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The sexual recession: An ace perspective

  1. 2SpiritCherokeePrincess says:

    I think people are more aware of consent nowadays. Some encounters that would be called rape today might have been brushed off in decades past, & people didn’t talk about molestation either. Long ago I heard that alcohol was involved in half of all (American) pregnancies. When I think of the ones in female bodies too tipsy to refuse, or in male bodies too wasted to take no for an answer…things are definitely better now

  2. ettinacat says:

    “Declining birth rates is only really a problem from an ethnocentric (i.e. racist) perspective–it’s not really about the decline in population, it’s about the decline of the “right” population.”

    Exactly! Declining birth rates aren’t a big deal if you have higher immigration than emigration, unless you don’t see immigrants as being as valuable to your country as people who are born there.

  3. KaeS says:

    I feel like there are a lot of really weird ideas and mixed messages floating around with celibacy and abstinence. Some of these, I feel, are deeply ethnocentric and linked to how capitalism uses sexuality to sell products. So the reality that not-having-sex is an entirely reasonable response to life changes like the end of important relationships, death of a loved one, age, disability, or economic uncertainty gets handwaved away by the ideal that we should be having sex. And if we’re not having sex, we’re told that the endgame for our healing is becoming sexual again.

    Assuming that a lot of people want monogamy in the context of economically stable, respectful, and equitable relationships, sexual activity might be a bellwether of how other needs are not being met in our current socio-economic environment. A fair number of women my age are saying they prefer celibacy over relationships that involve significant labor and wealth disparities, a problem that’s been made worse over the last year as family care services were disproportionately affected by COVID restrictions. I think that’s a very good choice.

    But a lot of these “sexual recession” articles focus on the sex itself and treat the disruption of relationships by socio-economic pressures as a secondary consideration.

  4. Okay, so I may or may not have just wasted an hour of my life reading the original article when I totally have other things I should be doing, but my thoughts are these:
    1. My initial response to sexual recession discussions is generally confusion because I don’t really grasp why people having less sex is an issue. Perhaps that’s just me being ace, though.
    2. I don’t know what to think about her section about dating apps. I know enough about the research done on social media use and politics that “dating apps are destroying cishet people’s abilities to form functional romantic/sexual relationships” doesn’t sound impossible to me, though there’d need to be a lot more research done of the subject to confirm it. However, I would be curious to know why gay/lesbian people don’t demonstrate similar trends, which you’d think they would if the dating apps themselves were the problem. Also, how do bi/pan people fit into this?
    3. I wouldn’t term the kind of sex she’s talking about in the bad sex portion as “bad sex,” because the descriptions she gives include a lot of things I would term rape. Also I’d argue there’s a huge difference between that and unwanted “not having sex that they don’t want to have anymore. People feeling more empowered to say ‘No thanks’” sex (the latter category includes a lot of people who just realized they’re not heterosexual). Also, it occurs to me that a relatively straightforward way to fix the issue of people learning how to have sex from porn and hurting their partners would be to just…give kids better sex education to start with, but I’m just the ace in the room, what do I know about the subject? /sarcasm
    4. Also, others have pointed this out, but the whole “but the birthrate is declining!” thing is racist, especially since–while she doesn’t ever spell it out–I got the impression that this article isn’t just specifically about cishet people, it’s also about specifically white Americans.

    • Siggy says:

      However, I would be curious to know why gay/lesbian people don’t demonstrate similar trends, which you’d think they would if the dating apps themselves were the problem.

      Same-sex dating apps operate differently in a lot of ways, so it’s hard to compare. But, in my experience, gay men are constantly complaining that dating apps (which mostly function as hookup apps) are destroying people’s ability to form functional relationships. I have no opinion on whether that’s true, but it’s a thing that people say.

      • Oh, okay, that would make sense. Do you know what the differences are? Are they social (like the culture of the people using the app) or algorithmic (like whatever computer magic the app is using to make the matches)?

        • Siggy says:

          Some of the differences I was thinking about had to do with the size of the dating pool. There are fewer people in any given region, and those people might have more difficulty finding each other without a dating app. Plus you don’t have the thing where men send out lots of messages and women receive too many.

          I’m just speculating here. You had a very thoughtful comment, and I only replied to the part that I thought I had some personal insight into. But I don’t actually have that much insight…

          • That would make sense. Plus, one of the things a couple of the cishet people she interviewed mentioned was dating apps being less stressful because they already knew that everyone they match with is interested in them. I imagine that wouldn’t just be helpful, but also safer for gay and lesbian people.

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