Have we lost interest in sex?
Studies suggest that the number of sexual relations among young people is on the wane, while others warn ‘hook-up’ culture is bad for mental health
Sex is not what it used to be, at least according to a growing number of experts. Columnist Katherine Dee, for example, foresaw the arrival of a wave of “sex negativity” last year in UnHerd magazine in response to the stigmas and anxiety generated by a culture of hedonism and the idea – or fallacy, as she calls it – of free sex.
Her voice is being echoed by Christine Emba, author of Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, in which she argues that social hyper-sexualization has contributed to people feeling guilty about not having sex or ashamed of their own feelings on account of the pressure to have an “appetite that must be satisfied at all costs.”
There is not much data to support these opinions, but what does exist is compelling. In 2016, the academic journal Archives of Sexual Behavior published a study indicating that the amount of sex had by the millennial generation, at least those residing in the US, was notably less than that had by Generation X and closer to the amount enjoyed, or otherwise, by baby boomers in their youth: more than 15% of those born between 1990 and 1994 did not have sex between their 18th and 22nd birthdays, a figure that was only 6.3% for those born between 1965 to 1969 when they fell into that age bracket. In 2015, the US Center for Disease Control also noted a decline in the percentage of high school students who had had sex: 41%, down from 54% in 1991.
The Atlantic magazine dedicated a cover story to the phenomenon in 2018, dubbing it the “sex recession.” By 2020, more studies were already warning that the same was happening in the UK (according to The British Medical Journal), Switzerland (according to a consulting firm, United Mind), Japan (according to the Center for Family Planning) and Finland (according to the Population Research Institute). And it was being repeated among those belonging to Generation Z – people born after 1997 – who have been labeled puriteens, an indication that the so-called “hook-up” culture, with no strings attached, was dead, at least, culturally speaking – buried under TikTok videos encouraging celibacy. “Hook-up culture is bad for physical and mental health, and by normalizing it to such an extent, the true value of sex is lost. I’m sick of spending my time and energy on worthless hookups,” said one 22-year-old Brooklyn-based student, Sarah Kabba, in The Cut.
The fact that sex has become as easy as opening an app has led to concerns that sex and even oneself are turning into just another commodity. That is why there are analysts who believe the loss of the “hook-up” culture is no loss at all. “The ease with which we can have sex ends up detracting from the excitement and the emotional dimension is lost,” says writer Luisgé Martín, author of ¿Soy yo normal? Filias y parafilias sexuales (or, Am I Normal? Sexual Paraphilias and Philias), which argues for the right to explore desire without prejudice. “We have gone from sex without love to not being able to conceive of sex with love, and that obviously disconcerts us as human beings,” he adds. “I advocate separating sex from love, but not love from sex. You have to learn to have sex without emotional implications, but not to ignore the fact that those implications exist.”
For Christine Emba, one of the keys lies in the fact that sex has been liberated, while women have not. The Washington Post columnist thinks it is a mistake for conversations about sex to begin and end with consent: “It’s a good ethical floor, but a terrible ceiling,” she says. One of the examples she refers to is the short story Cat Person, by Kristen Roupernian and published in The New Yorker in 2017, which depicts the typical “nice guy,” a man who pretends to be charming and attentive with the sole purpose of getting sex, and who, when it comes down to it, shows not the slightest interest in the tastes and preferences of his bed partner.
Luisgé Martín, however, is concerned that morality is dominating our concept of pleasure: “I believe that the opposite to what should have taken place is happening,” he says. “Instead of an opening up of female sexuality, we are returning to repression for all. When it comes to relationships, social class, power, age, bodies are all taken into account... You have to use an algorithm to know if you can desire someone, and that kills desire or destroys it.”
Be that as it may, the era of hyper-sexualization is on the wane in public discourse: the traditional shame of voluntary or involuntary chastity has given way to the reasonable idea that experiencing pleasure is not something we should be under pressure to do, as if we were on some kind of production line. Because, as a certain Javier Krahe who was around long before Generation Z, sang, “It’s not all about fucking, you’ve got to buy some socks too.”