Americans are having less sex than ever, and experts say the pandemic will only fuel this downward spiral

Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • A new JAMA study found that Americans are still having less sex than they used to.
  • The study found that one in three men ages 18 to 24 reported no sexual activity in the previous year.
  • Psychologist Jean Twenge told Insider that the pandemic is likely to make our sex lives even worse.

Young Americans are having less sex than previous generations, and there's data to prove it.

A new study in the journal JAMA Network Open found that sexual activity was on the decline, most notably in young men. One in three men aged 18 to 24 reported no sexual activity in the previous year.

"These findings deserve attention because sexually intimate relationships are important for many people's well-being and quality of life," study author Peter Ueda, a physician-researcher at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, told Insider. Advertisement

Between 2000 and 2018, nearly 10,000 men and women between the ages of 18 and 44 were asked how often they had sex, with possible responses ranging from weekly to once or twice per year, and how many sexual partners they'd had, from none to more than 100 partners.

Overall, the groups that saw the sharpest declines were younger men, and women aged 25 to 34, who were both having less sex, while married couples reported having less weekly sex. Students, men with low or no income, and men with no employment or part-time employment were the least likely to be having sex.

Psychologist Jean Twenge, who has spent years studying Americans' sex lives, told Insider the steady decline in sexual activity has been driven by a mosaic of factors, including rising rates of anxiety and depression, and, relatedly, financial insecurity following the economic crash of 2008.
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The rise in round-the-clock use of cell phones and online entertainment, offering a more accessible alternative to sex, are also, undoubtedly, factors.

And despite all the talk of a return to dating and socializing when the pandemic is over, Twenge says it's likely the economic and emotional ramifications of the pandemic will simply drive the sex rate down even further.
Crystal Cox/Business Insider
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The appetite for sex is waning all over the world

This decline in sexual activity isn't a strictly American phenomenon. One 2018 study found that the number of German men who reported not having sex in the previous year had increased from 7% to 20%, and like this study, the men that weren't having sex were unmarried and were between 18 and 30.

And the decline in the amount of sex married or partnered people were having was also not limited to Americans. Researchers have found that married or partnered people were having less sex in Finland, Australia, and Britain.

Round-the-clock cell phone use, and rising rates of anxiety, could be to blame

Some researchers have proposed that the decline in sexual activity was due to pornography, while others have said it might be due to longer work hours.Advertisement

Twenge, who was not involved in the new study, imagines the decline might be due to a number of factors, from the increasing rates of depression and anxiety for young adults to the increasing stress of modern life.

There's also the possibility that the prevalence of smartphones has resulted in less real-world interactions, and that a glut of online entertainment may seem like a more enjoyable alternative to sex.

"In thinking about people who are married or partnered, why would they have sex less frequently? Well, there are more things to do at 10 o'clock at night than there used to be," said Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us.Advertisement

"It's very tempting to be looking at your phone scrolling through social media or binge-watching Netflix. In the 80s, maybe there was local news or a movie on cable, but it wasn't as tempting as the technology that surrounds us now."

Less money may mean less sex for younger men, study authors say

The study authors noted that money could be involved in the decline in sexual activity among young men.

Given that there are more college educated women than men in the US, and those women tend to prefer men of higher economic status, "it seems like in the US 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 Insider.Advertisement

Young heretosexual Americans are waiting to have sex later

"We've known since Gen X that young adults are taking longer to get married, have children and settle into a career," said Twenge, adding: "but the twist with millennials is they're also taking longer to reach the milestones of late adolescence and early adulthood, like drinking, living with a partner, or having sex."

However, this change did not extend to Black men, or people who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, who were more likely to report having three or more partners across all age groups.

The pandemic will probably drive down sex rates further, even when it's over

"If this decline is driven by adults living at home who don't have jobs, the pandemic is exacerbating that," said Twenge.Advertisement

"If it's driven by people not getting together in person and instead communicating electronically, that's also exacerbated by the pandemic. If it's driven by more anxiety and depression among young people, well, that's also been increased by the pandemic."

There might be a baby boom, although Twenge says that would surprise her, though it is a possibility.

"I think everybody that thinks about cultural changes is wondering how 2020 is going to look across the board," said Twenge. "In my view, this is the biggest cultural event since World War Two. It'll be very interesting to see how it affects our sexual activity."Advertisement

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