There was a fascinating article about the “Sex Recession” in the December 2018 edition of The Atlantic by Kate Julian. Apparently, in the age of sexual tolerance, Grindr and Tinder, and ubiquitous sexting, American teenagers and young adults are having less sex! Over the last twenty-five years, the percentage of high school students who had had sex dropped from 54 to 40 percent. Young adults are also on track to have fewer total sex partners than those of the two preceding generations.
So… how come? Well – the article is long. For me, the most interesting explanations that Ms. Julian covers seem to be:
1) Perhaps “sex for and by yourself” is becoming the new norm.
People are now accustomed to avoiding the risk of connecting with and experiencing another person. They focus on masturbation, probably as a result of access to porn, sometimes called the new “drug,” or the use of vibrators. (After all, who can resist the Power Toyfriend?) A constantly available screen or a machine offers risk-free orgasm that is totally under one’s control.
2) Reaching out to and taking risks with others is becoming foreign territory.
There’s hook-up culture, sometimes called the “lack of relationship” culture. Dr. Alexandra Solomon, who teaches her popular “Marriage 101” course at Northwestern, uses the question “If I get the flu, will you bring me soup?” as a litmus test of how related young people are. In most of her classes, most folks were neither getting nor giving soup. As more people only find hook-ups through the internet – most often after many hours of no one swiping right on them — they become less and less confident and competent at social interaction, and so become more and more confused as to HOW to actually date. They also become more dedicated to impersonal sex and are more likely to utilize their phones or social media for a superficial, distracting pseudo-connection with others.
3) Porn-normative, casual, or detached sex doesn’t seem worth pursuing – especially for women.
Another argument is simply that sex is now simply less appealing! Young people report distress at the sexual landscape, especially implicating ubiquitous porn, which Julian suggests has “given men some dismaying sexual habits.” Anal sex and choking to enhance orgasm are the key “habits” listed – both of which are associated with fear and pain by many women! Porn also teaches that woman orgasm by penetration alone, which is not most women’s experience. Casual sex is also just less satisfying for most of us than sex with a regular partner; the article suggests this is because regular partners learn each other’s needs and wants and how to respond to them skillfully. Given the images of perfection we see in the media and our rampant body dissatisfaction, being naked and being seen, in themselves are threatening.
4) Perhaps, even though we live in unprecedented physical safety, our nervous systems are so geared to danger or to the helplessness of depression, that this is derailing our purportedly “most basic” instinct – to copulate.
The last explanation offered is the well-documented rise in the rates of depression and anxiety and how both tend to suppress desire and engagement with others. It’s hard to be fully sexual – or indeed fully present to anything – when you are depressed and anxious.
The article asks many questions but draws no conclusions. But after my many research studies, and years of helping couples as they struggle with their relationship, I have some ideas as to why there’s a sex recession. These conclusions, outlined especially in my book Hold Me Tight, come from the last two decades of bonding science. These ideas center around the fact that emotional isolation messes with our most basic survival strategies and traumatizes us.
First, we know from neuroscience that biology links mating and bonding. Sex is often not just recreation. It’s a bonding activity and, at orgasm, you are flooded with oxytocin, a bonding hormone. And we also know that secure bonding – feeling emotionally open and responsive and really engaged with each other — is the key ingredient in building a loving bond. Secure lovers trust each other so they can experience painful rifts and still risk turning back and reaching for each other.
The key question in love is not, “How many orgasms can I have with you?” It is, “A.R.E. you there for me?” where A.R.E. stands for “emotionally Accessible, Responsive and Engaged.”
This quality of emotional connectedness also seems to translate into the bedroom and erotic connection. Securely bonded lovers report more and better sex. They are more confident in bed and can deal with sexual disconnects and problems together. When you are safely connected, you can relax, let go, and give in to sensation. You can take risks and reach for erotic adventure. You can share and respond to each other’s deepest needs and desires.
The best aphrodisiac may just be emotional connection, especially for women, who are more physically vulnerable in sex and generally more sensitive to relationship cues. I call sex that is enhanced by the sauce of emotional connection “Synchrony Sex.” Moving in synchrony – in attunement – primes joy in the nervous systems of bonding mammals. We see this in the mating dances of birds, in partners dancing tango, and in images of sexual passion.
Second, all the evidence tells us that the lack of safe emotional connection undermines eroticism. That safety matters as much if not more that the much-toted novelty. Anxiously attached partners who worry about rejection and being deserted, report that they make love mostly to gain reassurance and that excitement, and orgasms are not that important or pleasurable. Avoidant partners, who prefer to keep others at distance and deny their own needs for closeness, report focusing in on sensation and performance. They are more emotionally detached in sex. Sex while keeping your distance and your guard up is like dancing without music: there’s something missing. So these lovers have to hype up physical sensation and constantly change sexual cues to get high. This fits with Kate Julian’s comments on porn-induced detachment and with her points about how avoiding risking and reaching for others seems to limit our sexual experience.
Lastly, as to why we are so caught up in depression and anxiety to the point of losing our natural sexual verve, this is not so hard to understand. Detachment from others, withdrawing into oneself and not being able to reach for others, taking our images of sex and relatedness from a screen, especially a porn screen all add up to ISOLATION! Nothing freaks out and depresses a social bonding being like this kind of emotional isolation. Less overt sexuality in young people may be the canary in the mine here.
We need to let science teach us about our emotional needs, just like it has taught us about the necessities of hygiene and nutrition. We need to get that emotional connection is our core essential requirement as human beings, more than our need to satisfy our sexual drive, even. We need to treat relationships as essentials rather than incidentals, as the loneliness researcher John Cacioppo suggested. We have to see the costs of detachment and help young people learn to connect, in bed and out of it.
Bonding science tells us how to do this. Our latest study in The Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy shows that when we help partners have bonding conversations, their sex life improves significantly and stays that way over time, and they don’t even have to talk about sex directly. It is time for us to learn from this science and let it help us to make strong, lasting, passionate connections – to help us come home!