Why Americans Are Having Less Sex—And What It Means

I recently blogged about the results of a new study reporting that Americans today are having less sex than they were a quarter century ago. Specifically, this research suggests that Americans are having sex about 9 fewer times per year than they were in the 1990s. So what accounts for this apparent decline? And does it necessarily mean—as many assume—that Americans’ sex lives and relationships are less satisfying than they once were? 

Let’s begin with the why question. There are several potential explanations that could account for why Americans seem to be having less sex these days. Here are just a few:

· The authors of the study suggest that this sexual decline is at least partially due to the fact that fewer adults today are married compared to the past. Indeed, the marriage rate in the US has reached a record low, given that adults today are waiting longer and longer to get married, and many no longer aspire to get married at all. Given that previous national surveys have found that married couples tend to have the most sex, it seems reasonable to presume that decreasing marriages would be contributing to lower levels of sexual activity.

· Marriage is just one of many potential factors at play here, though. Even when the authors of this study looked only at married folks, they found a drop in sexual activity compared to the past, too. So why aren’t married couples having as much sex as they once were? Perhaps modern technology has something to do with it. For example, maybe we’re all relying less on sex and more on our phones and streaming video to pass the time these days.

· Another possibility is that these changes in our sex lives are related to changes in Americans’ diets, medication use, and/or substance use patterns. More Americans today are overweight or obese, more of them are using antidepressant medications (especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs), and more Americans are drinking (and binging) on alcohol. All of these factors are related to experiencing issues with sexual desire and/or performance.

While all of the above represent potential explanations for the apparent decline in sexual frequency, what you may be surprised to learn is that this does not seem to be a function of Americans working harder or watching more porn. In fact, the authors of this study found that working longer hours and watching more porn were actually related to having more—not less—sex.

It’s also important to highlight that this survey doesn’t definitively show that Americans are having less sex. One alternative explanation is that people from different generations define “sex” in different ways Because this survey only asked people how often they had sex—without defining what “sex” actually was—we can’t rule out the possibility that people from different generations were simply thinking about different activities (e.g., maybe young adults have more strict definitions of sex and think that oral doesn’t “count” compared to older adults).

That said, even if we do assume that the results of this study reflect a true decrease in sexual frequency, we shouldn’t necessarily jump to the conclusion that this means Americans today are less sexually satisfied.

Why do I say this? Well, this study suggests that, on average, Americans today are having sex about once per week. We need to consider this number in the context of other research, which has found that sex and happiness are positively correlated—meaning they both increase together—but only until a certain point. And that point is…wait for it…once per week. After that, more sex doesn’t seem to help or hurt happiness. In other words, couples who have sex several times per week (or day) aren’t necessarily any happier than the once-per-week folks.

One interpretation of these findings is therefore that, although sexual frequency may have declined in recent years, it hasn’t declined past the level of sex that seems to make people optimally happy. To put it another way, maybe the extra sex we were having wasn’t truly essential to our personal happiness anyway.

If sexual frequency continues to drop further in the future, that might be another story. For now, though, there’s not necessarily any reason to believe that this seeming decrease in sexual frequency means that Americans are less satisfied with their sex lives or relationships.

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Data Source: Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (2017). Declines in Sexual Frequency among American Adults, 1989–2014. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Image Source: 123RF.com/Juan Pablo Gonzalez

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