Sex is everywhere in America, except in the bedroom — or anywhere else you’d like to have it. This has been going on so long that it’s got a name: in a 2017 article for the Atlantic, Kate Julian called it the “sex recession.” The research she cites found that “American adults had sex about nine fewer times per year in the early 2010s compared to the late 1990s.”
Nine times fewer a year might not seem so bad, but every other marker of sexual activity was also down. A 2018 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that sexual activity had dropped among men between eighteen and thirty-five and women between twenty-four and thirty-five. Young people were having fewer sexual interactions and also fewer partners. They were having less sex when they were single and less sex when they were coupled. Men or women, no one was doing it with anyone. Those in their early twenties were two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as Gen Xers had been at that age. Fifteen percent reported having had no sex since reaching adulthood.
Something has shifted. Sex-crazed young people just aren’t as crazed anymore. The pandemic only exacerbated America’s sexlessness. A recent study finds that cohabitating couples actually masturbated more and had sex with each other less during the lockdowns. Sure, the lockdowns were stressful. Toilet paper was hard to find. Kids weren’t in school. People were worried about their jobs. No need to bang ’em out like a neurotic chimp. C’mon, man!
What if the problem isn’t so much what happens in the bedroom as what happens on the way there? Life could not have been less sexy lately. The neighborhood busybody calling the police on your backyard party. Half of everyone’s face covered by a mask. Everyone drinking too much, staying in their pajamas all day and putting on the “quarantine fifteen.”
Social changes are also ratcheting down the sexy. “Fifty-seven genders” only sounds cool to a teenager. An adult hearing someone is a pan-bi-trans-nonbinary-femme will just tune out and go search up Pornhub for something that makes sense. Porn use, of course, is way up. People might not want to have actual sex but they’re not giving up their porn.
It’s a new world. Click, click, relief: far easier than making it work in the new normal, whatever that is this month. Sexy is so old-fashioned. In June, Victoria’s Secret announced they’ll be phasing out their impossibly gorgeous and fit “Angels.” Instead, they’ll be going with “leading icons” and “changemakers” including the soccer star Megan Rapinoe, the transgender model Valentina Sampaio, the plus-size model Paloma Elsesser and the seventeen-year-old skier Eileen Gu. These new icons won’t be posing in lingerie but sharing their inspirational stories in a ten-episode podcast. So hot.
Clothing too has become unsexy. Little House on the Prairie chic was big last spring. Now we’re back to the two-sizes-too-big outfits. No one wants to take those ugly clothes off someone. Just call me when you get home and we’ll do it on FaceTime so I don’t have to see that sack on my floor.
Then there’s the “look at me, don’t look at me” nature of social media. Women pose provocatively in full makeup and tight outfits, but all their comments are from girlfriends leaving a row of fire emojis. If a man dares post how good she looks, that guy is a creep. Message her privately and that’s “sliding into her DMs.” Men are supposed to ignore how women look which, seeing as men have started wars over the beauty of women, has traditionally been somewhat of a challenge. Women are supposed to want them to ignore how we look, but secretly not: why would we actually want that?
There’s the question of whether something men used to do with some regularity — say, lean in for a kiss with a woman without asking — is now something sinister. Huma Abedin, best known for standing by her man Anthony Weiner again and again as he exposed himself to random women on the internet, has a book coming out in which she tells the story of being “sexually assaulted” by a US senator. She says that she left a party with him, they went for a walk and she accompanied him upstairs for coffee. Upstairs, he tries to kiss her, she says no and he stops.
When I tweeted that this was clearly not assault, several responses said he should have asked her permission. Could there be anything more mood-sapping than someone asking for formal permission to kiss you? This isn’t a British period drama. Even Mr. Darcy has probably stopped asking by now.
Men don’t really know who they’re supposed to be anymore, and women don’t either. Is it anti-feminist to enjoy male attention? Is it OK to ask out a colleague? Everything is so fraught and challenging that it’s no wonder people are opting out of sex. Who needs the hassle? They’ll get their dopamine hits from the likes they get on their posts and all the internet porn they can handle. Why bother with human interaction? When life is unsexy, you get unsexy sex — or no sex at all.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2021 World edition.