Smartphone in hand

Being Horny Online is a time-honored tradition, on par with grilling hot dogs on the Fourth of July and going on a Tinder date and blaming your farts on the waitress. Which is why it was so surprising to read Kate Julian’s well-researched feature story in The Atlantic arguing that millennials are currently in the midst of the cutely named “sex recession,” largely because they’re spending so much time on their phones, among other contemporary reasons. Scary!

In the piece, Julian cites data from all over the world to argue that people are having fewer sex partners (and less sex in general) than ever. According to General Social Survey, data from the late 1990s to 2014, the average number of sexual encounters adults have per year has plummeted, from 64 in the late 1990s to 54 as of 2014. In addition to having less overall sex, millennials also have fewer sex partners than the previous two generations, even though men all over the world are masturbating more than ever. Julian attributes the decline in sexual activity to a number of factors:

I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.

Ranging from the widespread prevalence of online pornography to the proliferation of dating apps like Tinder — which Julian argues have actually made it more difficult to meet people IRL — the likely reasons for less sex boil down to more technology at our fingertips.

This argument isn’t exactly new: people have made the same point after pretty much every new technological development in the past 50 years. When the VCR was invented, pearl-clutching moralists speculated that the availability of at-home entertainment would prompt people to stay home and do nothing but masturbate to VHS pornography; similarly, almost every article about the advent of sex robots (which don’t even really exist yet) contains at least one quote from an “expert” prognosticating that they will one day be so technologically advanced that users will prefer sex with them to sex with humans. The oft-repeated quote from cultural analyst Sherry Turkle sums up the criticism thusly: “We may actually prefer the kinship of machines to relationships with real people and animals.”

The thing is, though, there isn’t a whole lot of proof that technology has affected our sex lives that much — or, if it has, that it isn’t necessarily for the worse. Take, for instance, the advent of sex toys like vibrators: while they may have inspired some degree of sexual anxiety in many heterosexual men, few women would tell you they prefer an encounter with a machine to a sexual encounter with a flesh-and-blood human partner.

Additionally, there’s some evidence to suggest that while women are indeed buying sex toys in large numbers, they’re not just using them solo — they’re also using them during partner sex, as a way to achieve orgasm with male partners who may be less than adept at navigating their anatomy.

porn on a tablet in a bed

In the case of porn, while it’s tempting to blame sites like Pornhub for our decreasing interest in IRL sex, there’s actually very little evidence to suggest that the widespread prevalence of porn is negatively affecting our sex lives. Although much has been made of porn consumption leading to epidemic rates of erectile dysfunction among men in their 20s and 30s, Julian freely admits in her piece that there is no hard evidence to actually support this (much like with sex toys, however, there is some research suggesting that watching porn with your partner can boost your libido and lead to having sex more often).

That’s not to say, however, that technology has necessarily been a boon for our sex lives: In many ways, it hasn’t. The paucity of quality sex education in our country has led to young people relying on porn to learn about sex, which has resulted in an entire generation believing that hardcore sex acts like facials and anal are pleasurable for women (NB: they’re not, unless your partner specifically states otherwise).

four people on their phones instead of talking to each other.

Further, excessive use of dating apps has been linked to depression and low self-esteem, particularly when it comes to body image; dating apps also contribute to a toxic environment for women in particular, who are often subject to unwanted harassment on such platforms. Some people are so burnt out on the dating app economy that there’s even a growing “anti-Tinder” movement, with some singles eschewing dating apps for more old-school methods like matchmaking services.

Dating is hard, and sex is complicated. But that’s been the case for centuries, regardless of how many people had Bumble or sex toys or Pornhub annual memberships — and it’s almost guaranteed to be the case for centuries more. It may be convenient to blame technology for our dating woes, but it’s certainly not new or even wholly accurate.


Ej Dickson is a writer in New York and Inverse contributor. A Disney superfan, she’s a mom but not weird about it. Read more of her work at ejdickson.com.


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