Mind and Body

Sex in America: 1 in 3 young men aren’t having it

Sweeping new data provides a glimpse into Americans' sex lives.

After analyzing the sexual activity of almost 10,000 people over almost two decades, scientists caught a glimpse of Americans' sex lives. According to a sweeping new study, men and women aged 25 to 34 years are having less sex — especially men.

This is true regardless of sexual orientation. Overall, the research documents a rise in sexual inactivity between 2000 and 2018: On average, one in three men aged 18 to 24 years reported no sexual activity in the past year.

The study, published Friday in the journal JAMA Network Open, documents a steady decline: In 2002, 19 percent of men reported not having sex within a year. In 2018, that increased to 31 percent of men.

While the majority of study participants were sexually active with about one partner, young Americans report having less sex over the past two decades. In the study, it was up to the participant to decide what "sex" meant to them.

These changing sex trends aren't trivial — research shows sex is positively associated with longevity, life satisfaction, lower blood pressure, and well being. If people aren't having enough sex, it could influence mental and physical health.

"These findings deserve attention because sexually intimate relationships are important for many — though certainly not all — people's well-being and quality of life," co-author Peter Ueda, a researcher at the Karolinska Institutet, tells Inverse.

"Individuals should decide for themselves whether they wish to have sexually intimate relationships and if so, how much effort they are willing to put into pursuing such relationships."

The study — To determine how much and how frequently people in the US are having sex, researchers harnessed data from the General Social Survey. This is given every other year — this study documents from 2000 to 2018.

Researchers asked 18 to 44-year-old participants to report their sexual frequency (including sexual inactivity) and their number of sexual partners in the year before survey participation. They also captured socioeconomic and behavioral variables like employment and income status, education, religion, and porn consumption.

Researchers asked questions like: “About how often did you have sex during the last 12 months?” with response options ranging from “not at all” to “more than 3 times a week." They also asked: “How many sex partners have you had in the last 12 months?” Choices ranged from “no partners” to “more than 100 partners.”

The team stratified sexual frequency into four categories: sexually inactive (no sex during the past year), once or twice per year, 1 to 3 times per month, and weekly or more.

"Sexual activity may not be as attractive as it once was."

After analyzing the massive data set, the team found overall, most men and women reported sexual activity on a weekly basis or more and one sexual partner in the past year. These percentages increased with age.

More men than women reported having no sexual partner and 3 or more partners. Meanwhile, fewer men reported weekly or more sexual activity and one sexual partner.

Across the entire age range, men reported dwindling sex lives. At the start of the study, 9.5 percent of men across the age range were sexually inactive. By the end, that number grew to 16.5 percent, with most of the increase occurring between 2008 to 2010 and 2012 to 2014.

The percentage of 18- to 24-year-old men who were sexually inactive in the past year increased from 18.9 percent at the start of the study to 30.9 percent when it concluded. Similar trends in sexual inactivity appeared among individuals aged 25 to 34 years but not among individuals aged 35 to 44 years.

In contrast, sexual activity in the total age range remained stable among women throughout the study. However, when broken down by age group, sexual inactivity increased among women aged 25 to 34. All women reported less sex weekly, a trend that was driven largely by younger women. Meanwhile, while women reported less sex, they did report an increase in sexual partners.

Men of lower-income, or with part-time or no employment, along with men and women who are students, were less likely to be sexually active.

"Higher-income could mean more resources to search for partners and could be considered as more desirable by such partners," Ueda explains. "But the association might also be due to other factors such as personality, values, and life choices that are associated with both income and the likelihood of being sexually active. It is probably a combination of the two."

Among women, there were no strong links observed between sexual inactivity and employment status or income level.

Among married men and women, there was a decrease in sexual activity at least weekly, whereas sexual inactivity was rare and did not change substantially.

Why are young men having less sex? — Scientists haven’t pinned down what's causing the stark sexual decline, but the study's authors say the trend may stem from a range of factors: changing sexual norms, stress, the rise of social media, smartphones, time spent online, and busyness of modern life crowding out intimate relationships.

For young women, the rise of “hook up culture" and potential increases in sexual aggression may lead them to have less sex, the researchers write.

Interestingly, one might think the rising popularity of online dating would increase people's sexual activity and number of partners. This study doesn't show that to be the case.

"It is very hard — in fact impossible — to draw conclusions regarding causality of the association between larger trends in society and sexual activity," Ueda says. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that there is a scarcity of nationally representative historical data on sexual activity, he adds.

Jean Twenge, a psychologist who was not involved in the study, suspects two major factors are at play: young people are growing up more slowly and social life and entertainment have gone increasingly digital. Data shows adolescents are increasingly postponing the start of adult activities, including sex and dating.

Meanwhile, time spent online has displaced time once spent on face-to-face social interaction. In turn, people may have fewer opportunities for sex.

"Between the 24-hour availability of entertainment and the temptation to use smartphones and social media, sexual activity may not be as attractive as it once was," Twenge wrote in a related commentary.

"Put simply, there are now many more choices of things to do in the late evening than there once were and fewer opportunities to initiate sexual activity if both partners are engrossed in social media, electronic gaming, or binge-watching."

Beyond the root causes of sexual activity — or inactivity — Ueda hopes to determine to what extent sexual inactivity is associated with dissatisfaction. Some people may choose to abstain from sex, while others' lack of sexual activity is a source of stress and worry.

Ueda also stresses that it's time for more open, nuanced public discussion not only about having sex but not having it.

"Sexual inactivity and potential dissatisfaction with it seem to be sensitive topics, perhaps more so than sex," Ueda says.

"While much work has been done to promote a frank and nuanced discussion about sex and sexual activity, it would be in our best interest to also be better at talking about not having sex."

Partial Abstract:
Importance: Sexual relationships are important for well-being and health. Recent trends in sexual activity among US adults are unknown.
Design, setting, participants: In this survey study, repeat, cross-sectional analyses of participants aged 18 to 44 years from 10 rounds of the General Social Survey (2000-2018), a US nationally representative survey, were performed for men and women separately.
Maint outcomes and measures: Sexual frequency in the past year(sexual inactivity, once or twice per year, 1-3 times per month, or weekly or more) and number of sexual partners in the past year (0, 1, 2, or 3 partners). The association between measures of sexual activity and sociodemographic variables were assessed using logistic regression.
Conclusions and relevance: This survey study found that from 2000 to 2018, sexual inactivity increased among US men such that approximately 1 in 3 men aged 18 to 24 years reported no sexual activity in the past year. Sexual inactivity also increased among men and women aged 25 to 34 years. These findings may have implications for public health.
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