FYI, About Half Of People In Relationships Don't Have Sex Every Week
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
The sex recession is upon us. People are having way less sex than they used to back in the day, and according to the slew of reports that have emerged in the last several years and particularly in the last several months, the phenomenon apparently does not discriminate. The trend is appearing across the globe (recent data on the U.S., Australia, Japan, and other countries all show their populations are having less sex), across age groups (teens and millennials are seeing a particular dip in sexual activity, but it's also hitting middle-age and older folks), and apparently across relationship statuses as well.
Indeed, the latest report on the great decline in sexual activity—a new multiyear study of nearly 35,000 British people released today in the BMJ—found the steepest declines occurring among those who are married and living together.
What the stats show.
A team of researchers analyzed survey data collected on about 10,000 men and women in each of three years—1991, 2001, and 2012—all between ages 16 and 44. They specifically looked at how much sex these people reported having in the past month, how much sex they wished they'd had, and demographic factors like their relationship status, employment, and age. "Sex," in this case, included vaginal intercourse, oral sex, or anal sex with people of the same gender or "opposite" gender, making this particular study refreshingly inclusive of different types of sex (and therefore a more accurate assessment than other surveys that only count penetrative heterosexual sex).
The results? Overall, there was a significant decline in people having sex between 2001 and 2012, despite the fact that there'd been an increase in sex between 1991 and 2001. The proportion of women who said they'd had no sex in the past month went from 28.5 percent in 1991 to 23 percent in 2001 and then jumped back to 29.3 percent in 2012. The proportion of men who hadn't had sex in the past month went from 30.9 percent in 1991 to 26 percent in 2001 to 29.2 percent in 2012.
Meanwhile, the number of people who said they'd had sex 10 or more times in the past month also dropped between 2001 and 2012. The proportion of women who'd done it that many times went from 18.4 percent in 1991 to 20.6 percent in 2001 and then all the way down to 13.2 percent in 2012. Among men, the proportion went from 19.9 percent in 1991 to 20.2 percent in 2001 and then down to 14.4 percent in 2012.
In other words, people were having increasingly more and more sex between 1991 and 2001, but then in the following decade, a mysterious sex drought hit such that people were having less and less sex again by 2012. In particular, it seems there were somehow more extremely sexually active people in 1991 than there were in 2012.
These declines in sexual activity happened for people of all age groups, but they were the largest among people 25 and older. Although sexual inactivity was highest among those under age 25, the middle-age folks seemed to have the steepest declines in sexual activity. Among women between ages 35 and 44, the odds of having sex 10 or more times in the past month halved between 2001 and 2012. Those odds also "decreased markedly" among men in that age group, the researchers noted.
As of the most recent poll, less than half of people ages 16 to 44 reported having sex at least once a week.
Couples are having less sex too.
If you're thinking all these people aren't having sex because people tend to get married later these days and thus don't have access to all the sex married people get to have, think again. Indeed, people in serious relationships (i.e., those who were currently married or living with a romantic partner) did tend to have more sex than the single folks across all three years, but the decline in sexual activity over time was "significantly greater" for these coupled-up people. In 2001, 38 percent of women in serious relationships and 30.4 percent of men in serious relationships had no sex in the past month; in 2012, that number jumped to 51 percent for women and 66.4 percent for men. Those kinds of dips weren't seen among single folks.
In 2012, just 50.4 percent of men and 48.3 percent of women in serious relationships had sex four or more times in the last month. In other words, about half of people in relationships aren't having sex at least once a week.
"The trend toward lower sexual frequency overall is largely attributable to the decline in frequency among sexually active married or cohabiting participants. The decline among those currently single is comparatively modest," the researchers write in the BMJ study.
And by the way, this isn't the first study to notice that couples in particular are having less sex: A 2017 study of General Social Survey data published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior also found married couples on average had sex 11 fewer times a year in 2014 than they did in 1989. "Married individuals in the 1990s had sex more times per year than never married individuals, but by the mid-2000s never married individuals had sex more times than the married," the authors of that study wrote. "This likely reflects fewer married individuals having sex at a very high frequency."
They further found the "marital advantage" (i.e., when you're married, you get to have more sex than single people get to have) has shrunk over time. "The decline in sexual frequency is more pronounced among the married and those with steady partners and less pronounced among the never married and those without steady partners," those authors wrote.
Social media, porn, and the economy don't fully explain it.
If even couples are having less sex, then it's a lot harder to blame dating apps, social media, and people not knowing how to make connections IRL for the sex recession. So what is it?
Two other prominent theories about why people aren't having sex anymore are the idea that we're so addicted to porn that we don't care about the real thing anymore and the idea that people are too broke to even think about sex these days. Both explanations carry at least some amount of weight, but they don't tell the whole story.
That aforementioned 2017 study found increased porn use was actually associated with having more sex, not less, and the BMJ study found women who'd masturbated recently were more likely to have sex at least once a week. So the theory that solo sex and watching erotica is taking away interest in sleeping with real people doesn't hold that much water.
The BMJ study did find people who were fully employed and those with higher incomes tended to have sex more often, and the findings show the sexual decline coincided with the global 2008 economic recession. However, the decline in sexual activity happened among those in both higher and lower status jobs, the researchers note, suggesting this economic explanation still requires "closer scrutiny."
The "busy" effect.
What do the researchers of this study suspect might be the biggest cause of the sexual recession? Here's their theory:
"Most compelling among the explanations, perhaps, given the age and marital status of the people most affected, relates to the stress and 'busyness' of modern life, such that work, family life, and leisure are constantly juggled. Life in the digital age is considerably more complex than in previous eras, the boundary between the private space of home and the public world outside is blurred, and the internet offers considerable scope for diversion."
In other words, people are more busy and stressed than ever these days, and the combination (which might just hit couples more than single people because the former tends to have additional family and relationship obligations) just makes sex less likely. There's not enough time, and there's not enough energy.
"We live in a culture that glorifies being 'busy.' Whether we're working longer hours, taking care of family or completely distracted by social media, we can easily forget about just how important it is to have sex," clinical sexologist Cyndi Darnell explains to mbg. "So many other aspects of our personal and social lives get scheduled, but for some reason sex doesn't always get priority. And it should."
Technology likely poses another problem: People are tired, and in their downtime, they want to be zoned out completely—and often our smartphones and Netflix offer a simpler and more satisfying way to do that than interacting with another human being. Indeed, the debut of the iPhone in 2007 and its subsequent rise also coincides with the timeline of sex's decline.
Does it matter that people are having less sex?
From a public health perspective, it’s certainly not bad news that teens and young people are waiting longer to start their sexual lives—sex does involve physical and emotional risks, and a few more years on you likely leaves you better equipped to protect yourself from those risks. But what of adults and, specifically, couples that are having less sex?
Research does show more sex usually makes for a happier relationship and a more satisfying life, not to mention all the physical health benefits that come from getting active in the sheets. But many sex experts and couples therapists stress that every couple and certainly every person has different desires and needs, and it's perfectly normal to not be interested in sex for extended periods of time.
That said, the present study also found that, as rates of sexual activity have dropped, the desire for more sex has increased. Some 50.6 percent of women and 64.3 percent of men said they wish they were having sex more often, and this was particularly true among those in serious relationships. Indeed, a 2015 study on over 30,000 couples surveyed over the course of 40 years found sex once a week was the magic number for maximizing happiness; less frequent sex took a toll on well-being, but more than that didn't add any additional benefits.
In an accompanying editorial released today, general practitioner and sexologist Peter Leusink expressed concern over other health factors that might suffer in conjunction with the lack of sex: "Personal needs are not being fully met, as a substantial proportion of both men and women indicated that they were not satisfied with the frequency of sexual activity," he wrote. "As the results show, these figures conceal problems such as depression, poor physical health, and relationship problems, which have all increased since the 1990s."
There's also the question of the symbolic meaning of sex, which in its purest form is about human intimacy and the ability to connect with one another. "The wider implications of the decline in sexual frequency are perhaps more worrying," the researchers of the British study warn. "Should frequency of sexual contact serve as a barometer for more general human connectedness, then the decline might be signaling a disquieting trend."
How couples can have more sex.
The good news is, nothing is irreversible. If you're currently in a relationship that's been lacking electricity in the bedroom, there are many ways to break the cycle.
"When a client asks me how to fit sex into a busy, overscheduled life—especially when kids enter the picture—I have no qualms about saying, 'schedule it,'" relationship expert and life transition coach Sheryl Paul tells mbg. "We know that if we don't schedule time for exercise, meditation, and cooking, they don't happen. The same is true for sex—good habits often need to be blocked into our lives. In this sense, scheduling sex is an act of self-care for the relationship."
She adds, "Believe me, I get how easy it is to allow life to take over and eclipse any organic desire for sex. I understand how work, house, finances, kids, and personal self-care can exhaust your resources and eat away at not only energy but time. Yet I also know, both personally and professionally, that when we make deposits into the sex bank, everyone wins, and quite often the only way this can happen is when sex becomes part of our weekly or biweekly routine."
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