In the 50s, it was Elvis. In the 70s, it was free love. Now, it’s dating apps. Even though every generation thinks of the next as hyper-sexualized, we’re actually having less sex now than we did in the past.
A 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that Americans were having sex about 60 to 62 times a year in the late 1990s. By 2014, it was down to less than 53. That means we’re having sex about nine less times a year than we used to. The decline was similar across gender, race, sexual preference, location, education level, marital status, and career type.
And this isn’t just an American trend. Brits aged 16-44 are having sex less than five times per month, which is a dip of about 20% from 2000. Australians were having sex about 1.4 times per week in 2014, a dramatic drop from the 1.8 times just 10 years earlier. In Japan, nearly half of women and a quarter of men between the ages of 16 and 25 claim to despise sexual contact.
Before you blame Internet porn or long working hours, the study’s researchers ruled those out. In fact, busy work lives and regular pornography consumption are associated with a higher sexual frequency. So what’s really to blame?
Debunking Hookup Culture
Unsurprisingly, people in their 20s reported more sexual encounters than older respondents (about 80 times per year). Younger people have always been more active between the sheets, but millennials and Gen Z’ers are not having as much sex or as many partners as their parents and grandparents did at the same age. Despite their reputation for hooking up, dating apps and permissive sexual ideals aren’t resulting in more action.
In fact, AASECT-certified sex therapist Jacqueline N. Mendez has found that the younger generations are waiting longer to lose their virginity. “I think part of it is that they have been socialized to connect differently than other generations,” she told us.
Clinical sexologist and psychotherapist Dr. Kristie Overstreet attributes the waiting to their increased knowledge of sex from an earlier age. Growing up with the Internet, millennials “have had open access to all things sex-related where past generations did not.”
Ryne Sherman, one of the study’s coauthors and Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Texas Tech University, agrees: “Millennials grew up hearing about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases that may have been taken less seriously in the past.”
Younger generations are also settling down later. Sherman points to the economic downturn of the late 2000s as a contributor. “More young people are living at home with their parents longer than in the past, which may make it more difficult to be involved in a committed relationship,” he told us. Data from the Pew Research Center supports his hypothesis: people ages 18 to 34 are more likely to live in their parents’ home than in any other arrangement for the first time in over 130 years.
Losing the Married Advantage
People in relationships have always tended to have more sex. The partner and attraction are already there, so many of the obstacles single people face don’t stand in the way for couples. But the study revealed that though they continue to have sex at a higher rate than singles, couples experienced the most significant drops in sexual frequency. Couples had sex 16 fewer times in the 2010s on average than in the 1990s.
So while the married or partnered advantage still exists, it’s shrinking. Sherman suspects that since age is a factor in sexual frequency, this could result from people partnering later in life. More single people means less sex and older coupling means a loss to the married advantage.
Deborah J Fox, couples counselor and certified sex therapist, believes that couples aren’t prioritizing sex as much as they used to. When sex is at the bottom of a long to-do list and energy runs low, it becomes easy to skip.
Parenting is also a factor. Since people are getting married older, they have children later in life. And, as Fox points out, “Parents tend to be more involved in every aspect of their children’s lives these days, not leaving enough time and energy for themselves and their relationship.”
Other Possible Reasons
Changing Gender Roles
Changing gender roles at home and in the workplace are probably part of the equation. Sex is more of a choice than a duty for modern women. As Sherman explains, a dip in sexual frequency is “a natural tradeoff” for these choices.
Since it’s more common for both partners to work, they’re also coming home tired. Rachel Needle, a licensed psychologist and Co-Director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes, says that when you’re depleted of energy, you’re less likely to engage in sexual activity.
To combat this, Deborah Fox recommends people invite their partner to bed before they’re exhausted. “Sex can be the perfect antidote to feeling overwhelmed and tired,” she says.
Despite the Netflix and Chill euphemism, your device could be to blame. Thanks to technological advances, people are able to socialize and entertain themselves without human interaction. Many couples find themselves in bed together scrolling on their devices in silence. “If sex has become boring for these couples, it’s because they’ve allowed the drift to dampen their creativity, not because that YouTube video is so much more exciting,” Fox said.
Overstreet suggests that couples take control over tech’s role in their relationship. Sending texts and photos can help initiate more frequent sexual encounters.
Changing Health Trends
Research shows many changes in sex and health in recent decades. Debby Herbenick, President of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, told CNN that “far more Americans [are] taking medications with sexual side effects.” Plus, more Americans are dealing with chronic health conditions known to affect libido, like diabetes.
If we continue to suffer from these problems in the decades to come, pharmaceutical companies may be pressed to find solutions that don’t hurt our sex drive.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to realize that averages may be going down, but there is no right amount of sex for every couple to have. As Ashley N. Grinonneau-Denton told us, more sex does lead to greater relationship satisfaction. In her experience at Cleveland Relationship Therapy, she’s found it isn’t uncommon for younger couples without kids to get busy between 3-4 times a week. But things tend to cool with time: “Couples who have been cohabitating for a longer period of time tend to have sex 2 or 3 times a week.”
Deborah Fox told us that a regular rhythm is more important than a number anyway. Once you fall out of rhythm, reconnecting becomes awkward. This often leads to the avoidance of sex. “Though it varies among couples, a general guideline for keeping in rhythm is to not let more than two week pass” between sexual encounters.
Before you go stressing about your own sex life, remember that everyone experiences sex differently. It’s about finding the right balance for you.