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5 Reasons Americans Are Living Through a Sex Recession

No civilization in human history has been as sex-drenched as modern-day America. TV shows, music, and even commercials constantly reference sex. An unlimited number of free pornographic clips of every imaginable variety and sort are available to anyone with an Internet connection, and Americans have a libertine attitude about sex. It has gotten so over-the-top that I had an acquaintance who managed to get lots of TV and press attention just by writing a book saying that she’s not a virgin, but that she intends to remain chaste until marriage.

Yet, intriguingly, according to a much-discussed article in The Atlantic, Americans are in the middle of a sex recession.

To the relief of many parents, educators, and clergy members who care about the health and well-being of young people, teens are launching their sex lives later. From 1991 to 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey finds, the percentage of high-school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent. In other words, in the space of a generation, sex has gone from something most high-school students have experienced to something most haven’t. (And no, they aren’t having oral sex instead—that rate hasn’t changed much.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has plummeted to a third of its modern high. When this decline started, in the 1990s, it was widely and rightly embraced. But now some observers are beginning to wonder whether an unambiguously good thing might have roots in less salubrious developments. Signs are gathering that the delay in teen sex may have been the first indication of a broader withdrawal from physical intimacy that extends well into adulthood.

Over the past few years, Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has published research exploring how and why Americans’ sex lives may be ebbing. In a series of journal articles and in her latest book, iGen, she notes that today’s young adults are on track to have fewer sex partners than members of the two preceding generations. People now in their early 20s are two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as Gen Xers were at that age; 15 percent report having had no sex since they reached adulthood.

Gen Xers and Baby Boomers may also be having less sex today than previous generations did at the same age. From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex. Twenge recently took a look at the latest General Social Survey data, from 2016, and told me that in the two years following her study, sexual frequency fell even further.