Research suggests that adults and teenagers are having less sex now than 30 years ago. But is there more to the story, and why does it matter anyway?
Adults and young people in the US seem to be having less sex than previous generations, according to a study published in November 2021. As is often the case, mobile phones have been named as the cause of this change in behaviour, but is that really what’s going on?
This finding was based on data from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB), comparing over 8,500 individuals responses from 2009 and 2018.
The results echoed a similar study in the UK, called the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), which has been collecting information about the public’s sexual experiences for over three decades.
The Natsal researchers have found that with every survey, the average number of occasions of sex per week has decreased: in 1991, respondents said they had sex five times a month. In 2001, this was down to four times per month, and by 2012, the average number was three per month. Unfortunately, the fourth survey was postponed due to COVID-19, though the team hope to complete the study in 2022-23.
When asked if Brits are having less sex, Soazig Clifton, the academic director for Natsal at University College London, replied with “a resounding yes”. But it’s not just the case in the UK and the US. “If you look around the world, other comparable studies show a decrease as well. So, it seems to be a real international trend.”
Studies in Germany looking at sexual activity in men and women showed a decline from 2005 to 2016, which the researchers suggest could be due to “a reduced proportion of [individuals] living with a partner”. But Clifton says that extracting the data of only cohabiting couples, Natsal researchers still found a decrease in sexual activity over the three studies.
Both the Natsal UK study and the US NSSHB study split findings between adolescents and adults. Both found that the two groups were having less sex. For teens in particular, the US researchers found a significant difference in the instances of heterosexual sex – in 2009, 79 per cent of those between the ages 14-17 said they had not had sex in the past year. Nearly a decade later, 89 per cent of adolescents reported no sex.
Why aren’t the kids doing it?
Some have asked whether this could be down to young adults’ penchant (and perhaps preference) for social media and video gaming. Clifton warns that observational studies, like Natsal and NSSHB, “can’t easily answer the ‘why’ questions”.
“It is certainly theoretically plausible that people are spending so much time on their iPads and phones, connecting with others virtually rather than having sex with the person next to them,” says Clifton.
But it’s also possible that people feel more comfortable talking about sex now, compared with the 1990s, says Clifton. “Maybe people are more able to tell us that they’re not having sex. There is some statistical work we’ve done that shows we have a bit less reporting bias in our data. These decreases in biases would go along with the increased, more nuanced public conversation about sex.” However, Clifton explains this wouldn’t solely account for such a striking trend, though admits it might be part of the problem.
The idea that we are too busy – with phones, games or life in general – has been the subject of smaller, qualitative work by the Natsal. “The researchers worked with middle-aged women,” says Clifton. “And something that came up in that research was that women were too tired for sex. They had so much else going on in their life.”
But if busyness is to blame for our diminishing sex lives, what about lockdown, when many of us had more time?
“We looked at the first lockdown, which was particularly restrictive, and the impact on sex lives was really different for different groups of people.” The Natsal-COVID study showed that for people living with a partner, the frequency of sex was roughly the same as before the lockdown.
“In fact, most people didn’t report a change in their satisfaction with their sex lives. Some people say to me, ‘everyone will be having more sex because they were locked in a house together’. It’s just not the case.
“However, we were more likely to see a decline in frequency and satisfaction amongst people not living with partners, and amongst young people,” says Clifton.
Satisfaction, not frequency, is key, says Clifton. Prior to the pandemic, Natsal researchers found that most people believed others were having more frequent sex than they were having themselves. This misalignment could cause dissatisfaction in itself, one Natsal researcher wrote.
Why does it matter how much sex people are having?
“It’s part of the picture of understanding society, along with other areas of health and behaviours in our population,” says Clifton.
“Sometimes [sexual activity] gets dismissed as being less important than other aspects of people’s lives. For some people, it’s a really important part of their life.”
These studies are even more important in countries with related problems, like declining birth rates. “Some of the countries who have also seen the decline in sex are quite worried about their declining birth rate – understanding patterns of sexual behaviour and frequency of sex are an important part of that puzzle.
“The Natsal study covers a wide range of topics related to sexual health, much more than just how often people are having sex. We cover things like nonconsensual sex, STIs, and different reproductive health outcomes.”
In the UK, Clifton says that there are those that would like to be having more sex, though most participants who reported having no sex in the past year said they were not dissatisfied with their sexual lives. For couples and the importance of sex for sustaining relationships, Clifton says there is some evidence it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.
“We don’t need to be worried about whether our relationship is going to fall apart [because of it].”
In fact, 25 per cent of men and women who are in a relationship reported that they do not share the same level of interest in sex as their partner. What we see in the media, Clifton says, is a misrepresentation of what’s normal in terms of sex. Instead of making people feel bad about their sex lives, understanding averages can help us feel happier with what we’ve got, three times a month.