Are young men really having less sex?

A new study sparks conversation about young men and sexual wellness

Written by Abigail Swoap

Over the past week, the corners of the internet that we frequent have been abuzz over a new study conducted at San Diego State University. According to the study’s authors, and contrary to all expectations, young American men are having significantly less sex than they used to.

Between 2000 and 2018, researchers analyzed over 4000 men and 5000 women’s survey responses to questions about sexual frequency and the number of sexual partners. The standout, discussion-driving data point in the study? The percentage of sexual inactivity among men aged 18-24 increased from 18.9% between 2000 and 2002 to 30.9% between 2016 and 2018.1

Because the study ended in 2018, the data have not been influenced by the coronavirus pandemic (which has also led to a decrease in sexual inactivity across the board), so the slowdown must have been caused by other cultural forces. And indeed, the study’s authors presented a few hypotheses that might explain the trend, including changes in sexual norms, the stress and business of modern life and the wide variety of online entertainment that might have replaced the desire for sex. In a related commentary, researcher Jean Twenge put forth the theory that increases in depression and anxiety among young Americans over the past two decades might be to blame.2

Regardless of the reason behind the decrease, the study offers several interesting insights into the cultural context surrounding discussions about sex and, more specifically, not having sex.

The data refute a narrative about young men and sex that we’ve been culturally socialized to accept. Despite the fact that the researchers also revealed an (albeit smaller) increase in sexual inactivity among women aged 24-34 over the same time period from 7% to 12.6%,1 most analyses have focused on the decrease in male sexual activity. It’s possible that the widespread male-centric angle of articles about the study stems from the assumption that young men shouldn’t need help when it comes to having healthy sex lives. It’s an important example of how our biases affect the way we interpret scientific studies, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this case. By addressing the decrease in sexual activity among young men specifically, we open up the possibility of normalizing discussions about young men and sexual wellness.

If there is something about our culture that is suppressing young men’s sexual desire or activity, now is an especially important time for young men to know that it’s okay to engage in conversations about it. The pandemic has thwarted opportunities to connect with others in person, amplifying the effects of an increasingly individual, distracted culture in which intimacy was already on the decline. It’s impossible to cultivate intimacy and empathize with others when we’re distracted, but it’s even more impossible to do so when we’re forced into a world of physical disconnect.

So, what can men (and women!) do to combat the downward trend in sexual activity?

We can start by expanding our own internalized definitions of “sexual activity.” The researchers left it up to each individual participant in the study to define what “sexual activity” meant for themselves. In doing so, they may have inadvertently allowed the prevailing heteronormative idea that sex has to be penetrative to guide their findings. It’s possible that other forms of sexual activity such as outercourse, virtual sex or masturbation were unaccounted for in this study. However, self-pleasure is a valid (and important!) form of sexual activity. In a pandemic, one of the best things young men and women can do is deepen their connections with themselves, both physically and emotionally. By taking advantage of Coral’s exercises like “Shift your self-pleasure script,” young people can prepare to have more satisfying and meaningful connections in the future. They can also take advantage of this time to learn more about their preferred sexual partners’ pleasure systems (check out Coral’s guides to understanding male and female pleasure for more information). For those interested in detailed instructions about how to give pleasure to people with vulvas, Coral advisor Ian Kerner’s She Comes First is a great place to start.

Here at Coral, we encourage people of all gender identities and sexual orientations to learn about intimacy and expand their definition of sex and pleasure. This study and the discussion it has sparked are an important reminder that young men are not exempt from conversations about sexual wellness.

  1. Trends in Frequency of Sexual Activity and Number of Sexual Partners Among Adults Aged 18 to 44 in the US, 2000-2018. Authors: Peter Ueda, MD, PhD; Catherine H. Mercer, PhD, Cyrus Ghaznavi, BA
  2. Possible Reasons Adults Are Note Having As Much Sex as They Used To. Author: Jean M. Twenge, PhD

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