“These should be boom times for sex,” Kate Julian muses in the opener to the cover story for the Atlantic’s December 2018 issue. And yet she notes, with a nod to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, General Social Survey, and Match.com, as well as other sources, the reverse seems to be true. People — and particularly young people — are having less sex than in previous generations.
It’s a state of affairs that Julian likens to a “sex recession,” one she sees as having potentially dire consequences. “A fulfilling sex life is not necessary for a good life, of course, but lots of research confirms that it contributes to one,” she argues after running through the many reasons, both positive and negative, why sex might be on the decline. “Having sex is associated not only with happiness, but with a slew of other health benefits” — and if sex is on the decline, our health and happiness could be too, she suggests.
The “sex recession” quickly became part of the popular discourse, with Julian appearing on the Today show to discuss her findings, and publications around the globe penning a wide variety of responses to the assertion that young people are more anxious, more detached, and far less likely to fall into bed with one another. Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan summed up the general reaction to the article with a pithy tweet declaring, “As I suspected. They’re doing it wrong.”
On paper, the world that Julian describes — one where people in their early 20s are two and a half times more likely to be abstinent than Gen X-ers were at that age, and where a full 15 percent haven’t had any sex at all by the time they reach adulthood — does sound like a bit of a drab, sexless wasteland.
But as I — a young woman seemingly the right age to be affected by this recession — read through the essay, I found myself wondering what exactly this “recession” had to do with me.
We are bombarded with messaging that we are doing sex wrong and it’s making us unhappy
As mediocre as American sex education continues to be, there’s one message about sex we are all imbued with from a very early age: Sex is incredibly important. More than that, it’s especially important to do “correctly.”
Whether we’re reading trend stories like Julian’s or breathy tips that fill the pages of lad and lady mags, letters penned by advice columnists, or sexual self-help manuals, the message we get is that with the “right” sexual experiences, we’ll be set up for a healthy, happy, and better life — and without it, we’ll be doomed to a depressing and meaningless existence, a point driven home by articles like this from WebMD that insist sex is the key to unlocking happiness.
Yet for all the importance we place on sex, we’re rather reticent to be honest with one another about what our own experiences are. As individuals, we’re certainly aware of what goes on in our bedrooms, but we’re left wondering about those of our friends, colleagues, and crushes — people who, we inevitably assume, are almost definitely doing it more or who’ve figured out the secret to being 100 percent satisfied with their sex life, a secret that still manages to elude us. Studies have shown we routinely overestimate how much sex other people are having; we likely overestimate how much fun they’re having doing it, too.
And this is why Americans are so drawn to pieces like Julian’s examination of the “sex recession,” which promises to untangle some of our confusion with the help of exhaustive research, data, and scientific analysis. Although much of the piece is focused on determining why sex today looks the way it does, there’s an underlying promise that this analysis might be used to help us get back on the right track.
“In time, maybe, we will rethink some things,” Julian muses, going on to offer a list of social factors that are potentially contributing to young people having less sex, ranging from bad sex education to an overdependence on technology and, of course, overprotective parents.
It’s a proposition that, while tempting, is ultimately damaging. The truth is, however much information we may collect about broad patterns of American, or even global, sexual behavior, the only expert who can offer an accurate assessment of whether we, personally, are doing sex “right” is us.
Throughout the article, Julian nods to the past, a time during which, she seems to suggest, sex and dating were better. “I mentioned to several of the people I interviewed for this piece that I’d met my husband in an elevator, in 2001. … I was fascinated by the extent to which this prompted other women to sigh and say that they’d just love to meet someone that way,” she writes, as if to suggest that, however happy we might think ourselves, we have no sense of how good things used to be. “Sex seems more fraught now,” Julian concludes.
She does acknowledge potentially positive explanations for the downturn in sex. But she quickly pivots them toward a more negative narrative. Masturbation is on the rise, yet Julian paints it as a nasty side effect of online pornography, ignoring young women for whom masturbation might offer a welcome alternative to an act historically associated with ignoring female pleasure.
When sex researcher Debby Herbenick offers that the downturn in sex might be the result of women becoming empowered to say no to unwanted sex, Julian transitions into talking about how porn has presumably made sex scarier and more necessary to refuse — as though women were more enthusiastic about the sex on offer in a pre-internet period (an assertion feminists like Andrea Dworkin, who declared in her 1987 book Intercourse that “violation is a synonym for intercourse,” could easily put the lie to).
The most likely culprit for the so-called “sex recession” — the fact that people are getting married and cohabiting at older ages than in the past — has some obvious positives, including giving people (and, in particular, straight women) more time to focus on their careers and decreasing the frequency of divorce. But Julian chooses to end the article by casting the millennial generation as lonely rather than focusing on the upside of this trend.
There is no “right” way to have sex
The Atlantic is not alone in promoting this narrative about sex and dating, of suggesting that the key to unlocking our sexual happiness (or at least better identifying our sexual failures) lies in other people’s experiences, desires, and ideas of health and happiness rather than our own.
While writing my book, Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal, I encountered numerous examples of sex research used not to enlighten us about the broad and beautiful diversity of human sexual experience, but instead to codify a limited idea of “normal,” one that few of us, if any, can actually live up to.
Whether that’s sex therapist Ian Kerner insisting that in the ideal heterosexual experience, “she comes first,” or whether that’s research that purports to determine the number of sexual partners that’ll maximize our happiness, the idea that there is a universal way to do sex “right” primarily serves to instill a permanent sense of anxiety among us all — especially among women, whose sex lives are most often the objects of discussion (and policing).
However happy you may feel about what you’re getting up to, there is always some “expert” ready to sow the seeds of doubt. They insist that, however fulfilled we may feel, we could be so much happier if only we tried this position or popped this pill or had more sex or tamped down the promiscuity or just, some way, ceased to be ourselves.
Yet external experts will never be able to offer the path to pleasure that we can achieve by just sitting down, getting to know our own bodies, and having a nonjudgmental, honest conversation with ourselves or our partners about our needs, desires, and vision of a satisfying sex life. And yes, maybe that means less sex for some — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Because whatever the data says about broad trends and patterns — about who is having more sex than whom, about how many orgasms are being had when and where, about what sexual activity is the most popular of all — the only reliable source of answers we have for what our sex life “should” look like is our own libido, desire, and fantasies, and the honest conversations we have with our partners about what feels good for all of us.
A sex “recession” does not matter if your own sex life feels rich and fulfilling. And that fulfillment isn’t something you can measure by comparing yourself to historical statistics or information about what your friends and neighbors are or aren’t doing in their bedrooms. It’s something you have to figure out for yourself, by yourself — which may explain why so many of us are so scared to do it.
Lux Alptraum is the author of Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal. Find her on Twitter @LuxAlptraum.