BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Researchers from Indiana University say that nearly 1 in 3 U.S. men, ages 18 to 24, reported no sexual activity in the past year.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Sexual frequency is declining in the United States, according to a study by Indiana University researchers.
“Our study adds to a growing body of research that has reported on declines in sex,” said Tsung-chieh “Jane” Fu, a research associate at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington who co-led the study. “The declines in partnered sexual activity seen in our study are consistent with findings from studies in the U.K., Australia, Germany and Japan.”
Debby Herbenick, a professor of sexual and reproductive health at the School of Public Health who also co-led the study, said the decreases are likely caused by several factors.
“The decreases are not easily explained by a single shift, such as health status, technology, access to pornography or stress,” Herbenick said. “There are likely multiple reasons for these changes in sexual expression, and we need more research to understand how these changes may be related to changes in relationships, happiness and overall well-being.”
The study of sexual frequency is particularly important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on relationships, Herbenick said. Declining sexual activity among adults has consequences for human fertility and health – consequences that have been exacerbated by pandemic-era restrictions.
Published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the study is the first to include such a comprehensive assessment of diverse sexual behaviors. The information came from U.S. participants ages 14 to 49 during the 2009 and 2018 waves of the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, a confidential nationally representative survey conducted online. A total of 1,647 adolescents ages 14 to 17 and 7,055 adults ages 18 to 49 were included.
“The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior includes detailed data on a variety of sexual behaviors, so we could examine more precisely whether declines in vaginal intercourse might be explained by increases in other sexual behaviors, such as oral sex,” Herbenick said. “However, we found that was not the case. Rather, we found that from 2009 to 2018, fewer adults engaged in a range of partnered sexual activities. We were also surprised to find that, among adolescents, both partnered sex and solo masturbation had declined.”
Compared to adult participants in the 2009 survey, adults in the 2018 group were significantly more likely to report no penile-vaginal intercourse in the prior year, the researchers found. Study participants were also significantly less likely to report engaging in any other sexual behaviors examined in the study, such as oral sex or anal sex. All modes of past-year partnered sex were reported by fewer people in the 2018 cohort.
“More studies are needed to understand if this decline is associated with the emergence of other types of sexual activities in recent years, such as the adverse impact of what some people call aggressive or rough sex,” Fu said.
The study’s findings regarding sexual frequency declines among adolescents are particularly notable, according to Herbenick. The proportion of adolescents reporting neither solo masturbation nor partnered sexual behavior increased from 28% of young men and 49% of young women in 2009 to 43% of young men and 74% of young women in 2018.
“Many studies haven’t included those under age 16 or 18, so our study expands what we know about younger adolescent behavior and how we think about adolescent sexual development,” Herbenick said.
The researchers noted that a number of cultural and social changes may be affecting young people’s sexual behavior, including widespread internet access, decreased alcohol use, increased conversations around sexual consent, and more contemporary young people identifying with non-heterosexual identities, including asexual identities.
While the current findings will help inform the work of sexual health researchers, clinicians and educators, Herbenick said she hopes the study also will open up new investigations into areas such as people’s feelings about their sexual lives and how those feelings may shape subsequent choices about sex.
The study – co-authored by Debby Herbenick, professor in sexual and reproductive health at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, and Peter Ueda, a physician-researcher at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden – looked at the sexual activity and number of partners of 18- to 44-year-olds in the U.S. from 2000 to 2018.
During that time, the researchers found that sexual inactivity had increased from 19 percent to 31 percent among men age 18 to 24. Men and women age 25 to 34 also reported an increase in sexual inactivity during the time period. This coincided with decreases in those who had sex at least weekly and in those with one sexual partner over the past year, while the proportion of men and women with two or more partners in the past year had remained largely unchanged.
Moreover, men of lower income, or with part-time or no employment, along with men and women who are students, are more likely to be sexually inactive.
“While this finding would have been important at any time, it may be particularly salient now that the pandemic has shifted so much in our worlds, resulting in more people of all genders without employment,” Herbenick said. “We’re also now living in a time when people don’t have many of their usual channels of meeting potential sex or relationship partners.”
Ueda said the study is unique because – though prior research has shown an overall decline in how often people are having sex – this study looks at the proportion of people with various levels of sexual activity, including those who report no partnered sex at all in the prior year.
“Although the decrease in sexual frequency among those who were sexually active is interesting, what deserves more attention is the increase in sexual inactivity, because sexually intimate relationships are important for many (though certainly not all) people’s well-being and quality of life,” Ueda said.
“A key question is to what extent sexual inactivity is associated with dissatisfaction? While being sexually inactive is a choice for some individuals, it could be a source of distress for others. Sexual inactivity and potential dissatisfaction with it seem to be sensitive topics, perhaps more so than sex. It is good that we can talk about sex, but we also need to be better at talking about not having sex.”
Changes in sexual norms, the stress and busyness of modern life, and the supply of online entertainment that may compete with sexual activity may explain some of the changes, Ueda said. An increase in depression and anxiety among young adults, and adolescents increasingly postponing the start of adult activities such as dating and sex, may also be a contributing factor. Although much debated, it has been suggested that the introduction of smartphones has resulted in less opportunity for and skills in real-world human interactions, he said.
Most women and men reported at least weekly sex, and most people reported having one sexual partner in the prior year. In the most recent surveys, men age 18 to 44 were more likely to have had no partners in the past year (16 percent) compared to women (12 percent). Men also were more likely to have had three or more partners in the past year (15 percent) compared to women (7 percent).
Researchers also looked at some of the sociodemographics that can affect sexual activity, including working either full time, part time or not at all; being a student; and income. They found that compared to men working full time, those working part time, those not working and students were more likely to be sexually inactive. Men with higher incomes had a lower likelihood of being sexually inactive.
“Higher income could mean more resources to search for partners and could be considered as more desirable by such partners. But the association might also be due to other factors such as personality, values and life choices that are associated with both income and the likelihood of being sexually active,” Ueda said, pointing out that association is not necessarily causation. “It is probably a combination of the two.”
Among women, being a student was associated with sexual inactivity, but there were no other significant associations related to employment or income level.
“People sometimes have stereotypes about college students having lots of sex,” Herbenick said. “However, this is not the case for everyone; and over the 13 years I have taught human sexuality, I have seen many students describe themselves as not yet having sex and for any range of reasons: wanting to avoid pregnancy, not having met the right person yet, feeling too shy to ask someone out, anxiety, lack of desire to have sex, as well as religious or cultural reasons.”
Further research is needed to understand the implications of the study’s findings, Ueda said.
“Romantic and sexual experiences are important to most people at some point in their lives,” Herbenick added. “Sexual activity is connected to physical health but also to procreation, sexual pleasure, enjoyment and intimate connection. People have sex to feel closer to other human beings, to express love, to feel less alone, to relieve stress, for fun, and any number of other equally valid reasons. Thus, partnered sexual activity – and inactivity – give us some glimpses into how human beings are, or are not, relating with one another.”
Catherine Mercer, professor of sexual health sciences at University College London and lead of the U.K.’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, and medical student Cyrus Ghaznavi contributed to this study.
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