Nearly 1 in 3 young men in the US report having no sex, study finds

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.

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."

The study, which was published in the JAMA Network Open, used data from the General Social Survey, 2000 to 2018, to look at sexual frequency and number of sexual partners in the past year for almost 10,000 men and women combined. 

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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