Young Americans Are Retreating From Intimacy
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Apparently younger Americans are having less sex. You might get the opposite impression from dating apps, Internet porn and talk of a hookup culture. But research is showing what a cover story in The Atlantic labels "The Sex Recession." Atlantic senior editor Kate Julian spoke with David Greene.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So talk to me about your research. How do you know Americans are having less sex?
KATE JULIAN: So over the past few years, a series of studies have come out in one of the leading sex research journals finding that people are having sex less frequently, that young adults - people in their 20s - are more likely to have been celibate in adulthood and that they are on track to have fewer lifetime sexual partners than either Boomers or Gen Xers have had.
GREENE: And this is so interesting because, I mean, as you said, with all of these dating apps, like you said that with Tinder or Grindr, you could have sex within the hour if you really wanted to. You said these should be boom times for sex. But you wrote that unless you're really good looking, the thing that online dating may be best at is sucking up large amounts of time. I was so struck by this. I mean, are you saying that dating apps are actually having the opposite effect?
JULIAN: For some people, they obviously work really well. Very quickly, they've become the leading way to meet partners. But for others, they can be really demoralizing and a huge time suck. The last time Tinder released data on the question of how much a person uses the app in a day, it worked out to an average of an hour and a half. Part of this may be because of the way people are using the apps. There's some interesting new research suggesting that people tend to really reach out of their league.
So one study found that the average user is trying to match with people who are 25 percent more physically attractive than they are. So you have this image of sort of a man trying to match with a woman who's more attractive than he is. And then she, in turn, is doing the same thing. And you have this chain of people who aren't connecting as a result.
GREENE: Speaking of the way connecting used to happen, it's funny - you and I, it sounds like, met our partners around the same time. You said that you met your husband in an elevator back in 2001. I met my wife in a bar. I didn't see anything wrong with that. I was so happy about it. You were surprised because - by the reaction that people were giving you when you would tell them, when you were working on this piece, that you met your husband in an elevator. Why'd they have a strange reaction?
JULIAN: People seemed to have two reactions simultaneously which were kind of at odds with each other. One was, oh, I would love to meet somebody that way - in the sort of unscripted, natural way in person. And then the other was, but wait, in reality, if somebody started talking to me on an elevator, I would recoil because that would seem really inappropriate and strange. It seems like in a fairly short period of time, we've just become a bit less comfortable sort of striking up conversations in real life.
One man I spoke to for the piece, who I call Simon, went into a long-term relationship in 2007, so just as iPhones were coming out. And when he came out of the relationship in 2014, he was struck by how much weirder it seemed to sort of strike up a conversation with someone in a bar. He has since found another long-term relationship through an app. He described it as sort of having stepped out of a time machine.
GREENE: So that - and we should say there are a lot of different factors at play - but just taken together what we've talked about so far, I mean, one thing that might be happening is people are making these authentic, natural connections in person less. And some of those relationships might lead to, you know, long-term relationships and thus maybe sex. And we're spending a lot more time on dating apps, where we're not necessarily getting those connections, but we're losing a lot of time.
JULIAN: I think that's right. Also, dating apps can be demoralizing. You have a lot of rejection experiences. And people are really judging each other more on appearance. So for people who are less physically attractive, you have less chance to shine for other reasons - because you're funny, say, or kind or all the other things that you take in when you're interacting with a person off screen.
GREENE: You said that porn is also playing a significant role in perhaps the drop in the amount of sex that Americans are having. Explain that for me.
JULIAN: So this is a really complicated question. And unfortunately, the research is not as extensive as we'd like it to be. We can, however, say that this development does seem to have coincided with some things that clearly are porn-related. One of those is what seems to be a real rise in the prevalence of masturbation. That's not solely related, but it does have something to do with porn clearly.
Another sort of interesting effect has to do with learning about sex from porn. For people who are inexperienced and sort of decide to try moves that they've seen on screen in the real world with a partner, I heard again and again it just may not go over well. And it may lead your partner to sort of be scared off in future.
GREENE: Wow. So porn can either cause people to do something that can replace sex or cause partners to not want to have sex with you, both of which might explain why we're seeing these numbers drop.
JULIAN: It seems so, yes.
GREENE: The trends you're seeing - is this primarily a heterosexual phenomenon?
JULIAN: This is a fascinating question. It's difficult to answer because the research on non-heterosexual dating relationships is really limited. One researcher at Stanford has made an effort to sort of oversample people who don't identify as straight in his research. What he's found suggests that they have more active dating lives, which raises the intriguing possibility that this phenomenon that I'm describing may be more prevalent among straight people.
GREENE: So what is the take home here, if there is one? Is this having an impact on our lives? I mean, is it threatening our human survival? How serious is this?
JULIAN: Well, I think the first part of this is that it's going to take some time to sort out. I mean, one researcher I spoke to said entirely seriously - this is somebody who specializes in dating - that there have been two really rapid transitions in sort of human courtship. One was tied to the agricultural revolution 10 to 15,000 years ago and the second being tied to this moment.
GREENE: Wow. That's dramatic.
JULIAN: That being said, whether or not that's the case - you know, it may be - some people right now are worrying about the fact that, for example, the fertility rate is falling dramatically. To be honest, I'm far more concerned about the people who are here now. A really robust body of research shows that health and happiness tend to lead to a good sex life or a happy sex life and the reverse as well. And I think that if something is going on in our culture that is making intimacy - both physical intimacy and, really, I would say, more importantly, emotional intimacy - more fraught and more elusive, that should be deeply troubling to us.
GREENE: All right, Kate. Thanks for bringing this to us. We appreciate it.
JULIAN: Thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF XANDER BROWN'S "ICARUS")
INSKEEP: That's Kate Julian speaking with David Greene about her article in The Atlantic called "The Sex Recession." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.