What to Make of America’s “Decline in Sexual Frequency”

This Splendid Inconvenience by Brian Kershisnik. Fine art print from an original oil painting by Brian Kershisnik. Printed with archival, pigmented inks on archival quality Hahnemuhle William Turner paper. Signed and numbered below image on white border. Limited edition of 195. Image size is 7''H x 24''W. Dimensions below refer to paper size.
B. Kershisnik, “This Splendid Inconvenience”

If at that supreme hour, the wedded pair, dazzled with voluptuousness and believing themselves alone, were to listen, they would hear in their chamber a confused rustling of wings. Perfect happiness implies a mutual understanding with the angels. That dark little chamber has all heaven for its ceiling. When two mouths, rendered sacred by love, approach to create, it is impossible that there should not be, above that ineffable kiss, a quivering throughout the immense mystery of stars.

–Les Miserables

Sex is getting cheaper. The pill de-babied and the sexual revolution de-institutionalized and a-moralized sex; it is now much less constrained than ever before by marriage, mores, or maternity. Accordingly, it has settled in our society’s wild realm of personal choice and preference. Whether this has been a good or bad change is arguable, but it seems everyone could agree that we’d expect to see more sex as a result of the falling price. Slash prices and consumption increases. Remove the fence and the amusement park is overrun.

But that hasn’t happened. Surprisingly, just the opposite has occurred: Americans are having less sex. A CNN article reported on a study published in March in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which found that on average American adults currently have sex about nine fewer times per year than we did in the late 1990s. The article (not the study) advances several theories that may help explain why:

  • Distraction by technology: cell phones and Netflix and the affiliated technologies clamor for attention, promising instant gratification with minimal effort. Attention devoted to these sources is attention not spent on a relationship. A psychotherapist is quoted in the CNN article as saying, “Many couples find themselves in bed looking at their devices, freely admitting that they’re doing nothing all that compelling[.]”
  • Cybersex and other cheap sex alternatives: the internet, Tinder, and a host of other technologies make it unnecessary to bother with a real relationship. If the meaning of sex is simply individual expression and/or fulfilment of desire, then this can often be achieved without having to bother with accommodating the inconvenient desires and needs of another person–with porn and/or sex toys, for example. The article noted that the survey failed to define “sex,” so the numbers may be skewed downward if survey takers did not count various sexual behaviors apart from coitus.
  • The parenting effect: parents may be more tired than they used to be. People are having children later in life, and they are more actively involved in more of their children’s activities. At the end of the day, they may simply have less energy, resulting in less sex.
  • Medical reasons: Americans are taking more medications than ever, more have diabetes than ever, and there are more cancer survivors than ever. These things affect sexuality.
  • Increased ability of women to say no.

The article never claimed to be scientific. It cited a study for the fact that Americans are having less sex, and the rest was largely speculation. That’s why it was not surprising when the article took an ideological turn at the end. Being CNN, it was also not surprising that the ideology was of a piece with the modern amoral view of sexuality. Here are the concluding two paragraphs.

Compared with earlier generations, women might be viewing sex as less of a duty to their husbands and more of a personal choice. “It makes sense that women in relationships might be losing their sex drive and saying ‘no’ more, as opposed to my mother’s generation that just spread their legs and composed a shopping list in their heads during sex,” she said. “If that’s true, then the decline in frequency is a good thing.”

On that note, remember, a healthy sex life is whatever works for you and your partner. It can’t be measured by a statistic.

Well, CNN, I happen to think that the shift from “duty” to “personal choice” is dangerous, in sex as in most other things–at least where there exists a legitimate duty. And in marital relations, there is a legitimate duty to each other–what Paul calls “due benevolence” in 1 Corinthians 7:3. Now, I of course think it important that women (and men) be allowed to decline having sex, including with their spouses. But husbands and wives should nonetheless consider it a duty to do their best, within certain bounds, to ensure that their partners are sexually fulfilled. Sometimes that may mean saying “yes” when sex would not be at the very top of one’s list. It probably also means trying to resist distraction–not composing a shopping list, for example–in order to be fully present and to better offer oneself and one’s love to one’s partner.

This duty transcends gender–it is simply a principle of a successful marriage. It would apply equally in the context of a gay couple’s marriage. Thus, there is nothing sexist or remotely problematic about this principle in theory. In practice, of course, it gets complicated and messy. But it is balanced not by “personal choice” so much as by other needs and other duties, like being on time to work the next day, ensuring that the sex life of the marriage remains mutually fulfilling and wholesome, and selecting a partner compatible with one’s other duties.

In a healthy relationship, I would assume that husbands would not exact sex as if it were a tax on the marriage rather than a mutual privilege. They would not even chose to request sex if they knew their partner was so far from being in the mood that they would be composing a shopping list during sex.

And as to CNN’s closing assertion, I think it is demonstrably false that “a healthy sex life is whatever works for you and your partner.”

But my main point is not to criticize the article. What I mainly want to say is that I find it significant that the rise of the amoral view has correlated with the “decline in sexual frequency,” and I have a theory about why.

My prior post, “Meaning versus Desire: A Theory and Critique of Contemporary Sexuality,” proposed that there are two related but distinguishable economies of sexuality: the economy of meaning and the economy of desire. The amoral view and the attenuation of sex from its reproductive meanings have enabled the economy of desire to thrive at the expense of the economy of meaning. Sex means less today, because it is cheap and easy and so often removed from the marital and reproductive contexts that previously imposed a high price and enabled its highest meanings. I argued that what was needed was not the further freeing of sexuality for the purpose of self expression, but a re-tethering of sex to its highest meanings.

One possibility the CNN article failed to recognize is that the amoral view and the cheapening of sex may be one of the causes of the decline in sexual frequency. It is unsurprising that CNN failed to recognize this possibility, because CNN tends to be “progressive” in a sense that makes it guilty of chronological snobbery, and it would be loathe to admit the possibility that things have actually gotten worse in important ways (other than the climate) over the last sixty years. But it may well be that the availability of casual sex has not resulted in more sex because people desire meaningfulness much more deeply than they desire orgasm.

It may be, in other words, that the lowering of the price and the removal of the fences has not resulted in more visitors to the amusement park precisely because it is not an amusement park that people really wanted all along. Perhaps they wanted something more serious and important–something joyful and fun, but with angels rather than clowns (little cherubs of future children, perhaps), and symphonies rather than carnival jingles–something less like an amusement park and more like a temple.

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14 thoughts on “What to Make of America’s “Decline in Sexual Frequency”

    1. Good point, Josh. My theory is admittedly very speculative (like those advanced by CNN), and it would be interesting to know how the 90s compared to earlier decades. I do think that the sexual philosophy has changed–not that the amoral view came along since then, but it came increasingly into the mainstream, while the moral view became increasingly fringe.

    1. Brian, what an outstanding article. CNN is ultra progressive. I just watched two small segments on my computer of their shows and realized why I don’t watch TV.

  1. I can’t believe you are legitimately suggesting that personal choice should take a second seat to duty. Having sex with a woman who is composing a shopping list in her head is like having sex with a blow-up doll. Sure, it gets the job done, but is there really any feeling there at all? You want to have sex with someone who feels like it’s their job? Or who actually wants to have sex with you? What it sounds like you are saying is it is their job to want to have sex with you which is miles different from wanting to have sex with you. Also, saying it isn’t sexist or problematic doesn’t make so. When you choose to do something it is more meaningful than doing something out of duty. I pay my taxes because it is my duty. I choose to donate to charities. Sure, I teach my to kid things because I’m obligated to as a parent. But I legitimately want him to learn and succeed so I choose to be involved in his school and extra curricular activities. Which do you believe helps him more?
    I actually agree that people want more than an “amusement park”. I just disagree with how you got there.

    1. Thank you for your response. I think you misread my essay if you think I am saying that a husband should play the duty card to get his wife to have sex, or that sex should be reduced to a mere act of duty. What I am saying is simply that there is a mutual duty between husband and wife to seek and strive for each other’s happiness and well being, including sexual fulfillment. I am saying there is some give and take between his preferences and hers. I am saying that the relationship and the desires of the other spouse are sometimes more important than one’s own desires. This does not seem sexist of problematic to me as an abstract proposition. It is not sexist because it goes both ways, as I think I made clear. Both partners, whatever their gender, have a duty to try to help the other one be fulfilled, and that may sometimes require an effort that is not directly in line with the immediate desires of the moment. It is not problematic in the abstract because I am simply describing a basic principle of a successful marriage. (We love each other so we try to make each other happy, sometimes by acting or refraining from acting in accordance with our own inclinations.) Now, as I freely admit in the essay,how this principle applies in concrete situations can get messy. I am not opining about the right thing to do in any particular situation, nor am I qualified to do so. I’m only able to describe the general principle.

      1. You make it sexist yourself in the very beginning by tying sexual cheapening to lack of maternity. Why you do this is less clear. As far as I can tell it is for the sake of clever alliteration. Not only that, but what you specifically disagree with in the CNN article is their response to a woman’s increased ability to say no. A woman not feeling comfortable in saying no to her husband IS specifically tied to a woman feeling that she owes him sex like she owes him a clean house and a fresh cooked meal. To try to water that down by saying that they owe each other doesn’t really fix the problem. Saying that something would also apply in a homosexual relationship and therefore is not sexist is asinine. It’s a complete non sequitur. If you said that a woman shouldn’t be educated because it is useless and this applied to homosexuals and straight people so it wasn’t sexist, it would still be sexist. That whole chapter in Corinthians is fraught with sexists remarks, as is most of the Bible. I suppose my husband is just fulfilling his biblical duty if he stones our non-virgin daughter. Cool.

      2. I do not consider it sexist to say that the pill de-babied sex and that this reduced the biological and social “price” of sex. That is just a fact and I state it without any immediate value judgment. Nor do I apologize for finding in parenthood one of the highest meanings of sex. You can disagree but I don’t see why you apparently find this offensive. Regarding the CNN article, I do not disagree with a woman’s increased ability to say no. What I disagree with is the standard by which the writer measures the alleged improvement from her mother’s era to her own–the standard of individual choice. To me, that is a fairly empty standard. Individual choice regarding sex has increased, but the meaning has been depleted. I specifically state in my essay that the situation claimed for her mother’s era (composing a shopping list) is very far from the ideal. But so is a situation in which everybody does (or doesn’t do) whatever they want merely because they want (or don’t want) it, which is what the writer basically celebrates in the article. What I object to above all is not the ability to decline sex but the chronological snobbery of the article, the complacency about the current state of things, the inability to recognize the possibility of cultural decline in matters of sexuality. Nor do I ever say a woman should feel uncomfortable saying no–I only say that one’s own preferences are not the sole consideration, that there is also a duty to one’s spouse (and various other considerations that I mention). And finally, regarding Corinthians and the Bible, I decline to engage that very complex issue here for lack of space and time. All I will say here is that I only quote Paul for the phrase “due benevolence,” which I find an apt and pithy description of the mutual spousal duty (and, by the way, the duty IS mutual for Paul).

  2. You said that de-babying sex cheapened it (different than lowering the social price of sex) and you specifically used the word maternity, not parenthood. If that isn’t what you meant, maybe consider rephrasing. If parenthood is what lends the highest value to sex, then you’ve put homosexual sex, sex between infertile couples and sex as an expression of love in a lower value category of sex. Yes, that’s offensive (particularly to people who are infertile or homosexual) and I strongly disagree. It also doesn’t support your arguement of sex as a matter of duty for your partner’s happiness. Unless cheap sex (sex not leading to parenthood) and high value sex both make your partner happy and deepen your relationship.
    If you meant chronological snobbery, then just say so. However, the era she was referring to was one in which women were systematically repressed and expected to be subservient to their husbands. Which is why I find you arguing for it sexist.
    Paul makes some balanced statements about spousal treatment, but very unbalanced for men and women later in the same chapter. You can’t just pick the two words that fit your context and ignore the rest. Well, you can, but someone will read the whole thing. You don’t need to worry about offending me, I can see that your opinion is the only one you care to hear. I won’t be reading more. Cheers.

  3. Oh, and your “empty standard” of individual choice is the entire reason the Plan of Happiness was developed.

  4. Individual choice is also a defining characteristic of free societies, democracy, and free market economies. I would even venture to say that it is a good measure of societal progress as a whole.

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