Americans Are Having Less Sex

More Americans reported sex drought in 2018 than any year since 1989

Spring breakers crowd Ocean Drive in South Beach, Florida / Getty Images
March 25, 2019

More Americans reported that they did not have sex in 2018 than in any other year since at least 1989, new data show, further extending the "sex drought" of recent years.

These conclusions are based on recently released data from the General Social Survey, a massive and well-respected survey of Americans' behaviors and opinions administered biannually by researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago. Since 1989, the administrators have asked respondents how frequently they have sex, on a seven-point scale from never to more than four times per week.

Researchers looking at these data have noticed a surprising trend: Since peaking in the late 1990s, the proportion of Americans who report having sex in the past year has fallen steadily. The most recent GSS, released last week and covering 2018, found a record low: Nearly a quarter of Americans reported no sex.

This reality seems incongruous with America today, where sex—especially low-commitment "hook-ups"—seems common place in the culture. We have certainly gotten more permissive over the past 15 years: polling from Gallup finds that Americans in 2015 were 16 percentage points more likely to approve of out-of-wedlock birth than in 2000, 15 points more likely to approve of pre-marital sex, nine points more likely to support polygamy, and even one point more likely to approve of cheating.

Some might be willing to dismiss the sex drop as a difference of opinion, Americans deciding that there should be sex for thee but not for me. But there are real social concerns at play. Sex is strongly linked with happiness, and record-high celibacy in the GSS is tied to record-low life satisfaction. More significantly, less sex means fewer babies, a big deal when American fertility is at its lowest point in recorded history. And perhaps most significantly, less sex may be linked to a broader decline in human connection, especially marriage.

What, then, is going on? A closer look at the data might shed some light.

America is older than it was 30 years ago. The median respondent to the GSS is now in his late 40s, compared to his early 40s in 1989; census data show that 15 percent of the population is over 65, compared to 12 percent in 1990.

Older Americans have sex less. Using the combined GSS since 1989, we can see a smooth trend in past-year celibacy, which drops through respondents' late 40s before rising steadily to the point that three out of four 80-year-olds report no sex in the past year.

This is not surprising—older Americans are more likely to be infirm, and more likely to be widowed (and so to lack a stable sexual partner). So, does the greying of America explain the sex drop?

Not entirely. Although there are more older Americans, younger Americans are actually having less sex too. Social psychologist Jean Twenge has argued that much of this drop is a "cohort" effect—Gen. Z and Millennials have less sex than Gen. X, who had less sex than Baby Boomers, and so on.

The decline is not just limited to 18- to 30-year-olds. CDC data show that the proportion of 12- to 17-year-olds who self-report as sexually active has fallen too—down from 37.5 percent in 1991 to 28.7 percent in 2017.

This trend comports with other ones—highlighted in Twenge's research—that suggest young people are less likely to engage in a whole set of higher-risk activities generally associated with adulthood. They drink less, do drugs less, drive less, and go on dates less. This is good in terms of safety, but also can mean young people are less willing to take a chance on a personal relationship.

"I think we're seeing a culture of caution getting a foothold among today’s young adults," Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, told the Free Beacon. "They drive less, for instance. Sex is risky. So young men and women are less inclined to risk it."

Wilcox pointed to one other trend which he thinks explains young Americans' disinterest in sex: the rise of smartphones.

"Video games, social media, streaming video, and pornography may be leading young men and women to spend more time online and less time with real people in the real world," Wilcox said. "We're seeing less dating, for instance. The widespread availability of high quality, low-cost entertainment may be reducing the likelihood that young adults spend time together in real life thereby reducing opportunities for sex."

Regardless of what is causing younger Americans to lose interest in sex, the effects of this disinterest are pronounced. On the one hand, teen pregnancy and abortion rates are at all-time lows, a great sign by any measure. On the other, this disinterest in sex persists into Americans’ 20s, when they might otherwise be getting married and having kids. This explains why, in 2018, fertility among 25- to 29-year-old women fell below that of 30-34 year-olds for the first time in recorded history.

This link to childrearing highlights the last obvious cause of the sex drop: the decline of marriage. According to the Census, 58 percent of American adults were married in 1990; that number fell ten percentage points by 2017, a far larger change than the number of Americans shifting into the over-65 bracket in the same time period.

This matters because there is a strong link between being in a stable, monogamous relationship and getting some. Although hook-up culture promises more sex, the opposite is true: among unmarried Americans, some have a lot of sex, while most have little to none.

This holds true in the GSS: married people are more likely to have sex in the past year than single people, across the entire lifespan.

Some social conservatives might cheer the sex drop, seeing in it a more prim and proper culture. But public opinion has clearly not swung that way—rather, it seems to be the case that eroding sexual mores and a decline in sex actually go hand-in-hand. This makes sense when we understand the marriage connection. Do away with stable, long-term monogamy, and sex will go with it.

This fact points to a bigger one: Americans today are less connected than ever, and their sexual choices reflect that reality. Whether it is less marriage or more smartphones, Americans are coming apart. In other words: America might be in need of some sexual healing.