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Today’s Issue:

  • “American teenagers and young adults are having less sex” than previous generations, Kate Julian writes in The Atlantic’s December cover story, contributing to what she calls “The Sex Recession.”
  • Today we’re sharing a few key takeaways from Kate’s research. The Masthead team interviewed Kate about her research. Listen to our conversation here, or read about it below.
  • Our interview with Kate left us with a few open questions. The Masthead team will be following up and expanding on her research over the next couple of weeks.

The Top 5 Reasons Young People Are Having Less Sex

By Caroline Kitchener

“This problem has no single source,” Kate Julian writes. Instead, a vast array of social, cultural, and technological factors are combining to reduce young people’s sex drives. Of those, there are roughly five leading contenders.

  • Young people are finding pleasure in other ways. “From 1992 to 1994,” Kate writes, “the share of American men who reported masturbating in a given week doubled, to 54 percent, and the share of women more than tripled, to 26 percent.” It’s not just an American phenomenon. According to a recent Economist article, young people in Japan view sex as mendokusai, or “tiresome,” instead choosing to frequent onakura shops, where men pay to masturbate in front of female employees. With the rise of the internet, it’s become far easier to access pornography—which is likely contributing to the spike in masturbation and, by extension, the Sex Recession. “Who would pick messing around online over actual messing around?” Kate asks. Quite a few people, as it turns out.
  • Teens are less likely to be in long-term relationships. Young people are more likely to have sex when they’re in a long-term relationship, the sociologist Lisa Wade says. But teens are encouraged to focus on themselves, and pack their schedules with academic and extracurricular activities, leaving scant time for romance. The journalist Malcolm Harris says parents’ focus on children’s self-development at the expense of their intimate relationships is an important factor: “A decline in unsupervised free time probably contributes a lot,” he writes. “At a basic level, sex at its best is unstructured play with friends, a category of experience that … time diaries … tell us has been decreasing for American adolescents.”
  • Tinder is the worst. (And so are OKCupid, Bumble, Coffee Meets Bagel, and The League.) By one count, Kate told me, most couples now meet on dating apps. That cultural change has been good for some young people, who can confirm mutual interest before they proceed with a relationship. But it’s left others feeling locked out of the new dating scene. But, Kate writes, “the overwhelming majority of matches don’t lead to so much as a two-way text exchange, much less a date, much less sex.” One young woman, who describes herself as fat, told Kate that men online would often “swipe right” (express interest) just to taunt her.
  • Sex hurts. Thirty percent of women experienced pain the last time they had vaginal sex, and 72 percent experienced pain the last time they had anal sex, according to a 2012 study by Debby Herbenick, a sex researcher at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. While historical data are scarce, sex scholars believe that painful sex is on the rise—and that porn could be responsible. “Several studies show that, in the absence of high-quality sex education,” Kate writes, “teen boys look to porn for help understanding sex—anal sex and other acts women can find painful are ubiquitous in mainstream porn.”
  • Young people are more self-conscious. By the mid-1990s, most American high schools had stopped requiring students to shower together after gym class. “As one might imagine, feeling comfortable in your body is good for your sex life,” Kate writes. If your body has always been an intensely private thing, she suggests, you’ll naturally feel less inclined to show it off.

Sex Questions, Answered

After reading the cover story, the Masthead team (Matt, Caroline, and Karen) came up with a list of questions for Kate. Here are a few of our favorites. Kate’s answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

In the piece, you reference the term hooking up, which can be used to describe all manner of sexual acts. Why has the phrase become so entrenched in our cultural vocabulary?

Kate: The term seems to date to the '90s in terms of media mentions. And based on interviews that I've done, by the late '80s, it was in more colloquial use. Researchers who have looked at hookup culture find that it's a totally elastic term. It means what you want it to, which is one of the reasons people love the term: It actually can be wonderfully private. You can say you hooked up with somebody, and who knows what really happened? That's between you and them.

Interactions on dating apps only rarely lead to in-person meet-ups. According to Tinder, the number of swipes that end in a match is 1 or 2 percent. What’s the point of a dating app that never actually ends in a date?

The numbers that Tinder has released, which I cite in the story, certainly give a user pause. I will say there is a more positive way to look at the apps. If you're a committed user, you're willing to put in your time. And if you have other things going for you that make you likely to come across well in that venue (for example, you photograph well), the apps can and do work. They are, by some counts, the leading way that people meet each other now. So I do not mean to leave people with the idea that this is a road to nowhere. I just mean to pause and say that apps may not be the most efficient way for some people to find a meaningful relationship, especially the way some people are using them now.

Now that apps dominate the dating scene, you write, people are nostalgic for a time when it was normal to meet each other in bars. But was it ever really “normal” to meet someone in a bar?

It is interesting that this idea has so much cultural resonance for people: whether or not people actually met in bars. That's almost become a shorthand for saying "I met somebody not at my workplace. Not in my neighborhood. Not through my church. I met them out there in the real world in a public setting." I don't think it's really about bars, although bars are not irrelevant either, because if you think about it, the gay community pioneered dating apps with Grindr, and it's commonly said that Grindr killed the gay bar. The bar, in a way, is this thing we have an idealized version of that maybe never really existed—like the Cheers bar is not a real place. That being said, I do find the nostalgia that the idea seems to provoke to be meaningful.

In the early days of dating apps, it was somewhat taboo to say that you met your partner online. Is it less taboo today?

We're at this moment where what is considered taboo is very rapidly changing. I met my husband in an elevator. That elevator was in our workplace. He and I didn't work together directly, but we were employed by the same institution. I do think that now there is, for good reason, post–#MeToo, some reconsideration of whether it's okay to express romantic interest in somebody else in your workplace. Ten years go, it might've felt a little weird to admit that you met somebody on an app, and now it might feel a little weird to admit that you met them at work. Or maybe, more to the point, it might just be harder to strike up that conversation at work in a way that would take it out of work.

Sex Questions, Unanswered

Even in 12,000-plus words, Kate couldn’t explore all the points and arguments she wanted to. That’s where we come in. Over the next month, we’ll be reporting out a few questions related to the cover story that Kate asked us to explore.

If you have your own questions after reading the piece, send them along. And stay tuned for our answers.

Here’s one more link to “The Sex Recession.”

Today’s Wrap-Up

  • Today’s Question: What do you still want to know about the sex recession? Does Kate’s research line up with your experience?
  • What’s Coming: On Friday, staff writer Marina Koren reports on NASA’s attempt to land a spacecraft on Mars for the 10th time.
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