In recent months, lots of people have claimed that sex is on the out. Depending on what you read, today's teens are choosing to stare at their phones/go to church/cry in their bedrooms instead of going out and hooking up.
Some commentators also point to the fact that men in particular seem to be going without sex, suggesting that the “incel” phenomenon is driven in part by a real – not just perceived – gap in “access to sex.”
But is this true? What does the data say? And what's meant to be driving this trend?
The statistics behind almost all of these claims come from the General Social Survey (GSS), a biennial American poll of roughly 4000 individuals (the exact number varies each year).
The latest available GSS data is from 2021. A number of the survey questions tackle the issue of sex.
To start with the simplest, we looked at the rate of casual sex amongst American adults over the last three decades.
The picture is pretty clear: casual sex is slowly but steadily on the rise, and has been since at least the mid-1990s.
This seems the most obvious reference point for anyone curious about a decline in sex. But let's focus on young people in particular: is it true that they're having less sex than in previous generations?
The answer, at least according to the GSS, is no. In 1988, the year the survey first included the question about casual sex, 3.2% of respondents under 35 reported having had sex with a casual date*. In 2021, that figure was 4.8%.
4.8% in 2021 is a decline from 2002's peak of 7.5%, but the upwards trajectory remains relatively stable.
There is one notable change: the age at which young people begin to have casual sex seems to be increasing, in that markedly fewer 18-24 year olds have been having casual sex over the last half-decade. But this is more than offset by the steep rise in casual sex amongst 25-34 year olds:
This increase is reflected in wider social attitudes, too. While a sizeable minority of US adults believe premarital sex is generally or always wrong, this proportion has almost halved (to below 25%) since the survey was first conducted in 1972. Society has become more permissive, more liberal, and more relaxed about ‘casual’ (or at least extramarital) sexual encounters:
This attitudinal change corresponds with a general decline in religious practice. Most Americans go to church no more than twice a year, and the decline has increased steeply since the early 00s:
So far, so predictable. Society is becoming increasingly liberal, and casual sex is generally destigmatised. Young people are, on the whole, having more of it.
But what happens when you split out men and women?
When the 2021 survey results were published, conservative think-tank the Institute for Family Studies produced a version of the following chart.**
This shows a slight increase in the proportion of women having zero sexual partners between 2011 and 2021. The number of celibate men also briefly increased, before declining again to dip back below 3% in 2021.
But there is not enough data here to identify a trend. This is mainly because the number of respondents in this sub-group (adults under 35 reporting zero sexual partners over the last 12 months) is so low: each point on the chart above represents between 4 and 44 adults. These numbers are far too small to support broad conclusions about American society.
Nor does it seem to be the case that young people are driving the alleged rise in sexlessness. If anything, the trend is most pronounced amongst older adults:
Nonetheless, it's not clear that the recent peaks here can be understood as indicative of social trends either. Although each point here represents between 21 and 242 people, the irregular nature of responses over time suggests that either a variable (that particularly affects men, but changes at least every few years) is unaccounted-for, or the fluctuations are effectively statistical noise.
When it comes to "incels" the data is similarly inconclusive. Young men have more sex with casual dates than do young women, and the gap increases with age. Young men also have a higher average number of sexual partners than young women. Of course, this doesn't rule out the existence of a particular subset of young men who are unable to have sex. It just means we're unlikely to be able to spot it from this data.
So: is there a sex recession amongst young people? No – or, at least, not according to the data most often cited to say otherwise. The real picture might not be as headline-grabbing, but it's worth bearing in mind next time you see Zoomers or young millennials accused of excessive piety.
*N.B. As with all percentage figures taken from the GSS, this figure is deflated by the inclusion of "No answer," "Inapplicable," and "Don't know" options in the survey. It should not be assumed that all participants not selecting the highlighted response selected its opposite.
** The sexual frequency (sexfreq) GSS variable that the IFS reports using does not produce the graph published by the IFS online. This may be because of an apparent anomaly with data collection by the GSS in 2012. The chart used here, and (we suggest) by the IFS, uses the partners variable instead.