Americans are having less sex now than they were in the late 1990s. That’s the conclusion of a new analysis of survey data that have been collected since 1989.
The results are from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative sample of Americans over the age of 18. One of the questions is, “About how often did you have sex during the last 12 months?”
Participants answered that question on a 0 to 6 scale, with 0 meaning “not at all” and 6 meaning “more than three times a week.” The authors sometimes analyzed those responses directly. For other analyses, they converted the scale into an estimate of the number of times per year that people had sex. For example, when participants chose the highest number, 6, meaning they had sex more than three times a week, the authors used 5 times a week as their best guess and then assumed that those participants had sex 260 times per year (5 times a week x 52 weeks).
The authors analyzed data from more than 26,000 participants between 1989 and 2014. Sometimes they grouped the years into five time periods: 1989-1994; 1995-1999; 2000-2004; 2005-2009; and 2010-2014. The authors also had access to lots of demographic data about the participants.
The big bottom-line finding touted in so many of the media stories written about the study is that Americans are having less sex than they were before. Specifically, on the average, Americans are having sex 9 fewer times per year now compared to the late 1990s, and 7 fewer times per year compared to the early 1990s.
The decline in sexual frequency was not the same for everyone. The decrease in having sex was especially steep for people who were married or divorced and much less so (if at all) for lifelong single people.
In the earlier years of the survey, people who were currently married were having more sex than lifelong single people. Is that still true as of the most recent year of the survey, 2014? The authors tried to answer that in several ways, and got somewhat different answers.
For example, when the authors used their estimate of the total number of times per year that people had sex, the lifelong single people now seem to be having more sex than the currently married people. (If you can access the article, look at Figure 2.) Starting in 1989, the currently married people were having sex more times per year than the lifelong single people. But somewhere around 2002, the results flipped, and the lifelong single people started having more sex.
But, like I said, the results were more complicated than that. When the authors simply looked at the answers to the 0 to 6 scale, without trying to convert those answers into the number of times per year that people had sex, then the people who were currently married looked like they were having more sex than the lifelong single people – though the difference had become much smaller over time.
The authors approached the same question in several other ways, too, and again got somewhat different answers each time.
That means that there is no clear answer as to whether lifelong single people are now having more sex than people who are currently married. It depends on how you analyze the data.
But one result is consistent across all analyses: Over the past decades, the frequency of having sex has declined much more among married people than among lifelong single people. Whatever gap there is between currently married people and lifelong single people, it is smaller than it used to be.
The same pattern occurs if people who have a steady romantic partner (whether married or not) are compared to those who do not have a steady partner. Over the years, the frequency of having sex has decreased more for people with steady romantic partners than for those without steady partners.
American society glorifies sex, so the typical media reaction to these new findings was predictable: It is a problem that Americans are having less sex.
But is it? Attitudes toward sex have been dramatically different at different times, historically, and different places. For example, women were once believed to be mostly uninterested in sex. In past decades, the pendulum has swung toward a stance of “the more, the merrier,” for both women and men. So if Americans are having less sex, then supposedly, we are all less merry.
But some new ways of thinking have been emerging, including the growing asexuality movement. More and more people are standing up amidst all the celebration of sex, and saying, “No thanks. Not interested.”
To know how to evaluate the new data on the declining frequency of sex, we need to have an answer to a different question: How much sex are you getting, relative to how much you want? That’s what really matters.
Twenge, Jean M., Ryne A. Sherman, and Brooke E. Wells. 2017. Declines in sexual frequency among American adults, 1989-2014. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
[Take a look at my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” if you are interested. Also, this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life is always available. Check out my website, too, if you’d like.]