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The Sex Recession: Are Americans Really Having Less Sex?

Research shows that certain groups of Americans are having less and less sex these days, but is that really as bad as it sounds?

Americans have a funny way of assessing personal value. As proper capitalists, we put a lot of weight into what we own. We allow our shoes, our cars, our clothes, and our homes to speak to who we are and what we’re worth. Sure, the gauge extends to the immaterial, too. The laughs we collect and the weight we keep off also fall onto the scale. Sex works its way in there, too — specifically when it comes to how much of it we’re having. So maybe that’s why so many of us are having a hard time coming to terms with the idea that we may be having less.

To clarify, the so-called sex recession, as its been dubbed, hasn’t hit every demographic. According to Age of Majority, a company designed to crush the stereotypes and stigmas associated with aging, 64 percent of people 55 years or older are still sexually active, with a quarter of them having sex at least once a week. Nearly two-thirds have even opted to bring sex toys into the mix in the interest of spicing things up.

Mayla Freen has seen the trend unfold firsthand. As co-founder of TheAdultToyShop.com, she keeps a close eye on what sells and who’s buying. “Sales are higher than ever for us,” she told Fatherly. “In fact, I receive more calls from seniors looking to try sex toys than ever before.” If a sex recession really is moving in, it seems it seems to have spared our elders.

Debby Herbenick, PhD, professor at Indiana University School of Public Health and author of Because It Feels Good, has been researching attitudes and experiences related to sex for the better part of 15 years. When asked about a potential decline in sexual frequency among American adults, she also felt it necessary to distinguish between demographics. “It seems that some groups may be [having less sex], like younger Americans. It’s not clear if this trend holds for other groups.”

According to the Youth Risk Behavior Study (YRBS) conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of high-school students who have had sexual intercourse dropped by 14 percent between 1991 and 2017. After drawing on information collected from the General Social Survey, Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, also concluded that young people, in particular, seem to be having less sex than what may have been considered standard years ago. According to the data, around 73 percent of adults between 18 and 30 were having sex at least twice a month in the early 2000s. By 2016, that percentage was down to 66 percent.

Of course, if we are to assume that data is correct, and that sexual frequency truly is on the decline among younger Americans, then maybe it’s time to turn an eye to what that actually implies.

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Why, exactly, would younger Americans be having less sex? Well, it’s complicated. According to an investigation conducted by The Atlantic, younger people may be facing more inhibitions surrounding partnered sex than previous generations experienced. Masturbation, meanwhile, seems to be on the rise, which may also help explain Freen’s bump in sex toy sales. “Business is booming,” she reminds us. “In my personal experience, recessions of any kind are great for the adult toy industry.” Then there’s also the ubiquity of porn to consider.

There are other reasons sprinkled in there, as well. Hook-up culture has led to some sexual burnout, and young people seem less likely – and less capable – of putting themselves out there, both online and in-person. One of the more positive interpretations of situation revolves around the way in which we are prioritizing good sex over more mediocre encounters. Then, there’s also the economy, to consider. Things haven’t exactly been stellar for Millennials. In 2016, the Pew Research Center came out with a startling new finding: for the first time in 130 years, more young adults live with their parents than with a partner.

Still, there is something else we should consider before pursuing conversations concerning the so-called “sex recession.” Most narratives surrounding the subject are driven by comparative statistics. But maybe that’s not the best approach to take when it comes to matters of sex.

“I think one of the most important questions we should all be asking ourselves is, who sets what the ‘right’ frequency of sex is, anyway?” say Herbenick. “These are averages. They are meaningless for individuals and couples. I’d encourage anyone reading this to think about their own sex lives in a given month or year. What does it look like now? What’s missing? And what might help you and your partner(s) get it closer to what you want?”

Of course, finding peace with a slightly diminished sexual appetite can be a hard blow for some egos to take. If the idea of a decline in sexual frequency among your demographic plants even the smallest pit of anxiety, take a moment, and breathe. It’s likely not as drastic a situation as the headlines make it seem.

Nicole Prause is a sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist based in Los Angeles. She spends most of her time in a lab studying the physiology of sexual response. She and her team rely on a series of tests to analyze the way in which the brain responds to sexual stimuli and other cues. “Nothing’s changed,” she says. “We haven’t knocked anything permanently askew.”