Human sexual activity affects cognitive function, health, happiness, and overall quality of life and, yes, there is also the issue of reproduction. The vast array of benefits is one reason researchers have become alarmed at the decline in sexual activity around the world, from Japan to Europe to Australia. A recent study assessing what’s going on in the United States added to the pile of evidence, showing declines from 2009 to 2018 in all forms of partner sexual activity, including penovaginal sex, anal sex, and partner masturbation. The results show that teens also report less solo masturbation.
The declines “are not insignificant,” as the authors write in the study, published Nov. 19 in Archives of sexual behavior. Between 2009 and 2018, the proportion of adolescents declaring that they have no sexual activity, alone or with partners, increased from 28.8% to 44.2% among young men and from 49.5% in 2009 to 74 % among young women. The researchers obtained the self-reported information from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior and used responses from 4,155 people in 2009 and 4,547 people in 2018. These respondents to the confidential survey ranged from 14 to 14 years old. 49 years.
The study itself did not examine the reasons for this trend. Corn American scientist spoke with its first author, Debby Herbenick, professor at Indiana University’s School of Public Health at Bloomington, and Tsung-chieh (Jane) Fu, paper co-author and research associate at school, on the underlying factors that could explain these changes.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Given that research in other parts of the world has already indicated a decrease in partnered sex, what do your recent findings add to the picture?
HERBENICK: Our study also tracks the declines and expands the research because Jane [Fu] and our larger team followed sexual behaviors in great detail. We looked at penile-vagina sex, couple masturbation, and giving and receiving oral sex. And we have seen declines in all categories. And we also included teenagers. The decline in teenage masturbation is interesting, and we were the first to include it. This one deserves a lot more attention.
What could explain the declines among young people?
FU: We need more studies to tell us why. But for young people, computer games, the increasing use of social media, video games, something is replacing that time. During this period from 2009 to 2018, different types of social media have emerged. It is constantly evolving, especially for the youngest.
HERBENICK: We don’t expect there to be an explanation or a driver for these decreases. We fully expect that there will be many things going on for different age groups, different partnership statuses, different genders. You don’t need these individual items to explain much of a noticeable decrease, but … each [might] explain one or two percentage points.
Is there a contribution from the increase in the number of people expressing asexual identity?
HERBENICK: We don’t know why more people identify as asexual, but I think more people are aware of this as a valid identity. Even compared to when I started teaching human sexuality in 2003, I regularly had a student in my class who could identify as asexual. Now I have three or four. It strikes me. I love that young people are aware of so many different ways of expressing what they think about themselves. For many of them, they find it okay to withdraw from sex.
In your article, you mention the increase in ârough sexâ as potentially contributing to the decline. Can you explain what you mean by rough sex and how it might play a role in these changes?
HERBENICK: Especially for 18 to 29 year olds, there has been an increase in what a lot of people are calling rough sexual behavior. Limited research suggests that an earlier idea of ââthis was what I would consider pretty vanilla rough sex: hair pulling, a little light spanking. What we are now seeing in the studies of thousands of randomly selected students is choking or strangulation during sex. The behavior appears to be a majority behavior for college age students. For a lot of people, it’s consensual and wanted and requested, but it’s also scary for a lot of people, even if they are learning to like it or want to. This is a major line of research for our team: understanding how they feel, what the health risks are and how this fits into the larger sexual landscapes.
FU: We have seen what appear to be real changes in these behaviors. We don’t know how much this can cause some people to withdraw, but we do know that some people are scared and don’t know what to think about what is presented to them, especially young adults. They could consent to sex, but something like choking could happen without being asked first. We see a lot of gender effects in a lot of behaviors for different non-heterosexual identities. For example, bisexual women experience these aggressive behaviors much more.
HERBENICK: We’ve really tried to sort that out, too, because our research doesn’t clearly show how much these high rates are wanted and pleasurable or unwanted, as bisexual women also report higher rates of sexual victimization.
In the report, you note that there are probably several reasons why people’s gender expression has changed.
HERBENICK: Various studies around the world have offered different explanations, such as economic status. Lower income is associated with larger declines. A study looked at the use of computer games among young people [as a possible explanation]. Some people have observed a decrease in alcohol consumption, and we know that [alcohol use] may be associated with disinhibition. We saw, a little, [an] increase in sex toy use – from what we looked at, not a massive increase. If there is a change, it’s probably just going to contribute to one of the blips. i don’t expect it to be the explanation.
Do you have any suggestions for people who might read this interview and ask, “Should I do something with this information now?”
FU: For parents, it would be great to have open conversations with their kids, especially teens, about sex. Sex in recent years looks very different, whether it is the emergence of technology or new sexual behaviors. We hope that parents can take an active role in guiding their children, not only to warn them of the risk of various sexual behaviors, but also to educate them on how to have meaningful relationships and possibly satisfying sex. and pleasant.
HERBENICK: For many of us, I think it’s worth asking a few questions: How do I feel about my sex life? How is my partner feeling? Ask them! Some people may look around and feel that the sexual interactions they are having are pleasurable, connected, joyful, and a satisfying sex life for them. Others might look around us and say, “You know 10 or 15 years ago when we couldn’t get that many funny shows on TV, we watched a lot less TV and had sex. more often. I wonder how we could have sex more often?
More generally, could you explain a little bit how sexual activity with or without a partner intersects with other aspects of health and what âsexual healthâ looks like?
HERBENICK: Sexuality is such an important part of life, and understanding the changes that occur is important to how we understand what changes in the human experience. We know that sexual activity can help people relax, fall asleep, reduce stress, feel intimate and connected, and improve relationships, and can even help strengthen their immune systems. And sex can also just be fun, pleasurable, and joyful, a way of expressing yourself in a vulnerable way. Sexual health is multidimensional and is not only about the presence or absence of infections or diseases, but also the potential for pleasure, access to accurate information about sexuality, bodily autonomy and ability to have sexual experiences without violence or coercion.
What types of effects on these behaviors do you see or do you already anticipate from the pandemic, which of course were not followed in your study?
FU: We know that things change a lot when people are at home. Being able to work from home has allowed some remote partners to spend more time together or even live together. But for partners who don’t live together and don’t have the option of working remotely, travel difficulties can lead to even less time together. For those who live with their partner, more time spent together at home does not necessarily lead to increasingly satisfying or pleasurable sex. Quarantine, social distancing, financial hardship, working from home could all lead to relationship strain. The loss or instability of child care services due to the pandemic can restrict parents’ sex lives.
HERBENICK: Certainly people who don’t live with partners have, on the whole, been more limited in partnered sex over the past two years, with some easing since the widespread availability of vaccines and boosters. vaccines. But at the end of the day, we don’t live in a vacuum and our sex life doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so there are a myriad of factors. The past two years have also brought great grief to people who have lost family members to COVID. Many people face a long period of COVID and related health issues, job loss and financial hardship. And more and more people of all ages have struggled with anxiety and depression since the pandemic. So, all of this also has an influence on sexual interest and libido.