Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Why Americans Are Having Less Sex Than Ever


Between the era of Bolton and the era of Legend, the decline in American's sex lives has become really pronounced. Neither musician is to blame. Jason LaVeris/Ron Galella/Julien Capmeil/Getty Images
Between the era of Bolton and the era of Legend, the decline in American's sex lives has become really pronounced. Neither musician is to blame. Jason LaVeris/Ron Galella/Julien Capmeil/Getty Images

Back in 1990, when Michael Bolton's timeless romantic ballad "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You" ruled the radio, married Americans reported having sex an average of 73 times a year, almost 1.5 times a week. But by 2014, when soulful crooner John Legend recorded "All of Me," American married couples were only having sex 59 times a year, or barely once a week.

Single people aren't doing much better. When all American adults are taken together, married and unmarried, they are having sex an average of nine fewer times per year compared to roughly 20 years ago.

Which makes us ask: What's up, John Legend?

While the quality of make-out music is probably not to blame for the decline in American whoopie-making, a team of researchers led by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University believe they've identified some other potential causes of America's lazy libido.

Twenge and her colleagues analyzed data from the annual General Social Survey, a long-running study in which interviewers ask more than 26,000 American adults about every aspect of their lives, from employment to entertainment to sex. From those reams of demographic and behavioral data, the researchers identified two main shifts that account for the decline in sexual frequency over the past 20 years.

First, there's an increasing number of American adults, married or unmarried, without a steady romantic partner. And second, those who are married are simply having sex less often.

In a recent paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Twenge and her co-authors noted that young people, in particular, aren't partnering up the way they used to. In fact, the number of people in their 20s "not living with a partner" increased from 48 percent in 2005 to 64 percent in 2014.

"That's a pretty large shift for just 10 years," says Twenge. "Overall, if you're looking at people living with a romantic partner, it's just a lot lower than it used to be."

This is significant because, historically, single people have sex less frequently on average than married people. Sociologists call it the "marital advantage." The same advantage exists for people living with a romantic partner. So if there are fewer steady couples, sexual frequency declines as a whole.

But what about the much-publicized promiscuity of millennial "hookup culture"? Twenge wrote a book about millennials called "Generation Me" and co-authored a previous study on American's sexual behavior and attitudes. That analysis confirmed that millennials were the most accepting of premarital and casual sex, but found that 20-somethings actually had fewer sexual partners than the older cohort of Generation X.

Then there are the married folks. Why are they having sex significantly less frequently than just 20 years ago?

One explanation has to do with age. If there's one thing that's crystal clear from the survey data, it's that older people have less sex than younger people. Sexual frequency peaks in the mid-20s at over 80 times per year and nosedives over the ensuing decades until it bottoms out at near zero when people reach their early 80s.

This matters because people are getting married later and later in life. Back in the 1970s, when the baby boomers were getting married, the average age for a woman's first marriage was 21. By 1990, it had climbed to 23, and by 2014 it was up to 27. A 27-year-old is by no means over the hill, but even small increases in age can lead to overall decreases in sexual frequency.

But age isn't the whole story. Twenge and her colleagues used statistical analysis to control for age when comparing married to non-married sexual frequency, and they still saw a steady decline in the "marital advantage."

Something else is eating away at the American libido. Is it our work schedules? No, Twenge found that people who worked the most actually had more sex. How about pornography? Has the widespread availability of online porn replaced the need for real-world intimacy? Not according to the survey results. People who reported watching at least one adult video in the past year reported greater sexual frequency than those who didn't.

One culprit, Twenge believes, is technology. She bases her hypothesis on an interesting pattern in the data starting in 2008. Beginning that year, both never-married and married Americans have experienced a linear, side-by-side decline in sexual frequency that continues until today. Not coincidentally, 2008 was the year after both smartphones and streaming video hit the mainstream.

"If you're going to think about outside causes, you can make an educated guess based on two factors," says Twenge. "Number one, does it change over time in the same pattern? And number two, would we logically expect that the outside factor is going to lead to less sex?"

The patterns seem to match; the use of smartphones and streaming video have risen sharply since 2008, just as sexual frequency has plummeted. And it's a fair expectation that going to bed with an iPhone or a laptop is going to impact intimacy.

But other big things happened in 2008, like the global economic downturn. Wouldn't that have affected sexual behavior, just like it deflated marriage and birth rates? Maybe, says Twenge, but the patterns don't exactly match. As unemployment levels came back to normal in 2012 and 2013, so did marriage and birth rates, but overall sexual activity continued to dip.

Twenge does acknowledge one particular side effect of the global downturn that hasn't bounced back: the economic underperformance of men.

"Young men's employment has continued to decline," says Twenge. "When young men aren't working, a lot of times that means they're not having sex. They're not getting married and not living together with someone, because they don't have a job and that confers status."



More to Explore