Yes, I was shocked when a friend gifted me a Hitachi Magic Wand for my birthday this year. Especially because they normally just send a card. Then, I shrugged. After all, we have been in a sex recession.
If this is news to you, let’s be clear: it’s real. And it’s still happening.
What is a sex recession, and are you sure we're in one?
The term “sex recession” was first coined in 2018 by Kate Julian in this viral piece for The Atlantic. While you may already be scoffing, the data doesn’t lie: from the beginning of the millennia through 2018, Americans were having record-low numbers of sex. The number of graduating high school students who’d had intercourse dropped 14%, intimacy experts found “young adults were on track to have fewer sex partners” than ever, adults were having 12% less partnered sex on average, and masturbation rates peaked. The Atlantic’s analysis ends the year it was published — but since then, boom-boom hasn’t made a bounceback (sorry, we had to).
In 2022, the Institute for Family Studies reported that the numbers haven’t gotten much better. In fact, the portion of Americans that have sex weekly or more is trending steadily downward: while nearly fifty percent of adults reported “weekly whoopee” in the late 80s, only a third of today’s adults knock boots that frequently. Celibacy, or choosing to abstain from sex, has also skyrocketed in 18 to 29 year olds. And in 2021, women “reported the highest level of celibacy since 1989.” Even with ticks upward here and there, people are simply sexing less.
In short? Yes, the evidence suggests we’re still very much in a sex recession, even if we’re climbing out of it.
Why is the sex recession happening?
The quick answer to why we’re in a nationwide dry spell could be a resounding, “it’s rough out there!” But what are the specific reasons we’re knocking boots less? In the words of famed and imaginary sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, “I couldn’t help but wonder…”
Here is a collection of our educated hypotheses:
Stress isn’t sexy.
Even in 2018, The Atlantic’s surveyed sex-perts made it clear: the world is a cornucopia of stressors. And in 2023, this hasn’t exactly improved. The COVID-19 pandemic, toss in climate change, socio-political unrest, historic layoffs… it’s not exactly surprising if you’re not hyped for sexy time 24/7.
Anxiety disorders are 28% more prevalent post-pandemic. It only takes a few scrolls or conversations with friends to see that many of us are still living in constant fight or flight mode… not an aphrodisiac. Extreme and consistent levels of stress kick the body into its adrenal fail-safe, diverting blood flow away from your genitals and lowering libido. When you’re that stressed, it isn’t sex that’s a priority—it’s survival.
Breakups are in—and so is celibacy.
Scroll the comments of every celebrity divorce announcement this year and you’ll see it: hundreds of fans dubbing 2023 “The Year of the Breakup.” Turns out, they may be right.
In both 2021 and 2022, divorce rates spiked after two decades of steady decline. An AFS study found that over a third of Americans believe their marriage weakened since the pandemic, and a chunk of surveyed respondents cited quarantine as the primary reason for a breakup. Between 2016 and 2023, the rate of single people living alone increased by 28%.
Essentially, a lot of today’s people are single — but they’re not necessarily looking to mingle.
The Harris Poll found that more than a quarter of surveyed people aren’t seeking relationships. Many digital communities across social platforms are dedicated to enjoying the fullness of life without a partner, and some people are choosing to divest completely from dating. Sex is no exception.
Intentional celibacy has become a large part of the cultural conversation, particularly for women—and not just those who abstain for religious reasons. The infamous orgasm gap and frustrations with hook-up culture have led to many women putting a pause on sex, either indefinitely or for a set amount of time, to improve their relationship to self. The results? Healthy libido increases, improved focus, and mental clarity. Oh my.
Dating apps are giving us the ick.
It may seem counterintuitive that online dating = less sex. Thanks to the full-fledged army of dating apps available, hookups, relationships, and everything in between are literally at our fingertips. Despite this, Pew Research Center found that nearly half of Americans feel that dating is harder now than it was a decade ago. And even in The Atlantic’s 2018 exposé, online dating fatigue topped the list of possible reasons for a sex recession.
Dating app burnout affects several people who have been swiping on Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Raya, and more for years. Seemingly endless options, instant gratification, disappointment, and miscommunications have led to a detached and distressing online dating experience for many users.
It’s also no secret (we’ve heard it from many a TikTok and testimonial) that dating apps are a special kind of nightmare right now, particularly for women. Online dating has always come with serious risks—but it seems like more than ever, most stories of doxxing, revenge porn, and scams (hellooo, Tinder Swindler!) began with a swipe on the apps. So maybe, just maybe, singles are having a little less sex because… they’ve got the ick. Swiper, no more swiping.
Why do we care so much about a sex recession?
Excellent question. It’s been argued that modern society is hypersexual — that sex is everywhere. It’s upheld as a rite of passage, devoured at brunch as a talking point, and seen as a metronome for relational health. Magazines and social media feeds yell out at us: Are you having enough sex?! How good is the sex you’re having?! Do you want to have more?!
The cultural fascination with sex can be understandably frustrating for the increasing number of people who don’t see sex as a central part of their lives. So, should we even care that there’s a sex recession?
Well, intimacy experts and psychologists have definitively declared that yes, sex, how often you have it, and how you feel during it can be an important indicator of holistic wellbeing—for those who choose to be active. But like any other data point, nationwide sexual behaviors are simply a marker of the times we’re in and one piece of the puzzle. The sex recession isn’t a catastrophe, ideal situation, or something to fix—it’s just where we are.
If you’re currently choosing to be celibate and are the happiest you’ve ever been, we salute you. If you’re in the midst of a dry spell hoping for a single drop of rain, you’re in our thoughts, too. Because whether you’re having sex every day or none at all, your individual wellbeing is what matters.