Sex is good. Sex is healthy. Sex is an essential part of our social fabric. And you — specifically — should probably be having more of it.
Americans, in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, are not having enough sex. Across almost every demographic group, American adults old and young, single and coupled, rich and poor are having less sex than they have had at any point in at least the past three decades.
Sex isn’t the sole form of fulfilling human interaction and certainly isn’t a salve for loneliness in all forms. Still, it should be seen as a critical part of our social well-being, not an indulgence or an afterthought. This is in large part because the rise in loneliness closely parallels a decline in sex. More than a quarter of Americans hadn’t had sex even once in the past year the last time the General Social Survey asked, in 2021. It was the highest such level of sexlessness in the survey’s history.
That figure includes almost 30 percent of men under 30, a figure that has tripled since 2008. In the 1990s, about half of Americans were having sex weekly or more — that figure is now under 40 percent. For many who are having sex, the frequency has dropped precipitously. And it’s not just sex: Partnership and cohabitation are down, too. Less time spent with friends and lovers — these aren’t distinct issues but symptoms of the same cultural malaise, an isolation that is demolishing Americans’ social lives, love lives and happiness.
Estimates vary, but somewhere between a third and two-thirds of Americans report being lonely. Loneliness exists on a feedback loop: Fraying cultural bonds, damaged physical health and reduced social contact both exacerbate loneliness and are exacerbated by it, to the point that loneliness lowers life expectancy. Loneliness is a challenging phenomenon for researchers to quantify, but there are telltale signs — and they point to a society losing its way. The number of Americans who report having no close friends at all has quadrupled since 1990, according to a Survey Center on American Life study. An average American in 2021 spent 58 percent less time with friends than in 2013, the Census Bureau found.
Covid-19 has contributed to the spike in loneliness and the decline in sex, but is only partially responsible. Between 2014 and 2019, the decrease in time people spent with friends was greater than it was during the pandemic. And during the pandemic, many Americans spent more and more time alone, with neither friends nor romantic partners. Younger Americans are, infamously, less likely to have sex than their parents’ generations — and when they do have sex, they’re doing it with fewer partners.
In my work as a writer covering sex and culture, I have spoken to dozens of men for whom a lack of sex is the defining characteristic of their daily life. It shapes their interests, their motivations, their hopes. Some are incels — short for “involuntary celibates,” believers in a toxic, misogynistic ideology — but more are not. Some believe the pursuit of sex will be entirely futile. In turn, they’ve begun to interpret going out, spending time with friends and meeting new people as futile, too. This thinking becomes cyclical — soon, they’re not only afraid of failing to find a sexual partner but they also grow to fear even platonic social interactions. Sex is only one component of their overall isolation but is in many cases the one upon which the overall problem hinges.
It’s easy to brush these men off as anomalies, or to label their state as a result of personal failings or even the consequences of modern masculinity. But while much of the research around the decline in sex focuses upon young men, almost every group of Americans is experiencing the absence of sex — and the consequences are profound. If a lack of sex is affecting the cultural and social participation of these young men, it’s likely to be affecting the rest of us, too. A lack of sex can easily translate into less socialization, fewer families and a sicker population: Sex reduces pain, relieves stress, improves sleep, lowers blood pressure and strengthens heart health.
Writers like myself have made male sexlessness a well-known issue, even as women are in the same bind. Data from the General Social Survey actually suggests they may be having even less sex than men. In 2021, roughly a quarter of women under 35 reported having had no sex in the past year. For men, the figure was 19 percent. And women who are having sex are less likely to be happy with the sex they’re having. Both men and women report feelings of regret and unhappiness following casual sex, but it’s more common among women — probably in part because of cultural perceptions of sexual autonomy. Sex can bring people together, but that only works when it’s good sex.
Not only are women and men marching together into sexlessness; they’re also on the same road to loneliness. Young women were more likely than men to report losing touch with friends during the pandemic, and a British study found that women were more likely than men to report feeling lonely “often” or “always.” Reporting often focuses on young-male sexlessness — and on incel ideology — but the decline in sex and rise in loneliness and social isolation are not male problems. In 21st-century America, loneliness is essentially omnipresent, and the high schooler’s cliché fear that “everyone else is having sex” has never been less true.
There is no one solution. The loneliness epidemic has been brought about by myriad factors that have been exacerbated over decades. Social media is one culprit; the 20th century’s war of attrition against walkable communities is another. But as loneliness has accelerated, it has become self-perpetuating: Our current societal loneliness — and sexlessness — is a result of social and cultural shifts, while its continuation perpetuates those shifts further.
The loneliness epidemic may be a societal issue, but it can be solved, at least partly, at the level of individual bedrooms. Those of us in a position to be having more sex ought to be doing so. Here is the rare opportunity to do something for the betterment of the world around you that involves nothing more than indulging in one of humanity’s most essential pleasures.
Having more sex is both personal guidance — your doctor might well agree — and a political statement. American society is less connected, made up of individuals who seem increasingly willing to isolate themselves. Having more sex can be an act of social solidarity.
Not everyone who wants to have more sex is easily capable of doing so. Disabilities, religious objections, asexuality and any set of day-to-day restrictions and responsibilities curtail or close off sex for many. There may be some who simply do not want to have more sex, or any sex at all. But even those who won’t have more sex should avoid apathy. Sex is intrinsic to a society built on social connection — and right now, our connections and our sex lives are collapsing alongside each other.
Many people — like some of the young men I have spoken to in my work — have resigned themselves to displacing their sexual desires, relying entirely on porn or other online stimuli, mirroring so many types of relationships that have been subsumed into the digital world. As a balm for loneliness, digital sex can be little better than digital friendship — a source of envy, resentfulness and spite, a driver of loneliness rather than a cure for it. It’s no match for the real thing.
So, anyone capable should have sex — as much as they can, as pleasurably as they can, as often as they can.
By Magdalene J. Taylor for the New York Times