When Young People Aren’t Having Sex, Something’s Wrong

When something as natural and ordered as erotic love is no longer being pursued, there is something deeply wrong with our society. Kate Julian’s Atlantic article “Why are Young People Having So Little Sex?” presents incontrovertible evidence that the experiment of “free love” without consequences, based solely on pleasure, has failed.

Another year, another write-up about the state of sexuality in modernity.

Of all things to measure, sex provides a source of endlessly fascinating data points. Who is having it, how much, and in what kinds of relationships? Previous generations lacked the technology (or perhaps the interest) to track such data, but we children of late modernity seem to have no qualms seeking answers to the most intimate questions.

Released online the week of November 12 and published in the December 2018 edition of Atlantic Magazine, Kate Julian’s article “Why are Young People Having So Little Sex?” collects the latest research on this topic. With an estimated read-time of fifty minutes, this long-form essay merits a brief summary. Julian’s piece clearly advances a certain set of assumptions about sexual intimacy. From a traditional perspective, however, the most interesting components are not what the article includes but what it excludes. In that exclusion lies hope for the truth of traditional Judeo-Christian sexual ethics to provide clear answers in a chaotic world.

Julian’s Findings

“These should be boom times for sex,” Julian reasons. The social barriers to promiscuity have never been lower, and there have never been so many technological mechanisms working to expand sexual opportunities. And yet, when consulting national surveys, Julian notes that Millennials are having significantly less intercourse than Baby Boomers or Xers did. She argues that various scholars have blamed this “sex recession” on nearly every conceivable negative facet of modern living: “Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.” While Julian does not explore every possibility, she structures her article around five common themes, which surfaced throughout various interviews.

The first explanation Julian explores is “Sex for One”: the rise of masturbation in place of relationships. With the easy availability of digital porn, Julian suggests, many young adults use porn and self-stimulation to avoid the messy relational aspects of having sex with another person. Her data suggest a global rise in social acceptability of masturbation alongside easy access to increasingly violent (and fantasist) porn. Both of these data points correlate with declining birth rates. In fact, a negative birth rate is a frightening possibility in many countries—a concern that is underscored by a recent BBC article on declining global birth rates. “Maybe the human sex drive is more fragile than we thought, and more easily stalled.”

Julian’s second possible explanation, “Hookup Culture and Helicopter Parents,” focuses on two complementing dynamics. Drawing on the research of Lisa Wade, published in American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Julian explores declining romantic relationship rates and subsequent decline of intercourse within those relationships. It is true that “people have been overestimating how much casual sex high-school and college students are having,” but the number of people involved in committed relationships has been trending downward in recent years. This trend, Julian argues, aligns with the phenomenon of parents’ overscheduling their children. Without time for teenage romance, teen intercourse rates decline.

In the next section, “The Tinder Mirage,” Julian writes that, under the guise of enabling those who want “mindless, meaningless” sex to connect, Tinder actually creates barriers to sex for those below the level of super-model hotness. “In reality, unless you are exceptionally good-looking, the thing online dating may be best at is sucking up large amounts of time.”  At the same time, Tinder and similar apps have corroded the social spaces in which people once met each other. Searching for relationships via Tinder is the new normal, making the halcyon days of meeting one’s spouse on an elevator seem simultaneously romantic and creepy.

Julian’s fourth possible reason for the sexual recession is perhaps the most troubling: she argues that women avoid sex because they have previously had painful encounters. While Julian mentions vaginal pain, this section is primarily focused on sexual encounters where the male partner has learned his sexual behavior from watching pornography. She tells a story of one interviewee who thought choking was normal, because all of her partners would routinely choke her. Julian writes, “I heard too many iterations to count of ‘he did something I didn’t like that I later learned is a staple in porn.’” The prevalence of such actions in intercourse, Julian suggests, contributes to women either abstaining or turning to quasi-lesbian relationships for sexual affirmation.

The final argument is a surprising one. Julian contends that millennials have more inhibitions than previous generations. In an era of Photoshopped images and easy access to porn stars, millennials are less willing to get naked than previous generations. This embarrassed self-consciousness, Julian argues, contributes to a lack of self-confidence causing people to fail to risk pursuing the other; it also aligns with rising numbers of erectile dysfunction occurrences.

Julian ends with two broad conclusions. First, sex is less primal a drive than twentieth-century thinkers thought. This drive does not run on autopilot. It can be cultivated, but it can also be diminished. Second, “sex seems more fraught” than it used to. Millennials encounter more dangers hidden within sexuality than previous generations did.

What’s Missing

There is much to praise in Julian’s article. She cites data showing the achievement of goals long sought by the American religious community: a decline in teenage sexual promiscuity resulting in the lowest teen pregnancy rate in decades.

This might initially sound like good news. But the article also sounds an alarming warning: something has gone painfully wrong. Julian resists the implication that pornography is harmful (she cites mental health professionals who affirm its use), but she cannot escape the fact that porn is clearly changing human sexual encounters in a negative way. Sexual desire leading to human relationships leading to new life is as old as Genesis. “Be fruitful and multiply,” “It is not good for man to be alone,” and “Thus shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife” are essential truths of cultural health. Western culture has grown sick in its old age, and Julian’s article highlights that sickness. When something as natural and ordered as erotic love is no longer being pursued, there is something deeply wrong.

While Julian’s article is filled with fascinating data, what is absent from her analysis is even more important. Her article examines the symptoms, but it cannot identify the root cause of the wrong. By noting the absences, we can begin describing a way out of the sexual miasma that is modern love.

The first absence is abortion and widespread contraception. This article contains no mention of the Guttmacher Institute’s claim that “an estimated 1/4 of American women will have an abortion by the age of 45.” For an article focusing on declining sexual intercourse and fertility rates, this absence is inexplicable. If the Guttmacher Institute is right, then 25 percent of women will actively oppose their natural fertility, significantly harming themselves psychologically and spiritually and endangering their future chances of having a child. And that is not even considering the effects of widespread condom availability and the social message of “safe sex.” While sexual safety implies fear of disease, it also implies that one can engage in this action and prevent the natural consequences of sexual intercourse. Such a social narrative prevents those growing up within it from understanding the true nature of human sexuality as the method for biological reproduction.

What Is Sex For?

Such concerns about abortion and contraceptive use are standard in Catholic reasoning, and becoming more so in Evangelical ethical thought. They point toward a fundamental question about the nature of sexuality: what is it for?

The English Puritans described sex as having three purposes: companionship, pleasure, reproduction. Protestant America has largely followed the Puritan lead on sexual thinking, consistently ranking reproduction third of three. What if that move has been wrong? Sexual intercourse can bring forth children, and it can bring pleasure to the partners. The pursuit of children, however, if viewed as essential, gives sexual intercourse a higher value than the pursuit of personal pleasure. Located within the structure of marriage, intercourse becomes a source of marital union. Sex within marriage locates pleasure within the nexus of procreation and relational stability; freed from both of these tenets, the pursuit of sexual pleasure removes the humanity from this domain of life.

As Julian’s analysis of pornography demonstrates, western culture has gone all in on the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure alone, however, does not necessitate anyone besides the individual. Pleasure does not motivate one to rise in the dead of night to care for a child, or to sacrifice financial resources for the good of another. A society dedicated to pleasure is one that has lost a higher vision of the good within human sexuality. If we recover the essential view of sexuality—that it is naturally and rightly ordered toward children who are the fruit of a lifelong companionship—then sex requires a far greater context than a Tinder hookup.

Julian’s essay fails to demonstrate an awareness of the natural rhythms of human life, and the necessity of accepting responsibility within each. We humans are born helpless, grow to maturity within communities, and then take on various responsibilities as we mature. Where is the recognition that seeking to have children is part of human maturity? There is something wrong with the stereotypical millennial who, at age thirty-five, lives in his mother’s basement and masturbates to Japanese porn. He is living a subhuman life. Instead of this, such a man should be working, seeking to take dominion of creation through work. In doing so, he prepares to “be fruitful and multiply.” Julian’s article points not just to a loss of sexual purpose, but also to the cultural loss of stages of life and what duties one owes at each stage.

The final piece missing from Julian’s article recalls Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. If we are to recover a vision of sexuality that embraces an ethic of procreative responsibility rather than personal pleasure, then we also need to recover a sense of rootedness in the institutions that allow romance to blossom within community. Romance does not blossom via Tinder. It certainly can start via an online dating platform, but E-Harmony alone is not enough. Church communities, school networks, bars and coffee shops formed by tight community—these are another missing component whose lack contributes to the detriment of sexuality.

Kate Julian’s “Why are Young People Having So Little Sex?” is fascinating on multiple fronts, and it presents the traditionalist with an opportunity. Here is incontrovertible evidence that the experiment of “free love” without consequences, based solely on pleasure, fails to provide for human flourishing. How does the traditionalist respond? By pointing to a “still more excellent way.” We uphold the traditional view: sex is a powerful force that requires the legally binding structure of marriage. It is oriented to the unity and fruitfulness of the husband and his wife. Nestled within the communities of church, town, and extended family, marriage is a good that helps us become more human.

How do we reverse declining fertility rates? Start small: get married, have “unprotected” sex, and see what God brings.

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