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The Sexual State of the Nation: Less Sex, Higher Anxiety

How’s your sex life?

A 2016 report in the Journal of Sexual Medicine notes, “Understanding of the importance of sexual health and sexual satisfaction in U.S. adults is limited.”  Yet, it observed, “… sexual health was a highly important aspect of quality of life for many participants, including participants in poor health.  Moreover, participants in poorer health reported lower sexual satisfaction.”  America’s sexual truth, like most everything else, is simple – if you’re poor you experience, enjoy, less sexual fulfillment, pleasure.  Not surprising, sexual pleasure is a function of class.

How many times did you have sex this month or over the last year?

A recent report in the Archives of Sexual Behavior paints a revealing, if grim, portrait of the sexual state of the nation.  The study, “Declines in Sexual Frequency among American Adults, 1989–2014,” found that American adults had less sex in the early-2010s than in the late-1990s.  The study’s authors are Jean Twenge, Ryne Sherman and Brooke Wells; Twenge is lead author and teaches psychology at San Diego State University.  It is based on findings of the nationally-representative General Social Survey.

The study compared the sex lives of those born in the 1930s (who the researchers call the “silent generation”) and those born in the 1990s (referred to as “millennials and i-gen”).  Perhaps most surprising, those of the silent generation had sex most often, whereas millennials had the least often.  Over the last quarter-century, Americans had sex about nine fewer times per year.  In the 1990s, Americans on average had sex 60 to 62 times a year, but in 2014 it had declined to less than 53 times a year.

The study found that the decline in sex was greater among married people; in 1990, adults in relations had sex about 73 times a year but, by 2014, it dropped to around 55 times.  It also noted the percentage of American adults “living with a partner” declined from two-thirds (66%) in 1986 to just under three-fifths (59%) in 2014. It also found that “Americans in their 20s had sex an average of about 80 times per year, compared to about 20 times per year for those in their 60s.”  It noted that the “declines in sexual frequency were similar across gender, race, region, educational level, and work status and were largest among those in their 50s, those with school-age children, and those who did not watch pornography.”

Various factors affect the frequency of sexual activity, including age, longer working hours, fatigue and increased use of pornography.  The researchers suggest that “that Americans are having sex less frequently due to two primary factors: An increasing number of individuals without a steady or marital partner and a decline in sexual frequency among those with partners.”

An alternative theory is proposed by Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington.  She links the decline in sexual frequency to the rise of the two-income family and the accompanying demands on domestic life and an increase in personal fatigue.  “You have many more women and men working to create a two-income family to stay middle class or above. . . . People’s minds are occupied with things other than the physical connection, and that has increased in modern life, and especially from the ’80s and ’90s and forward.”

A 2009 Consumer Reports poll on Americans’ sex life found that sex was avoided for the following reasons: about half (53%) felt too tired or needed sleep; just about half (49%) did not feel well or had a health problem; and 40 percent simply reported they were not in the mood.

***

Do Americans have a “right” to sexual pleasure, something different, more erotic, than the sexual requirements of procreation?  This question has divided the nation since its founding, its meaning fought over by each new generation.  These clashes often resulted in bitter culture wars that mark out distinct phases in the nation’s modernization, the transformation of America’s sexual culture.

The most profound change in the nation’s sexual culture over the last quarter-century is best illuminated by one fact: three-fourths (75%) of American women and teen girls now engage in premarital sex.  For centuries, premarital sex was a mark of shame; today, it’s a rite of passage from youth to adulthood.

Between 1991 and 2014, the teen birth rate fell by 40 percent, to 24.2 births per 1,000 females from 61.8 births in 1991.  The nation’s sexual culture changed, became “postmodern.”  Today, for Americans of both genders sex fulfills the goals of procreation and pleasure.  Yet, sex between consenting adults is reportedly occurring less often than a quarter-century ago.  What does this apparent contradiction signify, if anything?

The decades between the end of WW-II and America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, 1945-1975, was the highpoint of post-WW-II recovery.  It was the period of the great consumer revolution and suburbia relocation; it was marked by the civil-rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the rise of the women’s (and later gay-rights) movement, and the counterculture.

The stepping stones in this transition in sexual culture began in the ‘60s when the Supreme Court began to slowly, but significantly, expand the acceptable spheres of adult sexual engagement.  A handful of key decisions shifted the legal framework regarding privacy and pleasure: Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) granted married couples the right to purchase and possess contraception materials; Loving v. Virginia (1967) gave interracial couples the right to marry; Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) extended the right to acquire and use contraceptives to unmarried people; and Roe v Wade (1973) guaranteed a woman the right to terminate her pregnancy.

More recently, Lawrence v. Texas (2003) overturned Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), extending constitutional privacy protections to adults who engage in private, consensual sodomy; U.S. v. Windsor (2013) ruled the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional; Obergefell v Hodges (2015) legalized gay marriage; and Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016) overturned a Texas law restricting the delivery of abortion services.  Collectively, these decisions acknowledged sex – whether private or with another/s — to be a constitutional right to privacy.

Phyllis Schafly, a lawyer and conservative activist, launched the current round of the culture wars in 1972 in opposition to the shift America’s sexual culture.  She led the successful campaign to block the adoption of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  The following year, two landmark decisions further infuriated the religious right.  The Supreme Court ruled in Roe that a woman has a right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and, also in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association reclassified homosexuality, freeing it from the stigma of a mental disorder in the revised The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-3), the mental-health bible.  These decisions marked a fundamental change in the nation’s sexuality.

Ironically, while the religious right fought a vicious, if limitedly-successful culture wars over the last four decades, the nation’s moral order and sexual proclivities were profoundly transformed.  Advertizing, fashion and mass media eroticized the consumer revolution and the adult consensual commercial-sex industry grew to a $50-plus billion enterprise.  Rights proposed in the ERA – and that Schafly vehementaly opposed — became the law-of-the-land, including the gender integration of the formerly male-only military, same-gender marriage and adult unisex bathrooms.

Adult and age-appropriate sexual engagement shifted from a moral issue, “sin,” to a legal concern, “consent,” whether public or private.  Today, the only true sex crime is the violation of consent, whether rape, pedophilia, child porn, sex trafficking, incest, lust murder or inflicting someone with an STD.  Those who violate another’s mutual consent, the other’s personal agency, are considered immoral, pathological or criminal.

***

A half-a-century ago, Herbert Marcuse glimpsed the coming transformation of capitalism and sought to apply a radical Marx-Freud analysis to this unstoppable development, especially as it affected sexual pleasure.  In One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964), he warned: “The range of socially permissible and desirable satisfaction is greatly enlarged, but through this process, the Pleasure Principle is reduced — deprived of the claims which are irreconcilable with the established society.” Going further, he foresaw the future of sexual morality as repressive tolerance: “Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission.”

A half-century later, Marcuse’s warning has become the 21st century new normal.

Once-forbidden sex practices – including homosexuality, pornography, sex fetishes, trans-sexuality and prostitution – lost much of their shame and criminality, becoming profitable market opportunities.  This process fashioned a world where, among consenting adults, “everything goes” – people can sexually do whatever they want if it’s voluntary, safe and private.

“This society turns everything it touches into a potential source of progress and of exploitation, of drudgery and satisfaction, of freedom and of oppression,” Marcuse warned.  “Sexuality is no exception.”  Postmodern capitalism integrates sexuality as an active force into the market economy of daily, commercialized, personal life; today, every transaction, every experience, seeks to erotically turn-on, sexually arose.  Sexuality is no longer a form of subversion, a threatening social force: It’s been absorbed into the market economy.

The mainstreaming of sex raises a profound question: Are we witnessing the birth of a new era of American sexual culture and, if so, is it liberating or repressive?   How does the emergence of an apparently “a-moral,” postmodern, 21st century, anything-goes and market-mediated “permissiveness” among rational, age-appropriate partners align with the reported decline in sexual engagement between 1989 and 2014?

Do these – apparently contradictory — developments signify, as Marcuse warned, that as sexual culture becomes more erotic and is integrated into the marketplace lead to a decline in sexual engagement?  Are we witnessing the banality of postmodern sex?  For centuries the unacceptable, the illicit, the perverse pushed the boundary of pleasure – and, indirectly, politics.  What happens when these prohibitions are lifted and anything goes, but people engage in less sex?  This contradiction defines Trump’s presidency.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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