Young Americans Are Having Way Less Sex than They Used To—and the Internet May Be to Blame

The number of sexually inactive Americans has risen in the past two decades, with approximately a third of heterosexual men aged 18 to 24 saying they had not had sex in the past year, a study has found.

Between 2000 - 2002 and 2016 - 2018, the proportion of 18 to 24-year-old heterosexual men who had not had sex in at least a year climbed from 18.9 percent to 30.9 percent, the paper published in the JAMA Network Open showed. Among those aged 25 to 34, the figure jumped from 7 to 14 percent in men, and 7 to 12.6 percent in women.

Meanwhile, people who did have sex were having less, with the proportion of 18 to 24-year-old men doing it at least once a week falling from 51.8 to 37.4 percent. In men aged 25 to 34, this fell from 65.3 to 50.3 percent. Among women aged 25 to 34, rates of frequent sex dropped from 66.4 to 54.2 percent.

The team also noticed a decrease in weekly sexual activity among married men and women, from 71.1 to 57.7 percent and 69.1 to 60.9 percent, respectively.

Men on lower incomes, as well as those who were unemployed or in part-time jobs, were more likely to not have sex, as well as women and men who were students.

To explore sexual trends, the researchers looked at the results of nationally representative surveys featuring questions on sex conducted between 2000 and 2018. The study involved over 4,000 men and 5,000 women in the U.S. aged 18 to 44.

The authors acknowledged the study was limited, partly because they relied on participants being honest. And as the survey did not define sexual activity, terms like "have sex" and "sex partners" in the questions may have been interpreted differently.

Similar trends have been found in past studies, the authors said. A separate paper using the same dataset focused on 18 to 24-year-olds surveyed between 1989 to 2014. It found the number of people who said they were not sexually active was larger in those born between 1990 to 2014 than those born 1980 to 1989 and 1970 to 1979, at 15.2 percent, 11.7 percent, and 11.5 percent, respectively.

There are a number of potential explanations for the patterns that emerged in the new study, researchers say. This includes changes in sexual norms, "the stress and busyness of modern life in which leisure, work, and intimate relationships need to be juggled," and online entertainment, which may compete with sexual activity.

Increasing rates of depression and anxiety, adolescents putting off adult activities, and social media dampening people's ability to interact could also play a part, they said. In addition, some women may be deterred by the rise in hook-up culture, as research suggests it is less pleasurable for them, as well as potential increase in sexual aggression.

Co-author Peter Ueda, a physician-researcher at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, told Newsweek via email: "It is important to distinguish between a decrease in sexual frequency among those who are sexually active and an increase in those who do not have sex at all.

"While the mean sexual frequency among those who were sexually active may reflect their priorities and preferences, sexual inactivity may reflect an absence of sexually intimate relationships, with substantially different implications for individuals and society."

He also highlighted that most people in the study were sexually active, and were so with one partner.

Ueda and his team were interested in the rise of dating apps and social media, changes in "how entertainment that may compete with sex is consumed" as well as the labor market and marriage trends have "changed dramatically in recent years."

"It has been suggested that the introduction of online dating and apps would increase the proportion of individuals with more multiple sexual partners but this does not seem to have changed much," he said.

Asked whether the U.S. will see similar trends to Japan, where approximately one in 10 heterosexual Japanese adults in their thirties are virgins, Ueda said: "The U.S. is a much larger and more diverse country than Japan and direct comparisons would be hard.

"Sexual inactivity has been a widely discussed topic in Japan for many years and has been subject to much speculation. In Japan, a proportion of the population seem to opt out of (or be left out of) the dating market, with this being speculatively attributed to the decrease in stable employment opportunities and a wide variety of other means of entertainment, including niche subcultures.

"Some of these trends could perhaps be seen in the U.S. as well, and potentially explain some of the findings in our study."