Behind the study: Are Americans having less sex?
A recent report suggests that Americans are actually having sex less often than in previous decades.
Cultural norms surrounding sex are changing in the United States. Casual and extramarital sex seem more available and socially acceptable than ever before, given the popularity of apps like Tinder and the increasing socio-cultural and legal permissibility for non-heterosexual sex and coupling (1–3).
Despite these changes in sex culture, a recent report suggests that Americans are actually having sex less often than in previous decades. In the study titled Declines in Sexual Frequency among American Adults, 1989–2014, published in March 2017, researchers used the General Social Survey (GSS) to find out how many times per year, on average, American adults had sex, and what role certain variables may have played, such as age and marital status.
The GSS is an annual survey of a randomly selected group of American adults. The same adults are not necessarily surveyed every year, so each year represents a new, randomly selected sample. Over the 25-year study period, 26,620 adults answered the GSS question "About how often did you have sex during the last 12 months?" by picking one of seven options (1,4). For example, option 2 was about once a month and option 3 was two or three times per month (4).
(It’s important to keep in mind that sex was never defined in the survey, so it’s not 100% clear what exactly participants meant when they reported having sex. Some people’s definition may have included oral, anal or other forms of sexual behavior.)
Researchers then converted each option into a single estimated number of sexual experiences. For example, everyone who reported having sex four or more times per week (option 7) was coded for analyses as having sex five times per week (1,4).
From this data, researchers found that, on average, American adults had sex about 60 times per year between 1989–1994, 62 times between 2000–2004 and 54 times between 2010–2014 (1). When looking at the change between the seven options, rather than the estimated number of sexual experiences, the average reported option dropped from 3.02 to 2.74 between 1989 and 2014 (1), suggesting that, on average, the yearly amount of sex Americans had dropped.
The initial analyses suggest a decrease in the number of times people had sex from year to year. But once researchers added other important variables into their statistical analyses, such as marital status, race and age, the results for changes from year to year became practically meaningless (but still statistically significant). When adjusting for those three variables, each passing year was associated to 0.02 fewer sexual experiences, or about 0 fewer sexual experiences, as compared to the previous year (1). This suggests much of the difference between years might be mostly attributable to these variables.
Age turned out to be a more important factor than year. The variable age differs from the variable year in that age compares people of different ages, regardless of the year of the survey, while year compares people within each survey year to other survey years, regardless of age.
Younger people tended to have sex more often than older people, and people began having less sex per year from the age of 25 and upward, at the rate of about 1.2 fewer sexual experiences per year (1). For example, if at age 25 a person was having sex 70 times a year, researchers would expect them to have sex approximately 64 times at age 30.
Given that the average age of study participants of the GSS is not always consistent, some of the variation found between years is probably attributable to sample differences. For example, the sample from 2014 was four years older, on average, than the sample from 1989, and people in 2014 had sex six times fewer than in 1989. If a person has sex 1.2 times fewer for every year in life, then we would expect, on average, that the difference between the 1989 sample and the 2014 sample would be about five fewer sexual experiences. So when we subtract these five experiences from the total difference of six, we are left with one fewer sexual experience in 2014 as compared to 1989, which could be a true difference or a mistake.
Changes in marriage rates may also be one of the biggest reasons Americans are having less sex. Marriage and steady partnership has become less common in recent years, and unmarried and unpartnered people are less likely to be having sex. So overall, people in recent generations are less likely to be having sex than those in previous generations because, in large part, they are not married (1). Contrary to popular belief, the length of time of marriage was not associated with a decrease in sex, once researchers included age in their models.
But married people might be having less intercourse than previous generations of married people at similar ages. To explain this, researchers suggest that previous generations were younger, and thus more likely to have sex, when they first got married and started having children. By delaying these activities to later in life, people are less likely to have sex due to two factors (young children and age) instead of just one (age) (1).
It’s possible there are other competing factors also driving down sex rates, such as increased medication use in younger generations, though researchers could not test this idea with this survey.
Factors related to increased sexual behavior included pornography use, educational attainment higher than high school and having full-time work as opposed to not working or part-time work (1).
This study has some limitations to keep in mind. Many of the findings presented do not consider age in their models, which is unusual. Furthermore, when a study has a large number of participants, it’s possible that statistical results will come out as significant but not really be meaningful; the impact of having sex 0.02 fewer times per year on our emotional and sexual health is probably small for most of us, even if the difference is statistically significant. (Though in combination with other factors, such as marital status and age, someone may see a larger decrease in sex per year.)
Also, self-reports (i.e. reports by participants rather than observations made by researchers) can be unreliable, especially when discussing sex. Many people may feel uncomfortable reporting their sexual behavior, and therefore may over or underestimate their answers. Interestingly, women in this study reported less sex than men, which may be an example of under or overreporting by gender (or it could be a true difference). Additionally, because the term sex was never defined, it’s possible that people reported certain behaviors as sex while others didn’t. For example, it’s possible previous generations reported oral sex as sex, while younger generations didn’t (or vice versa).
In conclusion, American adults might be having less sex, but these findings should be taken cautiously. If there is a decreasing sex trend, it might be best explained by changes in marital trends, among other factors.
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