What is driving the sexual recession in the United States?
Young people have less sex, and not just because they marry later. According to the General Social Survey, the percentage of single Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 who have not had sex in the past year has risen from about 16% in 2000 to over 22% in 2021.
Why is this happening? There are plenty of theories.
In a 2018 play for Atlantic, Editor-in-Chief Kate Julian came up with five: 1) porn and masturbation, 2) elevating other priorities over engaged relationship formation, 3) the toxic dynamics hard-coded into sex apps dating, 4) advances in feminism that allow women to say no to sex they don’t want to have, and 5) an increase in anxiety disorders.
Psychologist Jean Twenge argued in her 2017 book iGen that an entire generation had simply fallen head first into their smartphones. Teens, she reported, drive, drink, hang out and do it less, instead preferring to take photos and scroll through their bedroom security.
Last September, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg heralded the dawn of a sexual counter-revolution. The women Goldberg interviewed (you can find a lot of them with similar opinions on TikTok) presented their rejection of sexual positivity in (as Julian’s fourth point suggests) feminist language. They are furious to have been psycho-opped in promiscuity and fold, often at a tender age. They suspect that the whole #ProudSlut schtick was a tool of the patriarchy. They wonder if selling nudes on OnlyFans is as empowering as they’ve been told. But they are categorically not interested in reverting to any sort of traditional sexual ethics.
For religious conservatives like myself, none of these explanations are particularly encouraging. The depictions of teens and young adults numbed by porn, disembodied by screens, and too career-driven to seek love are all downright dystopian. Mary Harrington and Katherine Dee paint a picture of the counterrevolution that I can support to some extent. The backlash against pornography and casual sex is good. But as the counter-revolutions go on, it’s far from being radical enough. It leaves intact the central demands of the sexual revolution: that your body is yours and that you use it as you like and that sex is what you want it to be.
Dig a little deeper into the data, however, and there is cause for hope. Brendan Hodge at the Catholic publication The pillar made useful analyzes:
[U]Young married adults who… attend church regularly seem to avoid premarital sex more than they have in the recent past.
From 2000 to 2006, 40% of young single adults who reported going to church at least once a week said they had also not had sex in the previous year. In surveys from 2014 to 2021, 50% of young adult practitioners said they had not had sex for a year.
Among those who attend church once a year or less, the change is only 13% to 16%.
Hodge also argues that the shrinking minority of never-married Americans who believe sex should be saved for marriage are more successful in sticking to their beliefs. In the early 2000s, 75 percent of 18-35 year olds who said drinking milk before buying a cow was (at least sometimes) wrong had nevertheless enjoyed an ice cold drink or two in the past year. For the period between 2014 and 2021, this number fell to 64%, a difference of 11 points. Among those who think premarital sex isn’t a big deal, the change fell from 91% to 88%.
Hodge’s findings fit perfectly with the predictions and observations of CS Lewis in his 1946 essay “The Decline of Religion,” in which he addressed the collapse of civic religion in Britain. “When no one goes to church except because they are looking for Christ, the number of true believers can finally be discovered,” Lewis wrote. “The fog of ‘religion’ has lifted; the positions and numbers of the two armies can be observed; and real shooting is now possible.
In America, cultural Christianity held the line longer than in most wealthy countries. Ross Douthat’s theory is that the backlash against the overt religiosity of the Bush administration 43 finally ushered in the era of the “nuns”. People with no religious affiliation fell from 16% of the population in 2007 to 26% in 2019, even as the percentage of self-identified Christians fell from 78% to 65%.
With this decline comes some blessings. Lewis said it would give Christians greater clarity. Hodge’s analysis shows that it might also inspire them to live their faith more fully.
Imagine a high school student. He goes to church every Sunday because he loves Jesus. He believes with all his heart that premarital sex is a sin and that it is God’s will that he waits for marriage. Now let’s put this young man in two different scenarios.
Scenario 1: Our protagonist is surrounded by classmates who go to church because their parents are dragging them and who agree that premarital sex is bad because it is what was punched in their heads. Many of these classmates are sleeping.
Scenario 2: Our protagonist is surrounded by classmates who think Christianity is cranky and maybe fanatic. The very phrase “sex before marriage” is a joke to them. Anyone who questions the morality of sex outside of marriage is a straight villain. The Handmaid’s Tale. Many of these classmates are also sleeping.
In which of these scenarios is this 18-year-old most likely to succumb to temptation? Obviously the first. In Scenario 1, nothing excludes him from the general public as long as he does not take this matter of religion too seriously. If every “Christian” you know makes fun of his girlfriend, it is natural to conclude that this is acceptable for a Christian.
In scenario 2, there is no question that it is considered normal. He saw Christianity as a subculture, not as the default setting. His celibacy does not make him an object of mockery. This makes it based. By remaining a virgin, he becomes Chad.
Expect to see more teens and young adults like him as cultural trends continue their current trajectory.