Jessica Valenti

Bad Sex, Consent, and Other Reasons Behind the ‘Sex Recession’

Let’s not overlook the obvious

Photo: Gemma Evans/Unsplash

Americans are having less sex: Teenagers are having sex for the first time later, young adults are on pace to have fewer sex partners, and adults as a whole are having intercourse approximately 10 fewer times per year. The most recent cover story of the Atlantic calls it a “sex recession” — complete with pictures of a bird and bee looking away from each other sadly. The sweeping piece looks at everything from the rise of masturbation and pornography to hook-up culture and Tinder as possible explanations.

One of the most likely reasons people are having less sex, however, is only given passing mention: Women are able to say no more freely.

No, I’m not talking about a Lysistrata-type protest or even a decrease in sexual assault, which actually remains at epidemic levels. Instead, it’s that American women’s cultural and political power has grown exponentially over the last 30 years, and it’s likely that people are having less sex for the same reason they’re delaying marriage and children: It’s what women want.

In part, the decline in sex is because Americans are more likely than in past years to be single, and single people have less sex than those who are partnered. Forty-two percent of adults in the U.S. do not live with a romantic partner, up from 39 percent 10 years ago. Americans are also getting married later than ever, and this shift is in large part a result of women’s changing roles in society and their ability to have meaningful, independent lives without men. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that women couldn’t have their own career, credit card, or public-facing life without a husband. The more freedom women have, the later they get hitched.

If sex is painful, unpleasant, or unpleasurable for women, why wouldn’t they avoid it?

Outside of marriage, women’s increasing power also means that they can say no to bad sex. Kate Julian at the Atlantic delves into this a bit by positing that sex may have become less pleasurable for some women recently because their mates emulate the often extreme and painful sex acts they see in pornography. (Lili Loofbourow’s column on sex and pain is required reading.)

Julian notes that about 30 percent of women say they’re experiencing pain during vaginal intercourse, that anal sex — which is on the rise — causes pain for 72 percent of women, and that many of the women she spoke with mentioned being choked without prior discussion or consent. If sex is painful, unpleasant, or unpleasurable for women, why wouldn’t they avoid it?

All that said, I’m not sure that the current sexual “decline” — which is actually quite slight — is something to worry about. In fact, a lot of the concern seems to be part of a broader backlash against women’s rising autonomy.

Take the current panic around women’s fertility rates in the U.S., for example. Earlier this year the New York Times ran a piece claiming that American women were having fewer children than they would like. Buried in the piece was a clue that the worry was less about caring for women and more about ideology with one line noting how some consider emergency contraception to be an abortifacient. It turns out the piece was authored by a speechwriter for Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, an anti-choice politician.

For men who believe women should primarily be mothers and caretakers rather than focused on career aspirations, a focus on fertility or sex rates is a clever way to shroud their ideological beliefs in pro-woman rhetoric.

The truth is that Americans having slightly less sex is nothing to worry about. People are still having fun, living their lives, finding partners, and having babies — when they want to. I’ll take more freedom over more sex any day.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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