Journalist Kate Julian has been popping up everywhere lately thanks to her recent article in The Atlantic about the “Sex Recession” — the national trend of young people having less sex and fewer sexual partners than previous generations. On a recent episode of the podcast 2038, she discusses contributing factors (social media and technology, increasing depression and anxiety rates, a struggling economy that’s led many people in their twenties to live at home with their parents) and the possible consequences for the future; that is to say, what does a future with a lot less sex look like?
The episode is well worth a listen, although it leaves me with far more questions than answers. One of these is: is this trend all bad?
Certainly, I can see the cause for Julian’s concern. Many of the sexless young adults she spoke to were frustrated and lonely, and as she discussed the isolation that results from social media, porn, streaming websites, and “any kind of digital occupation that makes it less desirable to go out and connect with somebody in the real world,” I couldn’t help thinking of Incels — “involuntary celibates,” a hate group of men who believe women owe them sex. In our rape culture, the violent impacts of a sexually frustrated population will likely land on oppressed populations — i.e., women and gender nonconforming people, and particularly those who are people of color, poor, and disabled.
But Julian also talks about the positive sides of this shift, which I think are worth dwelling on. A society in which there is no stigma for being unpartnered, where single people can feel normal and proud? Hallelujah! A healthier solo sex life for each of us: the normalization and celebration of masturbation? Amen. And perhaps, although Julian doesn’t go this far, empowerment to make whatever sexual choices seem truest to ourselves (I’m thinking of the study a couple years ago that found that less than half of Generation Z identifies as “exclusively heterosexual,” which is largely attributed to the connective power of the internet).
Yet perhaps where Julian’s thoughts leave me with the most curiosity is in this: are there ways we can positively shape this cultural change, rather than simply bemoan and try to fight it? (“God exists to be shaped. God is change.” – Octavia Butler). Surrogate Partner Therapy and other healing sex work professions certainly come to mind — ways to heal the internalized sex negativity of our society. But perhaps even more importantly, how do we instill values of intimacy, authenticity, and consent in ourselves, and in young people? As Julian mentions, sexual education is central to this. But perhaps even more importantly — can we model this for the next generation in our own relationships? I’m left mulling: how can we use the internet to foster deeper connections and a healthier sex life, rather than letting it alienate us?