But is this decline actually a problem? As a sex researcher and educator, my advice is not to panic just yet. Assuming the study is correct, there are numerous reasons for the decrease — not all of them bad. And the focus on quantity at the expense of quality when it comes to sex isn’t particularly helpful.
The United States experienced significant social, legal, cultural, technological and medical changes in the past three decades, many of which are relevant to sex. Marital rape was still legal in parts of the country 30 years ago, and the idea that a man is entitled to sex with his wife didn’t immediately die along with those laws. More women now initiate sex or decline sex they don’t want, even with their spouse. (Let’s all hope for more sex we want and less sex we don’t.) Growing recognition of different sexual identities has shaped our sex lives, too. Today, people who experience no sexual desire for others may more openly identify as asexual and feel comfortable abstaining from sex.
And what is “sex” anyway? The GSS asks Americans questions about “sex” — not about masturbation or more varied kinds of sex play. The researchers couldn’t examine whether Americans are having less sex overall (alone as well as with a partner) or just less sex with a partner. Consider that vibrator use, uncommon decades ago, is now routine — more than half of American women and nearly half of American men have used vibrators. Asking people how often they have “sex” leaves a wide range of sexual expression and intimacy out of the equation.
Of course not every potential explanation for the decline in sex is all positive. Tracking Americans’ health in the same years that the GSS tracks sex complicates the picture. Millions more Americans now survive cancer — five-year survivorship rates increased from about 55 percent in 1989 (for all cancers and both sexes combined) to nearly 70 percent in recent years, which is fantastic. But cancer treatment has dramatically affected the sex lives of Americans, up to half of whom will be diagnosed with cancer at some point. As a result of treatments like radiation or surgery, millions more Americans experience poor body image, lower sexual desire, erectile dysfunction or decreased vaginal lubrication, with few patients reporting that their providers discussed potential post-treatment sexual problems with them, let alone how to address them.
Meanwhile, other medical issues are shaping our sex lives. Data from the CDC indicates that rates of diabetes, which is linked to sexual problems including decreased desire and erectile dysfunction, have jumped since 1990. Three times as many Americans are now obese compared with 1990. People of all shapes and sizes can and do have pleasurable sex lives, but obesity has been associated with health challenges that can interfere with sex, like joint and back pain. People in this country are experiencing increasing problems with sleep duration and quality, which are linked to sexual desire and likelihood of having partnered sex. These issues, plus Americans’ widespread increase in antidepressant use (up about 400 percent since the late 1980s) and their associated sexual side effects, mean it’s not especially surprising that our sex lives are taking a hit. The GSS doesn’t track nuanced changes in technology or media use. But we do know that most Americans (95 percent in the 2011 National Sleep Foundation study) use communication devices, such as laptops or smartphones in the hour before bed, when artificial light exposure is particularly likely to impact sleep later that night. And we know that sleepiness interferes with sex — in that same study, about two-thirds of adults felt their sex lives had been affected by sleepiness. Other research shows that sleep quality and duration are associated with greater next-day sexual desire and likelihood of having sex with a partner.
Yet this still doesn’t justify any panic about the coming end of sex. Worrying about less- frequent sex suggests that more sex is necessarily better, or that there was something good about the previous, higher number — which might have come at a cost (like gender inequity). The bigger picture about our overall health is concerning. But ultimately, individuals have to reflect on their own sex lives and decide whether they’re satisfied or long for a change.
In my research, while some say they would like more frequent sex, what most people say they want is greater connection and meaning within sex. If people crave more contact and intimacy with a partner, that’s something to pay attention to.
After two decades studying sex, my advice for reconnecting with a partner is to focus on quality (pleasure and intimacy) rather than quantity. Research on sexual satisfaction repeatedly shows that emotional intimacy and connection matter far more than physical aspects of sex, or how often people have sex. No one should measure their sex life against others’ imaginary sex lives — years of listening to couples’ problems tells me that people’s sex lives are rarely what they seem. Kiss, hug and touch more often. (An arm around the shoulder counts.)
Adjusting expectations — about bodies and how age, health or medications can impact sex — might free Americans up to enjoy what they have rather than what they miss. Maybe the flexibility of being 25 is gone, but people can make up for it with the intimacy and vulnerability of age, and the hard-earned sense that time is fleeting and precious. Meaning and connection outweigh acrobatic sex positions, which are often not that fun (or are impossible to hold for any length of time). Broadening the sexual menu might not lead to an increase in the type of sex measured by the GSS, but oral sex, toy play, long make-out sessions or massage are other potential paths toward a better sex life.
How can Americans have better quality sex lives? Throw away the measuring stick, for one — it doesn’t matter if you have less-frequent sex than some people in 1989. Eat well, go to sleep at a reasonable time and move your body as you’re able. And listen to the advice of people across the life span who I’ve surveyed. In one study, I asked thousands of Americans what makes for good sex. A 19-year-old woman said, “My boyfriend is the kindest man I’ve ever met in my entire life. He just makes me so happy.” And an 83-year-old man replied, “We do something to make each other happy every day.”