And just like that, nobody’s having sex any more – but why?

By Arwa Mahdawi
‘Middle-aged people aren’t having much. Young people aren’t having much. Japanese people aren’t having much. Nor are Brits or Australians or Americans.’
‘Middle-aged people aren’t having much. Young people aren’t having much. Japanese people aren’t having much. Nor are Brits or Australians or Americans.’ Photograph: Tom Merton/Getty Images

(Not much) sex in the city

And just like that, nobody’s having sex any more. Middle-aged people aren’t having much. Young people aren’t having much. Japanese people aren’t having much. Nor are Brits or Australians or Americans. Over the past decade a number of studies have found a significant decline in sexual activity around the world, the latest example of this being a recent US-focused study showing declines from 2009 to 2018 in all forms of partnered sexual activity and a decline in adolescent masturbation. The researchers, by the way, looked at self-reported information from government surveys among people 14-49 years old; it’s possible that it’s a very different story when it comes to the over-50s.

So what’s going on with young and youngish people these days? Why is sexual activity declining? While the study didn’t go into possible underlying factors in much detail – nor did it look at the effects of the pandemic – two of its authors, Debby Herbenic and Tsung-chieh (Jane) Fu, recently shared their hypotheses with Scientific American. The (very technical) summation of the conversation is that a bunch of factors are probably at play. There’s increasing social media and video game use, of course. A decrease in alcohol use could be another factor. Perhaps most interesting and worrying, however, is the researchers’ hypothesis that the mainstreaming of extremely rough sex could be putting a generation of young people off sex altogether.

In recent years there’s been a significant normalisation of choking and strangling during sex. Pornography has played a big role in this, but women’s magazines and popular culture (50 Shades of Grey, for example) have also helped to make rough sex “trendy”. Hebernick and Fu told Scientific American that choking or strangling during sex “seems to be a majority behaviour for college-age students”. While in many cases it’s consensual and enjoyed, the researchers note that aggressive sex can also be intimidating. “We don’t know to what extent that may be driving some people to opt out [of sex], but we do know that some people are feeling frightened,” Fu noted. “They could consent to sex, but something like choking might happen without them being asked before.” That’s hardly an unreasonable fear: in 2019 the campaign group We Can’t Consent to This noted that, in the past decade, 30 women and girls have been killed in what was claimed to have been consensual violent sexual activity in the UK. “Rough sex gone wrong” has become a worryingly common cover for femicide.

To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with rough sex as long as it’s truly consensual. What’s problematic is when young people learn about sex through porn and think that violence is a normal part of intimacy. Hebernick and Fu’s observations about the normalization of rough sex echo comments that the singer Billie Eilish made last month, about the impacts watching porn from a young age had on her mental health and how it skewed her expectations of what sex should be like. “The first few times I … had sex, I was not saying no to things that were not good,” Eilish said in an interview on the Howard Stern Show. “It was because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to.”

It’s easy to turn the porn industry, which is not exactly known for overly concerning itself with ethics, into a scapegoat for everything that’s wrong with society. But if young people have unhealthy views of sex it can’t simply be blamed on porn – it’s also down to a lack of proper sex education. Between 2002 and 2014, the percentage of schools in the US requiring students to learn about sexuality fell from 67% to 48%. The US government also spent a staggering $2bn on abstinence-only programs between 1982 and 2017. If young people are learning about sex through porn don’t just blame the porn industry: ask yourself why they’re not getting better information elsewhere.

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Women 32% more likely to die after operation by male surgeon

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Justice Ayesha Malik, who outlawed virginity tests for female rape survivors last year, is almost certainly going to be appointed to the supreme court after her nomination was confirmed on Thursday.

Ghislaine Maxwell’s lawyers say they will request a retrial

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Perhaps it’s wrong to say that no men are facing consequences for their Epstein associations: it’s been reported that Prince Andrew is trying to sell his ski house to pay his legal bills. It seems that mummy will not be paying off the Duke of York’s legal defence in a civil lawsuit brought by Epstein victim Virginia Giuffre.

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Stephanie Matto, who apparently made $50,000 a week by bottling her emissions and selling them to weirdos, had to pivot her business after ending up in hospital from eating so many high-fiber foods. The fartrepreneur is now selling non-fungible tokens. (So, by the way, is Melania Trump.) Very healthy and functional economy we’ve got going on.

The week in pawtriarchy

Scientists recently stuck headphones on a bunch of dogs, put them in an MRI scanner, and played them excerpts from The Little Prince. They then deduced that dogs may be able to tell the difference between speech patterns and can recognise different languages. Good smart boys! No doubt Big Feline is already feeling threatened by this study and next week we’ll learn that cats can do algebra.

• This article was amended on 10 January 2022 to remove an erroneous reference to the pope’s residence.

  • Arwa Mahdawi’s new book, Strong Female Lead, is available for order – and is far better value than a jar full of farts or an NFT of Melania’s head

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