In an age seemingly dominated by hook-up culture and dating apps, it seems rather bizarre to speak of the decline of sex. Yet statistics overwhelmingly show that we are having less sex; a trend most prevalent amongst the younger generation. But what explains this phenomenon? And is the decline in sex necessarily a cause for concern? At HowTheLightGetsIn festival London 2022, Zoe Strimpel, Myriam François and Louise Perry debated the paradox of sexual liberation.
We are more open about sex than ever before. No topic too outrageous to discuss. No concern too personal to share. The sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s opened the floodgates for a new culture of sexual plenty, and in many ways we have never been more liberated. Yet at the same time, surveys paint a surprising picture of the current state of sex. In the US, the number of people having no sex in the last decade has risen by over 20%. 
So how do we make sense of this jarring paradox? Some may argue that this openness, whilst raising important questions regarding safety and consent, has also eradicated the magic and mystery of sex. Others may argue that the issue lies not so much with our openness to discussing sex, but rather with the other symptoms of our culture; internet pornography and sex toys, for instance, which have provided alternative ways to fulfil our desires.
Whilst the underlying causes may be wide and varied, the most fundamental question to emerge from these figures remains; what does the decline in sex truly say about our culture? It could be that it represents a profound loss of connection amongst humanity. Equally, it may indicate that we are simply more discerning in our choice of sexual partners. Making sense of these vital questions will help us better understand the current state of humanity, and offer guidance for the changes we, as a society, need to make.
At HowTheLightGetsIn festival London 2022, journalist, academic historian, and author of ‘Seeking Love in Modern Britain’ Zoe Strimpel, leading broadcaster and journalist, Myriam François, and critic and author of ‘The Case Against the Sexual Revolution’, Louise Perry, debated the key questions which emanate from the decline of sex.
The host of the debate, Rana Mitter, began by asking each speaker to outline their perspective on the question; why are we having less sex?
Zoe Strimpel opened proceedings and argued that whilst the decline of sex rests on a number of factors, the most powerful of these is the rise of the internet. From pornography to dating apps, the digital world which has shifted the mood of the sexual encounter ‘from the intimate to the alienating’. Mystery has undoubtedly been lost from sex, argued Strimpel, and we are worse off as a result. Whereas sex used to be characterised by its spontaneity and excitement, the younger generation now take a more detached, procedural view to sex. An openness about sex, whilst undoubtedly helping make it safer, has rendered the act ‘procedural’. For Strimpel, as with Foucault, ‘Sex is the secret which is never fully told’.
Louise Perry built on these initial thoughts and emphasised the fact that we live in an oversexualised society; a phenomenon that has become dramatically accelerated over recent years. The prominence of internet porn has made a ‘library of sex of all types’ accessible with a few clicks of a button. But the phenomenon does not simply stop here. Over the last couple of decades, sex has gained a greater foothold in popular culture. From TV shows like Naked Attraction to High-Street billboards, sexualised imagery now surrounds us like never before. Perry insists that this trend is not as harmless as many suppose. Instead, we have become numb to sex, and can no longer find the same level of excitement.
But we should also consider the economic and political background against which we have witnessed this decline in sex, rather than simply blame it on cultural shifts, argued Myriam François. Far from the removal of taboos, it is instead the worries of modern life; from the soaring costs of living, to the looming fear of a climate crisis, our current state of the world has left us overworked and stressed and not in the mood for sex. Perhaps if we viewed sex as a political rather than a merely social phenomenon, we would find an answer as to why we are having less sex, and, having correctly diagnosed the problem, find a solution to it.
Louise Perry was receptive to this suggestion, positing that we can connect the decline in sex with the discontents of late modernity. Whilst materially richer, she claims we have become spiritually poorer, with more of us living alone than ever before. Unsurprisingly so, as our society is dominated by a cult of individualism and constant competition. Both François and Perry suggested that we can lay a large portion of blame for this at the door of capitalism.
Yet for Strimpel, this diagnosis was wide of the mark. Whilst the political reality does undoubtedly shape our society and the way we operate within it, to view ourselves as passive victims to a capitalist system is simply wrong. She highlighted that many people manage to resist the societal pressures of hook-up culture, and those who indulge in it often do so willingly, fully aware of both its benefits and shortcomings, not coerced by capitalist logic. It’s not capitalism, but the liberal values that we hold so dear that create this marketplace of the sexual plenty, argued Strimpel.
Whilst disagreeing about the origins of these worrying statistics, the panellists were drawn to a curious inconsistency. Namely, that although we live in an age where hook-up culture seems rife, with possibility of multiple partners at our fingertips, society is nonetheless undergoing an alarming drop in sexual activity. Whatever the origins of ‘hook-up culture’, do we need to rethink our current trends of sexual behaviour?
Myriam François pointed at sensuality as the key element missing from our current sexual landscape. Sex, she claims, has become far less intimate, and more transactional; a transaction, she emphasises, which often leaves men as the solely satisfied party. In order to overcome this, she suggested we look to other, non-western cultures as the blueprint for a new paradigm. Latin American and Caribbean nations, claims to lead the way in this regard, placing a greater emphasis on sensuality through courtship and dancing. This, François seemed to think, would help refocus our culture around female sexual pleasure. At the same time, if female satisfaction is the aim, abandoning ‘hook-up culture’ altogether is key. She drew on statistics which showed that in the case of casual sex, men gain overwhelmingly more emotional contentment than women.
Zoe Strimpel, didn’t agree with this assessment. She claimed that in a post MeToo era, people tend to assume that women cannot be solely driven by sexual desires. Strimpel continued by stating that we should consider the fact that women have the choice to freely pursue their desires as a marvel of an enlightened, liberal world. She doubled-down on this statement by proclaiming that she would rather be ‘free and miserable rather than less free and less miserable’, linking the issue once again to a broader framework of liberal values.
The question remains, however: could exercising our freedom to pursue desire in a care-free, hedonistic manner be the root cause of an overall decline in enjoyable sex?
Louise Perry suggested this might be the case, and felt that the current climate has traded the longer-lived pleasures of romance for the pursuit of short-term sexual pleasures. Whilst the act of touching the hand of another was once a passionate and even transgressive act, in our current climate sexual boundaries have been banished, leaving the younger generation prone to engaging in a meaningless string of sexual encounters, each as banal as the last.
Should we, then, look backwards to move forwards? Would harking back to the times of courtship and slow-burning romance leave us all better off? Whilst advocating against much of the effects of the sexual revolution, Louise Perry offered a valuable qualification when looking to the future. Though some individual values from the past may be desirable, she remained unsure as to whether we could simply pluck the positive values from a previous era without also dragging the less desirable ones along with them. Whilst pivoting from hook-up culture may benefit women, a return to more traditional dynamics may also curtail the sense of freedom and agency which the sexual liberation movement fought so hard to achieve.
This concluding point accurately captures the complexity of the issue, and the pitfalls of nostalgia. Whilst we shouldn’t categorise this decline in sex as a mere statistical anomaly, it is worth placing into context. Perhaps a decline in sex is disastrous, and further evidence of humanity becoming increasingly disconnected. Or perhaps we are simply outgrowing the afterglow of the sexual revolution, and moving into a new epoch where our emphasis shifts from hedonism towards safety and consent. Indeed, it may well be a mixture of both. But whilst the issue remains unsolved, one thing is clear; whatever the future of sex is, it can’t be a simple repeat of the past.