Helen Andrews

Why are young Americans having less sex?

Why are young Americans having less sex?
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Parson Weems, the popular author of the early American republic who first invented the apocryphal story of George Washington and the cherry tree, achieved his greatest commercial success as a pamphleteer with Hymen’s Recruiting-Sergeant; Or the New Matrimonial Tattoo for Old Bachelors (1799).

In this booklet, the amiable old clergyman suggested that young people ought to get married not only for financial security and in order to bring up young Americans but “for pleasure.” His racy pamphlet went into thirteen editions, and copies were still being sold fifty years later.

The new report from W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger of the Institute for Family Studies has a much less catchy title: Men and Marriage: Debunking the Ball & Chain Myth. But the problem is the same: Not enough young people are getting married.

More dire than that, young Americans are having less sex. As Wilcox pointed out in Politico Magazine, sexual frequency among adult Americans is down 14 percent compared to the late 1990s. Among 18- to 30-year-olds, the number reporting no sex at all in the preceding year has zoomed up from 12 percent to 18 percent.

What could explain this? Most Americans begin having sex with their current partners within two or three weeks of starting the relationship, according to Mark Regnerus. A fortnight is not very long to hang in there, even for a very impatient person. The bottleneck must come earlier in the process.

Might the problem be that young people no longer have any idea how to talk to each other?

Wilcox cites the astonishing statistic that more than a third of people under 30 consider it sexual harassment for a man to comment on a woman’s attractiveness. You are not allowed to try to talk to a woman if she’s wearing headphones, according to Buzzfeed.

Saying anything to any woman in a public place is “almost always a bad idea,” according to another Millennial. What does he recommend instead? Apps like Tinder and OKCupid, because there at least you know the woman is interested in being chatted up.

Talking to strangers is depraved; conveyor-belt sex apps are just plain courteous. However this may be as ethics, it is bizarre as etiquette.

“In the past 10 years, the share of high school seniors who reported ever going out on dates fell from about 70 percent to approximately 55 percent,” according to Wilcox.

No wonder those numbers are down, if initiating a conversation with a stranger is now a minefield of potential offense, on top of the usual minefield of potential humiliation.

Half a century after the Sexual Revolution, we’ve generally got the big things right—women deserve respect, monogamy is an ideal worth aiming for, “swinging” was a regrettable Seventies aberration. It’s the little things that are jamming us up.

It would make such a big difference to those 18- to 30-year-olds who are dragging down America’s sexual frequency stats if they could rely on ordinary rules of etiquette again. For example, that it is not a crime to talk to strangers in public places.

Being single will still be agony, of course—all those cycles of risk and rejection. But there is a way out. As Wilcox notes, this particular exit from singledom leads to having sex more frequently and to higher reported levels of satisfaction with one’s sex life.

Time for a fourteenth edition of Hymen’s Recruiting-Sergeant.