Studies show that people, especially young people, are having less sex than past generations did. While many may celebrate this decline as a good thing, the reasons behind the drop in sex may not all be so positive. A decline in physical intimacy may potentially speak to a decline in emotional intimacy, and a struggle modern folks are having with connecting with each other.
My guest explores the decline in sexual frequency as a way into these larger cultural and relational questions in her longform cover story for this month’s The Atlantic magazine. Her name is Kate Julian, and today we discuss her piece, entitled “The Sex Recession,” on why people are counterintuitively having less sex in a time when sex is less taboo and more accessible than ever before. We begin our conversation highlighting the statistics that indicate young Americans are having less sex and whether this decline holds true for other countries and affects married people as well as singles. Kate then delves into the idea that the reasons for why young people are having less sex may suggest deeper issues in how people are relating, or not relating, to each other. These reasons include the way dating apps are shaping in-person interactions, the prevalence of porn, and an increase in anxiety and depression. We end our conversation by raising the question of why people continue to perpetuate relational patterns that don’t seem to be making them happy.
This is a fascinating discussion. I know some of you listen to the podcast with your kids. Due to the mature nature of this show, I’d have them skip this one.
- What are the data points that show young people are having less sex?
- Is this a worldwide decline? Or a uniquely American problem?
- Japan’s “herbivore men”
- Why this sex decline could indicate something more nefarious going on below the surface
- Why people are putting off romantic relationships, and prioritizing their education and career
- The true effectiveness of dating apps (and how much time is spent/wasted on them)
- Why meeting people at bars or other social venues isn’t as acceptable as it once was
- What smartphones are doing to our casual relationships
- How dating in the digital world has become gamified
- The effects of porn and masturbation on people’s relationships
- How young people are learning about sex these days, and how it subsequently affects their sexual relationships
- The rise of depression/anxiety in young people
- Why young people are actually getting more prudish
- What social media is doing to our self-image
- The social and political ramifications of the sex recession
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Studies show that people, especially young people are having less sex than past generations did. While many may celebrate this decline is a good thing, the reasons behind the drop in sex may not all be so positive. The decline in physical intimacy may potentially speak to a decline in emotional intimacy and a struggle modern folks are having with connecting with each other. My guest explores this decline in sexual frequency as a way to these larger cultural and relational questions in her long form cover story for this month’s Atlantic Magazine. Her name is Kate Julian. And today we discuss her piece entitled The Sex Recession, on why people are counter-intuitively having less sex in a time when sex is less taboo and more accessible than ever before.
We begin our conversation highlighting the statistics that indicate young Americans are having less sex and whether this decline holds true for other countries and affects married people as well as singles. Kate then delves into the idea that the reasons for why young people are having less sex may suggest deeper issues and how people are relating or not relating to each other. These reasons include the way dating apps are shaping in person interactions, prevalence of porn, and an increase in anxiety and depression amongst young people. We end our conversation by raising the question of why people continue to perpetuate relational patterns that don’t seem to be making them happy. It’s a fascinating discussion. I know some of you listen to the podcast with your kids. Due to the mature nature of this show, I’d have them skip this one. After the show’s over, check out our show notes aom.is/sexrecession. Kate joins me now via clearcast.io.
Kate Julian, welcome to the show.
Kate Julian: Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: So you recently published an article in The Atlantic that’s gone viral. Everyone’s talking about it, and it’s about how there’s a sex recession going on in America right now. People are having less sex. So, start of, what are the data points that tell us that people, particularly young people are having less sex nowadays?
Kate Julian: So my jumping off point for this piece is a series of research done by Jean Twenge, who’s a psychologist at San Diego State. She published over the past few years a series of four articles in the archives of Sexual Behavior about the way people’s sex lives are changing. The part of this that struck me as most counterintuitive was her finding that sexual frequency had declined among adults from something like 62 times a year on average to 54 times a year on average between the late 90s and 2014.
Now, for a given person that’s not a huge drop. You might not even notice it. The both numbers are about once a week. But across the whole country, it seems to me or it seemed to me I should say, really counterintuitive that in the age of all of these things that we think of as enhancing sex that people would be having less of it. So from there I dug into it and started to look at the young people part of this more specifically and found some other surprising numbers. If I can go into those, people are launching their sex lives later. They are more likely according to Twenge’s research to be abstinent or celibate in their 20s two and a half times more likely compared to Gen X or baby boomers. They’re also on track, people in their 20s are on track to have fewer lifetime sexual partners than those other two generations.
Brett McKay: And it’s not just sex. It’s like also things just like that lead up to sex, like making out, kissing. That’s also decreasing as well, right?
Kate Julian: That is what seems to be happening. Now, I do want to be really clear here about two things. The first is, I’m using sex as a way into the sort of larger question of relationships and intimacy. So where you’re going with this is absolutely speaking to the heart of what I’m curious about here. The problem is, we don’t have a lot of data on things like holding hands and kissing and the like, right? This is not something that studies have really looked at on a large scale. Most research on adolescence looks at specific outcomes. Did they get pregnant? Do they have a disease, that type of thing. There’s much less asking about sort of more qualitative experiences of relationship and connection to other people.
I did find it striking though that when I went trying to dig into anything that we could use sort of as a baseline, there’s one major study of adolescence in the mid 90s called Add Health that found that of 17 year old girls and boys, 66% of boys and 74% of women or girls had said they had had what they called a special romantic relationship. And in another big survey in 2014 found that it had gone down to 46%. And in fact, the later survey used an even broader definition. They included like hooking up or something like that. So, it seems like 74% to 46% in really just 20 years is kind of an amazing change.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So like the high school crush or dating thing, that’s not happening as much.
Kate Julian: It seems like it. There is some research that looks at the question of dating and then turns into this thing about like, do people say dating anymore? Is that word dated so to speak. But it does sort of track with other things we’ve seen, other research by the same scholar, Jean Twenge that was published in a book last year called iGen, found that over the last 10 years, there’s been a pretty market decline in a lot of things we think of as going with adolescence. So, things that might actually be connected to having flirtation or romance, whatever you want to call it with another person. Getting your driver’s license, going out of the house without your parents. These things have dropped off quite a bit.
Brett McKay: Now, is this just an American phenomenon or is this happening in other countries as well?
Kate Julian: This is what I found most fascinating when I started to look into all of this. Most countries I should say do not study their citizens sex lives. But the countries that do have serious ongoing surveys that speak to this stuff, most of which tend to be wealthy countries are finding similar trends. So in Japan, in Australia, in the UK, in the Netherlands, and in Finland, I should say, similar trends are being noted.
Brett McKay: And in Japan, I mean, it’s really stark, I mean, I think for the past decade or so, we’ve been seeing articles about, I don’t know, these shut ins. I don’t know, they call vegetable eaters or herb eaters or whatever.
Kate Julian: Yeah, this is such an interesting term. In Japan, for the past I think 15 years or so, there’s been this recognition of a category of young men who are just totally uninterested in romantic experiences. They call them, sort of direct translation is herbivore men or grass eating men. That’s what they’re known as there. And the question then sort of becomes what led this generation, what led this generation to kind of turn away from interest in romance and marriage. And it seems that there, you know, the root cause of it probably is really an economic one. This coincided with really the Japanese economy sinking into the doldrums and the kind of dating culture there for the second half of the 20th century was really focused on meeting people in the workplace. That was the standard, normal, socially acceptable way to meet somebody.
And when young men and young women were no longer company men and women anymore, people didn’t actually know how to go about it. And moreover, what sort of dating culture did exist was pretty expensive to participate in. And if you’re a young man without a job, it was really hard to go there. And so, digital entertainment and staying at home became pretty quickly really appealing. And then various products and industries porn and not porn related sort of sprung up to indulge that tendency.
Brett McKay: And is this happening across, I imagine single people are having less sex, but are married people, like married young people having less sex too or is this predominately a singles problem?
Kate Julian: Well, there are two parts to that. The short answer is one big cause of what we’re seeing is that fewer people who are under 35 are living with a spouse or a partner. For all the people like to joke about married people not having sex anymore, if you live with a sexual partner, you are just going to have more sex over the course of the year than somebody who doesn’t. A third of people under 35 are living, adults under 35, I should say, are living with a parent. That’s higher than it’s been in a very long time and it’s actually more common than any other living arrangement. So obviously, if you’re not living with a partner, more so if your your parents, this is going to have an effect on your sex life.
But Twenge’s research does suggest that even people who are in relationships are having sex less across most generational groups. And then that sort of raises the question of what may be going on to make even sort of long term couples compared to their predecessors be physically intimate less.
Brett McKay: So, a lot of parents, ministers, educators will probably see this decline in young people hooking up, having sex a good thing because, you know, there’s a decrease in teen pregnancy rates which is a good thing, we’ve been working on that since the 50s basically. STDs are down. But as you said, this whole idea of people having less sex, it speaks to a larger issue of just about how humans are relating today and maybe people having less sex can indicate that something below that is going on that’s causing people to have less sex. What’s going on there you think?
Kate Julian: Yeah. So I actually want to pause and just linger on the first part of what you said, which is key and I don’t want that to be lost in all of this. The fact that the teenage pregnancy rate is a third of what it was, a third of what it was in the early 90s is a remarkable and good development. I mean, that’s terrific. And there are other parts of this that are really good as well, some of which I talk about in the piece and some of which I don’t. More people now are likely than in the past to say that their first sexual experience whenever it happened was wanted and welcome. That is terrific. I don’t see that there’s any rush, it’s not that I’m decrying the sort of delay of teenagers having sex or young adults having sex.
But what I am curious about is what’s causing this. If the thing that was causing this to happen was essentially for lack of a better word, a positive thing, then I would be applauding it, right? If people are doing this because they feel more comfortable saying no, because they have other occupations that are keeping them happy and fulfilled and allowing them to connect to people in other ways, like that would be a terrific thing. And for some people, those things are probably true. I’ve talked to some people who were not in sexual relationships and were not interested in their 20s and romantic relationships because they were busy with work and school and had really wonderful rich lives.
What I’m more concerned about is the sort of large number of people I talk to who felt very stuck and frustrated and like they didn’t know how to meet somebody and they were really having trouble making connections. Not just sexual connections but really I would say sort of relationship connections more broadly. Not just physical intimacy, but emotional intimacy.
Brett McKay: Well, you mentioned one thing there that one reason people are putting off, young people are putting off sexual relationships is that they’ve invested more into their professional and academic success over, not just sex, but just relationships. Why is that? Why are young people today more focused on that than say maybe their parents or grandparents?
Kate Julian: All of these generalizations are obviously tricky but I do think people now in their 20s have a lot of sort of economic uncertainty that they’re having to grapple with which may make this seem like less of an immediate priority. A lot of people I spoke to honestly were so sober and responsible and were like I have to get my education taken care of. I’m still living at home. If I can’t even figure out how to sort of pay for my own apartment, I shouldn’t even be worrying about this next step. There was a notion that things need to happen in a certain order.
Part of the problem, though, is I think that order is a little bit outdated. That is, people are sort of holding themselves to the standards of their parents’ generation, even though some of the jobs and other things that may have supported their parents’ ability to connect and get married in their 20s just aren’t really there, and people are really having to patch together multiple jobs and sort of function in the gig economy and all that stuff.
Brett McKay: So yeah, people feel like they have to have a job and a house and all that before they get married.
Kate Julian: It seems like it. I mean, we’ve seen for a while that is marriage rates were declining and also as people were delaying marriage, that marriage seemed like it was sort of a, some scholars have described it as a capstone, like something you you looked to when everything else in your life was together. And I wonder if something similar is happening with romantic relationships generally. Like I shouldn’t even be worrying about that until I see myself being on a track where I would be looking for my lifetime partner.
Brett McKay: So, a lot of young people are prioritizing work and study over relationships, romantic relationships. But at the same time, you cite a study in your article that, you know, the majority of students or young people wish they had more opportunities to find a long term boyfriend or girlfriend. College is like the best time to do that because you’re just with a bunch of peers your age, and that’s not happening. So, what’s going on there? Are young people just sort of caught between two contradictory desires, that desire to get ahead but also start a relationship?
Kate Julian: I think so. I think so. I think that there’s some notion with sort of hookup culture that you kind of have to choose between casual sex and no sex. I think that that has sort of left a fairly large group of people out in the whole, sort of in the cold so to speak. Some of the sort of more recent research on so called hookup culture really has shown that a lot of the way that we talk about it and think about it isn’t really quite right. So, it’s not something that most people are engaging in with wild abandon. It’s something that may be sort of 20, 25% of people are really active participants in and other people may be sitting it out all together. I talked to people who felt that on campus they hadn’t really known how to go about finding something outside of hookup culture.
I think this sort of bridges to another interesting point about dating apps for people who are in their 20s, which is to say the apps have become really, really sort of ubiquitous over a pretty short period of time. We’ve had these things for only 10 years or so. And by some measures, they’ve become the most common way of meeting people. And on the one hand, that clearly, that very marker suggests that they are working for a lot of people. But it’s pretty clear to me from looking at the data that they’re really not working for a lot of other people. And what I heard in my interviews with young people was this sort of refrain that like that’s the accepted way to find somebody now, and yet it’s not really working very well for me for a variety of reasons. And so what do I do? Like I don’t know how to meet somebody outside the apps.
Brett McKay: Let’s dig into that a little deeper because, yeah, the dating apps, even like dating websites is supposed to make dating more efficient. You go to a place where you know everyone is there looking for romantic partner. But as research suggest, people actually, they’re not that effective at finding a romantic partner through dating apps. Walks us through the data.
Kate Julian: There’s a positive side here. Like people who, according to one set of research I looked at, people who meet through an app who are sort of interested in a long term relationship are more likely to get married more quickly than people who meet other ways. So for people who really sort of are doing this effectively, it obviously can be super efficient. The problem is that many people are spending just a kind of unfathomable amount of time on these things. The last time that Tinder for example released this data, I note in the piece, the average user was spending an hour and a half a day on the app. Now, when you combine that, when you compare that to sort of usage for other types of apps, like Facebook or Instagram or whatever, it’s a really, really big number.
Similarly, they log I think, the latest data they gave me, 1.6 billion swipes a day and those lead to just 26 million matches. And when I started digging into that, okay, so what happens once people have matched on the app, I as a person who sort of met my husband before dating apps were thing was kind of shocked at how inefficient it was even at that point. There was this guy named Simon I talked to who is really, really interesting. He went into a long term relationship in 2007 right before sort of apps hit the scene and came out of it in 2014 when he was around 30 and found that the very sort of landscape of sort of chatting somebody up in a bar seemed really different than it had when he’d gone into the relationship. It just seemed less acceptable because there was this other way that you were supposed to do things now.
And so he gamely signed up for all the apps and yet he found that this, he described himself as not super physically attractive. He said, you know, I’m short, I’m balding, all of this. I’m funny. Historically I’ve done pretty well with the ladies because I’m funny but I don’t necessarily like look great on Tinder. And he found that even once he sort of had a match with somebody, he was swiping right for every match he made on Tinder, and then for everybody he matched with he would send a text message and he would only hear back, he figured he was quite a numbers oriented guy, he only heard back from like one in 10 of these women which means essentially, he’s swiping right 300 times for everybody he has a text exchange with. He kept with it because he’s a dogged guy and he’s now in a long term relationship and he’s really happy. But you can imagine somebody who doesn’t have the sort of time or robustness to keep with it just feeling really confused and rejected by that scenario.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s one of the, you just mentioned one of the downsides. It seems that these dating apps favor people who are attractive, right? Is that how it typically works out?
Kate Julian: Yeah, there’s a fascinating study that came out in August I think, that sort of, where they took dating profiles, a large number of dating profiles and sort of managed to independently kind of rate the physical attractiveness of the people, which obviously is a tricky thing because people like different things. But, be that as it may, and they looked at sort of what types of, how that correlated with people’s matching or swiping behavior, and they found that the average user tends to swipe on people who are 25% more attractive than they are which doesn’t seem like a great recipe for success. And you have this sort of vision of like, you know, a man swiping right on a woman who’s pretty hot and then she’s swiping right on a guy who’s really, really good looking and so forth. And none of them are actually connecting.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s one of the, when you take all your dating online and you’re only judging based on physical appearance, like with this one guy, you miss out on the humor.
Kate Julian: The fact that he’s so smart and funny.
Brett McKay: Right, right.
Kate Julian: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, look, people can obviously, if they push forward and engage in a texting relationship with the person, as Simon did, get a chance to show off their their wonderful sense of humor and some of their other qualities. But you don’t get as many cues about a person as you do sort of in an in-person interaction, you just don’t.
Brett McKay: But I just said, because dating has almost completely shifted to online with these apps, now, if you want to go out and like approach someone in public, in meet space as they say, that’s now a creepy you’re not supposed to do that.
Kate Julian: Well, that’s what I heard in my interviews. And I have to say, this is one of the things that really startled me, and there’s no data to sort of establish how much this is the case but it came up again and again and again, that people just felt, especially people who are a little bit older who are like maybe in their early 30s now, who’ve been at this for a while, that it had become less socially acceptable to talk to people spontaneously in person. I think that’s interesting. It sort of suggest that maybe, maybe part of this is due to dating apps.
That’s become sort of the acceptable way to meet people. And it’s like, well, that’s what you’re doing, go there. Another part of it may be phones, and I hate to blame phones for everything because it sort of seems really predictable. But it does seem to me that the way we sort of hang out in public spaces now when we’re not busy is really different than it was. And I’m saying the piece that I met my husband on an elevator, but I haven’t been on an elevator recently where people were just sort of having random chats with strangers.
Brett McKay: As you talk to these people, do you get the sense that, okay, this is the way things are, but are people happy with it? Would they like to be in a world where they could just chat up a stranger in public and possibly kick off a relationship from that?
Kate Julian: Well, this is such an interesting question. I mean, I do think there might be a little bit of romanticizing the past, right? Because I would sort of mention this experience, meeting my husband to people, sometimes as we were chatting about ways people met. People would often talk about the way their parents met and sort of sigh and say, I couldn’t really meet the way that my parents met. And then when I said to them, well, here’s how I met and what would happen if somebody started talking to you on an elevator, I would get this kind of weird split screen response of like, oh my god, I would love that. And then if somebody did that, I would actually probably think they were weird.
Now, I will say one of the lovely things about publishing this piece has been that I have heard some like wonderful kind of stories of people who in the recent past met people on elevators and trains and all the rest of it. So it certainly can be done and I hope some people maybe will be inspired to go out and prove that I’m wrong. But yeah, it did seem that, you know, I heard more than I expected people saying has it always been this hard and I really wish that I, you know, a number of people just volunteered to me like without any prompting, I wish I were dating before smartphones and apps.
Brett McKay: Yeah. You continue on this idea of how social mores have changed rapidly. You cited a study that millennials are more likely to consider a guy asking a woman out to drinks as sexual harassment as opposed to a baby boomer, they’d be like, well, that’s normal.
Kate Julian: I found this number kind of stunning, I don’t have it in front of me, it’s close to 20% of people I think in their 20s. So, sort of younger millennials and Gen Z even think that a man asking a woman out for a drink is always or usually sexual harassment. And, of course, that means that 80 something percent don’t think that. But the fact that that many people do is really stunning to me and it’s a much higher rate than with boomers or Gen Xers. And obviously, you know, work is a lot of where we spend our time. So, if it really is not acceptable to, I mean, obviously, I’m not supporting people hitting on their subordinates. There’s been some really disturbing revelations in the wake of #metoo about people really taking advantage of workplace situations. But I think that that whole discussion has perhaps led to a real pause and people are not really sure what is and isn’t acceptable and that’s confusing things further.
Brett McKay: As you were talking to these people you interviewed for the story, you know, and they’re talking about the dating apps, its sounds like a lot of them weren’t happy with it but why do they keep using them? What do they say is like, well, it’s just like, it’s because that’s the only thing they had? I mean, what was going on there?
Kate Julian: One of the fascinating things was how many people I talked to who were using the apps even though they weren’t actually interested in meeting somebody. I thought that was really interesting. It almost a game. There’s a woman who I call Iris in the piece who first said this to me, she said, it’s been gamified. And I didn’t really get what she meant by that at first, and then I kept hearing the same thing again and again and again from people who would say, yeah, I’ll download the app when I’m bored watching TV, sort of a diversion. And that helps to explain sort of how we could get to a situation like the one, the guy I call Simon experienced, where he’s having to swipe right for 300 times for a single text exchange, which is that people are just idly doing it. It’s maybe a quick kind of dopamine hit, ego boost, to see if somebody will swipe right back on you. It makes you feel good temporarily. One woman I talked to describe it as like a bubble popping game.
So, it does seem to be, obviously, for a lot of people, it is a way to meet people in real life, but for other people, it’s more of a diversion.
Brett McKay: So, they’re using it like Instagram.
Kate Julian: Exactly, yeah.
Brett McKay: Okay. So then another factor that came up in your research as you delved into this is about the role of porn and masturbation. That’s been increasing even in the past like 20 years. So what effects are that having?
Kate Julian: Yeah, so this is interesting. So the data we have suggests that the number of people who say that they masturbated in the last week has doubled since the early 90s to a bit over 50% of men, it tripled for women I should say to a bit over a quarter. Now, many people after I published the piece sort of said that’s BS, like everybody masturbates. The people who still don’t say that they’re doing it are lying. I can’t really speak to that but it is interesting that the percentage of people who admit doing it or who say that they do it has gone up so much. And part of that may be due to sort of decreasing social stigma. One of the things that I was really interested in as I was digging into all of this was just how stigmatized masturbation was through much of the 20th century. That isn’t something I’d really focused on, but really came up in my reading.
But let’s assume that it has doubled. That doubling is partially due to probably decrease taboos. It’s absolutely obviously got to do with the availability of digital porn. For women, it seems to have something to do also with the availability of vibrators. One fairly recent study found that half of women have used them which we don’t have a baseline for, but every researcher I spoke to thinks is undoubtedly a big increase from the past. As I say in the piece, Amazon has something like 10,000 different models available. So that’s a big factor too.
But then the question becomes, is this substituting for sex or is it like its whole own occupation? And for different people, the answer’s probably different. This turned out to be a really hard question to get out and research because guess what, people who have higher sex drives use porn more and masturbate more and they also tend to have sex more. So it’s very hard to sort of tease out cause and effect.
Brett McKay: So yeah. But like I think you talked about the use of porn or young people particularly learning about sex through porn is making sex kind of weird and like uncomfortable for a lot of people.
Kate Julian: Yeah, absolutely. I guess backing up just a little bit on the porn question, there’s been so much attention, I don’t know whether you’ve talked about this at all on your podcast. There’s this whole sort of anti-masturbation movement playing out in various-
Brett McKay: No Fap.
Kate Julian: Yeah, No Fap. Fight the new drug is one that’s for porn oriented but obviously the two are connected. The the sort of far right Proud Boys group has a sort of what they call no wanking policy. This is really become sort of over a short period of time sort of a big movement. One of the things that I found really interesting is that many of the things that are asserted seem to be controversial. You know, for example, the notion that porn is addictive, that’s really controversial, and the scientific evidence is pretty mixed.
But, there is some research that suggests that thinking that porn and masturbation are bad for you tends to be the biggest predictor of whether you’re sexually dysfunctional, which I thought was really fascinating. It’s this idea that like if you believe that it’s bad for you whether because of your religious beliefs or some other similar set of beliefs, that tends to be almost self-fulfilling. I thought that was really interesting.
And then I think there’s a separate set of questions apart from whether or not porn or masturbation or substituting from sex which goes to what you just said, which is what happens when you learn, when you have sort of on demand access to a really wide variety of porn starting at a really early age before you’ve experienced the real thing. How does that change the way you approach sexual relationships?
Brett McKay: And how has it been changing sexual relationships based on your conversations?
Kate Julian: Based on my conversations, I heard from a lot of, so it was interesting, conversations with men tended to sort of say my porn life and my sex life are different things, they’re not related, which I thought was a good and interesting self aware point. And yet, in my conversations with women, some other themes emerged, which is, I’ve been with a couple of people, dated a couple of people, I have had sexual relationships with them. And there were things that happened that I really wasn’t cool with. And I later discovered as a sort of not heavy porn user that the things that happened to me are sort of really common in a lot of porn, mainstream and otherwise.
So the maybe most common example of this is choking. A lot of younger women said that they’d had people try choking them without asking and sort of unexpectedly and found this really traumatic. Choking has become really common and porn and some people do enjoy it in real life. But it’s really, really, really not something you should spring on somebody. And I think that if, you know, you’re young woman and you’re sexually inexperienced and you’re with a young man and he’s sexually experienced and he thinks that that’s like a normal and expected thing to do, that’s going to possibly scare both of you off.
Brett McKay: Right. So, that’s what you do. Okay, I saw this.
Kate Julian: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: Okay. Yeah. Well, okay, let’s talk about another factor that you explored in the article, is rise of anxiety and depression amongst young people. Is that inhibiting people from having relationships or is the lack of relationships making people more depressed?
Kate Julian: Such a good question, and I really think that this is sort of a vicious circle or vicious cycle. So we do know that depression and anxiety both of which seemed to be by some measures really rising among young people are for almost everybody libido killers. We also know that the drugs used to treat those conditions are libido killers, which is really sort of a cruel irony. We also know that having a happy healthy sex life seems to be a booster of happiness and healthiness. Having sex at least once a week is tied to a whole bunch of really positive outcomes in terms of well being. There is a bit of a chicken and the egg problem here as you say.
Brett McKay: And it’s also going back to this idea. It’s not just about sex, but it’s like relationships. Just like human relationships, young people seem to be having a problem with this.
Kate Julian: Yeah. Perhaps, you know, and it suggested some older people are having a problem as well. But it can become, I mean, going back to the question of is it a good thing or bad thing that teens aren’t doing this. Yes, maybe it’s a good thing but then maybe some of the costs of it are a bad thing because I think that once you get to a certain age in your 20s and you haven’t had any experience with flirtation, rejection, heartbreak, all of those other things, it can be a pretty overwhelming time to sort of start to figure all that out. I do think that the sort of relationship experimentation part of this is really crucial. Like getting your heartbroken when you’re in high school and there’s a roof over your head and someone’s going to make sure you eat dinner is a little bit easier I think to hack than when you’re 25.
Brett McKay: Right. When you’re trying to graduate college or get your first job.
Kate Julian: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And what’s interesting you highlight throughout this book is this sort of weird paradox that’s going on, not the book, but the article, this paradox that’s going on is that this young generation considers itself very progressive, very open, very tolerant. Yet the same time, these young people are also becoming increasingly prudish. There’s like this openness about sex. There’s all these apps and there’s porn and all this stuff going on. But the same time there’s this lack of intimacy.
Kate Julian: Intimacy, yeah. And I think prudishness is not the wrong word perhaps to some extent. There’s a lot of research suggesting that heavy social media uses is tied to sort of poor self image and predicts poor body image and all the rest of that. This sort of coincides with this sort of generational thing a lot of people have noticed.
People started mentioning this to me as I was embarking on this project. I kind of didn’t take it that seriously but it kept coming up, which is that people sort of pointed out that young people in gyms don’t want to be naked in front of other people as much as they did in the past. And I was like, really? Like, I work out at home, I don’t go to a gym. I don’t know if this is true, but it kept coming up. I think that people, some of that may be sort of not wanting to have your photograph taken, like that might be like a smartphone thing. But some of it I think actually is sort of increased sort of discomfort with nudity which is really interesting and kind of counterintuitive because as you say, there’s all this, the culture has never been sort of more permissive or really super hyper-sexualized in one way.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought that was interesting. Because, I mean, you hear people talk about that on social media. It’s like, oh, the old guy at the gym just got naked.
Kate Julian: Exactly, exactly. I heard from a few people like old guys at the gym have no problem letting it all hang out. Maybe there’s something to that. Look, before the 90s, I went to high school in the mid 90s and up until about that point and was shortly before I was in high school, most people had to shower after gym class, and then that changed for variety of reasons involving liability and concern about molestation and a whole bunch of other stuff. And so now people actually just have less experience being naked and unembarrassed in front of other people. Maybe that’s part of this.
I also think there’s a sort of interesting question that dovetails off of what you just said about whether, you know, does something become less interesting or alluring when it’s no longer forbidden. If you can sort of download or access any kind of sexual content you want, does the real thing lose some of its allure? I can’t speak to that but it’s an interesting question.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, it seems like, all this sex, we live like in a really unsexy time even though there’s sex all around us.
Kate Julian: Yeah, exactly, right?
Brett McKay: You watch those old movies from like the 40s and 50s and there’s all this like tension and like pretense, and they don’t actually say, but it’s like-
Kate Julian: Innuendo.
Brett McKay: Innuendo. And it’s like, that lights a fire to get sex. But now it’s just like, man, it’s all there.
Kate Julian: Exactly. Right. And people are sexting which is a bit of a puzzle. Like how can it be that like, if people are so prudish but I guess you have a lot of control over that image of yourself, right? If you’re taking a picture of yourself that’s flattering and that you’re comfortable and you’re doing it on your own terms, that’s one thing. But in reality, like sex with another person, even another person you know well is like, is messy and potentially awkward. It’s sort of the opposite of a controlled environment.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s another thing. I’m kind of, this larger trend, I think young people, I feel like they want more control. They’re afraid of the awkwardness of relationships, not just sex, but like romantic relationship. But even friendships because it’s so, you don’t have any control over it, right? And it’s awkward, and like all these apps and all these things that we’ve, social media, it allows you to control, but when you get that control like you lose something in the process.
Kate Julian: I think that is such a key point. That honestly is one of the things that came up when I tried to sort of push people on, so you’re texting with guys on apps but then you’re not meeting up with them in real life. I did hear variations of like, well, texting with somebody is controlled, right? Like, I have time to think about how to respond. I’m not put on the spot. That word awkwardness kept coming up again and again. It’s less awkward. Another word that came up several times was ambiguity, there’s less ambiguity.
So even though I may not like apps very well, I like the fact that by opting into them, we both know that we’re sort of potentially interested in each other. There’s none of that sort of confusion that there was say when I met my husband. I mean, when I first, I think I may say this in the piece, but when I first met up with him for drinks outside the office, actually, he’d stopped working in the building, at that point where I met him on the elevator. But it was like, is this a date, is this not a date? I don’t know. And a lot of people just said they found that type of uncertainty so stressful. They couldn’t handle it almost.
Brett McKay: But isn’t that what makes like romantic relationships exciting, like the tension?
Kate Julian: Exactly. It’s like the roller coaster of it, right? The up, the down. Does she like me, does she not like me. Yeah.
Brett McKay: That’s all that Jane Austen was about, does he like me, what are the feelings for me.
Kate Julian: Yeah, exactly. It can be exhilarating. It can also be queasiness inducing, but they go together.
Brett McKay: Yeah, they go together. So, we’ve been talking about the personal effects of this. I mean, it can lead to depression, people are feeling more lonely, etc. But what are some of the social even political implications of this sex recession?
Kate Julian: Yeah. When I started working on the piece, I thought that this would be what I spent more of my time on, sort of looking at whether this is tied to the decreasing fertility rate in this country. Over the past 10 years, the birth rate has gone down quite sharply. It hit a historic low for the second time, second year in a row recently. Having been above two children for women as recently as just before the Great Recession. Clearly this is somewhat connected to that. Sex and babies aren’t the same thing but they obviously have something to do with each other. So that’s sort of one question. I tend to think perhaps some of the things that may be making dating more complicated for people in their 20s that we’ve talked about, feeling not ready to start, not financially sort of steady enough to be pursuing kind of long term partnership and family, and part of this.
Another part of this, of course, which really became a national issue after I started working on the piece is sort of what are the political consequences of people feeling like they can’t find a partner. Is there something about that that’s sort of destabilizing. And of course, you know, there have been all of these really awful shootings where so called self described incels say that their inability to get a woman has fueled rage and even violence. This isn’t to say that their grievances are legitimate, they’re not. But it is interesting that we can look for examples around the world and through history, like when there are lots of untouched young people that tends to be socially destabilizing.
Brett McKay: I mean, the other concern with a lot of countries too, particularly Western democracies that have robust welfare states is that the welfare state depends upon people having babies, right?
Kate Julian: Right, right, right, right. I wouldn’t say this, but some people sort of say, you know, yeah, Social Security, all these things are sort of a Ponzi scheme, you have to have more people paying into them for them to pay out eventually or keep paying out. And so yeah, the sort of fiscal implications of this certainly are real. I’m more worried, though, about sort of what this tells us in the here and now about the people who are here already. It seems to me that if there’s some set of conditions that are making human connection and intimacy in the here and now among people who are already here more fraught, more elusive, that should be concerning to everybody.
Brett McKay: So, it seems like a lot of people based on the article are unhappy with the state of, the dating scene or the relationship scene. Like the same patterns keep perpetuating. And it seems like, you know, people keep acting in a way that’s contrary to the actual desires. What do you think that’s going on there? What are the obstacles that stand in the way of people doing something different that’s not, different from the thing that’s not working?
Kate Julian: Going back to the anxiety, you know, the more you become unaccustomed to doing something, the more nerve racking it is. One woman I talked to who I call Anna in the piece talked about how she kept using the apps even though they weren’t really working that wonderfully for her because the more she did it, the harder it was to talk to people in real life. So I think part of the answer to this is to just sort of, if you are unhappy, twofold, realize that you are not alone. I think that’s key. I think that feeling that you’re alone or weird is really sort of self-fulfilling and clearly a lot of people are struggling with the ways in which the world has changed very quickly in a very short period of time. So to sort of take some comfort in that know that other people aren’t happy with this either.
If Instagram is making you feel bad, get off of it, go exercise, sleep. Take care of yourself. Take the hour and a half a day that you’re spending on Tinder to go out and do something that makes you happy and perhaps that will also connect you with other people.
Brett McKay: Yeah, typically is the best dating advice, do something you enjoy. You usually end up doing that with someone that also enjoys that thing and that can be the kick starter of a relationship.
Kate Julian: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Well, this is the kind of article, it’s super fascinating and I feel there’s a lot more that can be said about it. Is this something that you can see turning into a book in the future?
Kate Julian: I’ve been thinking about that, yeah. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t want to just sort of dilate with already here. I’d want to do something that sort of was original but I think there is just clearly a lot of people are eager to read about this topic and I find it fascinating. So with any luck, I will find a way to sort of continue in this vein.
Brett McKay: Okay. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the article and your work?
Kate Julian: Yeah, so you can find me on Twitter. My handle is @KateJulian, K-A-T-E J-U-L-I-A-N. And the article is on the Atlantic’s website, and it’s called The Sex Recession.
Brett McKay: Kate Julian, thanks so much for coming on. This has been a great conversation.
Kate Julian: Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Kate Julian. She’s a senior editor at the Atlantic and she’s the author of the piece, The Sex Recession. You can find that on theatlantic.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/sexrecession where you can find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com and if you’ve enjoyed the show, you’ve gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you give us review on iTunes or Stitcher, that helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
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