Sex is like sleep or protein: people freak out if they’re getting too much, and they freak out if they’re getting too little. So it comes as little surprise that when a news story emerges that hints at the latter possibility, it’s guaranteed to go viral. Such was the case earlier today with a report from CBS News focusing on Japan’s “sex recession,” or the idea that Japanese millennials aren’t having sex, which comes with the ominous warning that America may — gasp! — be next.
The CBS News story appears to be pegged to Japan’s National Fertility Survey, which found that one in every 10 men in their 30s have never had sex before — a fairly high number compared to that of other industrialized nations. Experts quoted in the story blame the rising virginity rates on a fairly wide range of factors, from rising national financial instability to the advent of apps offering digital companionship. Whatever the cause, such statistics, in combination with Japan’s extremely low fertility rate, has prompted panic among public health researchers and demographic experts in the country, who predict that Japan’s population will be halved if the trend continues over the next 100 years. The story ends on the ominous note that “this problem isn’t unique to” Japan, and that the United States “could be next.” But is that actually true, and is the so-called Japanese “sex recession” going global?
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The claim that millennials are undergoing a so-called “sex recession” in the United States was first popularized by Kate Julian’s seminal 2018 Atlantic story on the subject. In the piece, Julian cites data from the General Social Survey (GSS), an annual report of American trends and habits, which indicates that Americans are reporting having less sex than previous generations. She attributes this to a number of different potential factors, though she focuses primarily on technology, pointing the finger at hookup apps like Tinder and the widespread prevalence of porn with eroding people’s interest in real-world sexual encounters.
The argument that millennials are in the midst of a sex recession is “legitimate in a sense,” because the GSS data does show that sexual frequency is on the decline, says Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Data analysis from 2016, for instance, found that the number of times 18-to-29-year-olds had sex dropped from 81.29 times per year between 1989 and 1994; to 79.4 times per year between 2010 and 2014.
But Lehmiller says that people need to be “really cautious when interpreting this finding,” both because the survey is based on self-reporting (a notoriously unreliable method of data collection), and because it doesn’t define what “sex” actually entails. “We know that different people define sex in different ways and that definitions have changed over time,” Lehmiller tells Rolling Stone, citing the interminable Clinton-inspired debate over whether oral sex “counts” as just one example. “So it’s really not the ideal question for making broad, sweeping claims about how Americans’ sex lives are changing.”
The context for the “sex recession” in Japan is extremely distinct from that in the United States. The higher virginity rate among older men in Japan is much higher than that in America, says Lehmiller, and the decline in birth rate has also been much more dramatic. Unlike in the United States, where millennials are just having marginally less sex than members of Gen Y, Japan’s so-called sex recession has far more severe long-term implications, with demographic experts predicting that the population will be halved if the trend continues over the next 100 years. “It’s clear that something is happening in both countries and we need research to better understand why,” Lehmiller says. “However, I suspect we’re ultimately going to see different causes” for the declining sexual rates in both countries, simply because the economic and cultural circumstances of both countries are entirely distinct from each other.
The basic argument for the cause of the “sex recession” — i.e., that technology leads to the erosion of intimacy and genuine connection — is also not a new or particularly interesting one. Professional concern trolls and pearl-clutchers have used it after pretty much every technological development since the dawn of time (imagine, for instance, what early-20th-century newspaper columnists must have written following the advent of the telegram). “It’s simplistic” to blame Americans boinking less on the rise of smart phones or Pornhub on mobile, says Lehmiller. “We also need to look at broader changes in societal and cultural attitudes toward sex and relationships, changes in work-life balance and stress, and changes in use of medications that affect sex drive and sexual performance, such as antidepressants. There’s not a simple, easy answer we can point to,” he says.
There’s even some data to suggest that there actually hasn’t been much of a shift in millennial sexual patterns at all. A Cosmopolitan investigation from earlier this year cites Centers from Disease Control (CDC) data stating that the average age at which Americans lose their virginity (17, for what it’s worth) has stayed consistent over the past 20 years, something that would likely have changed had Americans been having significantly less sex. Other data pokes holes in the theory that the internet is killing our sex drives, such as a 2015 study in Sexual Medicine that found that porn use was actually linked to more frequent solo and partnered sexual activity.
Yet the idea that American millennials need to be having more sex — and the subsequent anxiety among millennials that they weren’t having enough — has become firmly embedded in the discourse, with a new headline surfacing every few months to bolster the theory. Earlier this year, for instance, the Washington Post reported that 28% of men between 18 and 30 hadn’t had sex in the past year, a number that had tripled since 2008 (this was also based on GSS data). Instead of prompting people to ask why these numbers were rising — whether it was linked to record levels of millennial anxiety — the story was cited by men’s rights activists on forums like Reddit to point the finger at women for “withholding” sex from men.
Ultimately, the end result of such panic, says David Ley, PhD, an Albuquerque-based clinical psychologist who specializes in sex and sexuality, is not to get people to have more and better sex. Rather, it tends to stoke people’s anxieties about sex to begin with. “This story and issue represents the way we whipsaw people about sex. [We tell them] ‘You’re too sexual, you’re obsessed with sex, you’re addicted!’ Then all of a sudden it’s ‘you’re not having sex enough!’ Either way, the sky is falling and we never approach this in a more nuanced way,” Ley tells Rolling Stone
None of this is to say that millennials may have been having (slightly) less sex than previous generations; nor is it to say that the declining fertility rates in countries like Japan are not a problem. But it’s worth considering that such stories are inextricably tied up in our own anxieties about sex, young people, and technology — and that their panic-stricken tone says a lot more about the members of previous generations than it does about millennials themselves.
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