A Look into the Global "Sex Recession"
The current youth are having less sex than a generation ago. Illustration by Guardian Design.
At the age of 28, Shota Suzuki has a regular job and enjoys spending his free time in an area of Tokyo known for anime and manga. However, like many Japanese young adults, he has never been in a romantic relationship and thinks he never will. “Yes, I’m a virgin. I would like to get married but I can’t find a partner,” he tells CBS News.
Suzuki is not alone in his experience. Around the world, young male virginity is on the rise and young people are having less sex than the previous generation. The recent lockdown has only exacerbated the “sex recession”. Cooped-up couples, anxious and exhausted, experienced a dip in their sexual appetite during the pandemic. However, now that the world has recovered from COVID, sex and self-pleasure among the contemporary youth continue to decline. Shouldn’t sexual activity be at an all-time high during the age of dating apps and tolerance for casual hookups, sex, and even polyamory? From Japan to Australia to Europe, studies indicate that many young people are reporting a lack of sexual activity. While this may be a relief to some conservative parents, human sexual activity is a key part of the quality of life and happiness, as well as the upkeep of a population and the economy.
Japan is at the forefront of the global “sex recession”. The economy of Japan is facing serious concerns over its rapidly aging population and low birth rates. It seems like the people living there have collectively lost their libido. Some blame general unhappiness and social norms, while others point out the tendency to avoid human contact in an increasingly virtual and tech-savvy society. One thing is agreed upon and that is the population decline will soon be irreversible. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in his New Year speech emphasized the urgency of the situation and that low birth rates have fallen “to the brink of not being able to maintain a functioning society”.
Japan desperately wants to incentivize births to patch up its gaping economic problems. However, encouraging sexual activity among young couples is easier said than done. The number of births is held back by social norms, mainly related to stigmas surrounding childbirth before marriage as well as the workaholic culture. The norm in Japan is to work long hours and individuals are pressured to choose work over family. In addition, the rigid corporate culture prefers to hire fresh graduates, making it near impossible for women to re-enter work after also entering motherhood. Consequently, parenting roles are highly gendered where women are solely responsible for childcare, making women with careers even more hesitant to have children.
An increasing amount of Japanese youth between the ages of 16 and 19 are reportedly losing interest in and even despising sex. The term “herbivore man” or “grass eater” has gained traction, describing a passive man who does not seek out women or sex. Such trends could be linked to the widespread pessimism among the Japanese youth. A recent survey shows that young people from Japan have to gloomiest outlook on their country’s future with more people responding things “will get worse” than things “will improve”.
The “gloom and doom” mindset and career-oriented youth also explain the decline in sex in the US and other parts of the world. A recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that around 45 percent of young men and 75 percent of young women reported no sexual activity of any kind in 2018, this was a significant increase from nine years ago when the percentages stood at around 28 and 50 percent respectively.
Nothing kills the mood more than stress but what are the other contributing factors to the declining libido? Many will be quick to blame video games, social media, and drugs — the core, modern youth experience. There is a proven connection between drug usage and lower libido. The use of drugs will oftentimes cause a momentary increase in libido but long-term drug users will describe feeling apathetic to things they were previously passionate about. Similarly, entertainment such as social media, video games, and movies provide endless distractions, making people too busy to get busy.
The youth have also become more self-aware and empowered to say no to sex. The dating landscape has changed significantly especially after the #metoo movement when sexual misconduct by men was highly scrutinized; nowadays, 17 percent of young Americans say that a man inviting a woman out for a drink is considered sexual harassment. The internet has made gratifying basic social and sexual needs easier, but real-life dating harder. The average age at which people lose their virginity has been increasing over the years. The share of men under the age of 30 reporting zero female sex partners since turning 18 has increased from 8 to 27 percent in the span of a decade.
Our awareness of mental health, social injustices, and diverse sexualities has been heightened by social media and universities (e.g. the UvA mental health week). Terms such as "transgender", "lesbian", and "gay" are now commonly used. Moreover, niche terms on the spectrum, such as asexuality and demi-sexuality, have also gained recognition in recent decades. Asexuality, once suppressed, is now accepted as a valid lifestyle, as more people are realizing that they can opt out of sex altogether. In addition, an increasing number of people between the ages 18 and 35 are self-labeling as “demi-sexual”, someone who needs a deep emotional connection before any sexual feelings appear. This awareness of exploring sexual identities can be seen as a recent development spurred on by the interconnectedness of the web. While the youth learn to break out of the box that society confines them in, they are less likely to abide by relationship norms from a generation ago. The youth have seemingly learned that it’s okay to take it slow and focus on self-expression before anything else. However, every rainbow has its rain, and the development of greater societal acceptance might just be a storm cloud for the global “sex recession”.
Years of social distancing have resulted in a decline in sexual activity, but a deeper look reveals that the trend is not only global but also generational. In the case of Japan’s declining population, the cultural and societal norms of sex, marriage, and work have fuelled a sex crisis — worrying other countries of a similar problem. On top of that, the internet has served as a double-edged sword when it comes to providing entertainment, perceiving romantic life, and spreading awareness. Navigating the current romantic landscape is more complex than ever as people are cautious, self-aware, and filled with unrealistic expectations. That being said, awareness can go both ways, leaving room for the contemporary youth to contemplate the meaning of sex for them, and reverse the so-called “sex recession”.