When I think back upon my extensive and impressive sexual past, a number of things become evident. One is that my obsessive rewatching of Richard Curtis’ 1999 rom-com Notting Hill has unfortunately influenced my sexual preferences for foppish, privately educated men. Another is that I would be hard pressed to give much credit to pubs for any of my sexual achievements in the 25 years I have spent on this earth.
An article, published today in the Guardian, claims I would be wrong to ignore this apparent huge aphrodisiac: the humble British pub. The piece, entitled, “No pints, no pulling: does the death of the pub spell the end of sex?” argues that rapidly declining numbers of pubs in the UK are directly linked with the recently published National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which reported that young people are having less sex. Writer Elle Hunt hinges the link on two things. One is the idea that pub culture is so intrinsic to the way us Brits get laid, that the more boozers that close, the less we bang. The second justification is from author Emily Hill, who ties the two declines based on some anecdotal beliefs.
“The way the British used to meet,” Hill is quoted in the Guardian piece, “[is] we all used to go into a pub randomly with friends, everybody would get way too drunk, and three years later you’d wake up one morning and realise you had a boyfriend.” Sounds pretty watertight.
Unfortunately for everyone in desperate need of a lay, there’s really not a lot of evidence that the decline of the British pub is somehow linked to the claim that young people are having less sex. Indeed, Hunt seems to conflate correlation (pubs are declining, also surveys suggesting that young people aren’t shagging as much) with causation (fewer pubs means less sex!).
“[Declining pubs] seems an unlikely explanation [for young people having less sex], and doesn’t really fit the data all that well,” Steve McKay, a professor at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln, tells me over email. “The decline in numbers of pubs has been going on for decades. During that period we saw a rise in sex (e.g. over the 1990s and 2000s, compared to before). The current discussion about decline is really about those under 25. If it was about the decline of pubs, it would have been a feature going on for longer.”
“Moreover,” he adds, “pubs are really a British thing, and the decline in sex seems to happening in places like Japan and the USA, which don’t have pubs in the British sense.”
Disregarding the 101 Bad Science linking pub decline with young people having less sex, the idea that pubs are some kind of sexual bastion is boringly nostalgic. The Guardian piece seems to ignore the fact that rising rents and changing drinking and socialising trends mean that very few of us frequent the same local every week with the same group of mates. In fact, over half of adults in the UK struggle to afford pints at the pub. Society has changed, and you can’t link pub closures with sexual patterns because you’ve got fond memories of going down the Coach and Horses every Friday, bitching about Thatcher, and hooking up with a guy called Davey whose Depeche Mode record collection you admire.
I also asked Katherine O’Brien, head of media and policy research at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), about the claim that pubs are to blame for young people having less sex. Earlier this year, the BPAS surveyed 1,000 teenagers and found that patterns of social interaction, such as studying and spending time with family, “may be contributing to the decreasing rate of teenage pregnancies.” The BPAS, however, doesn’t necessarily claim that teenagers are having less sex, as it only surveyed teens from one period of time.
“It’s very easy for those of us who are of a different generation to problematise young people’s changing lives,” she tells me over email. “Behind a lot of the rhetoric—such as the term ‘Generation Sensible’—is an unhelpful attitude of ‘we did things better in my day.’”
“I don’t think there’s any real evidence that pub closures are affecting the amount of sex young people are having,” she continues. “However, I do think there may be a link with shifting patterns of alcohol consumption as a whole.”
“Indeed, our survey found that those who consumed alcohol, and those who consumed alcohol at higher levels, were much more likely to have had sex than those who had abstained or drank at lower levels. Consequently, we do think it is reasonable to suggest a link between changes to young people’s drinking habits and changes to their sex lives.”
I also asked McKay what factors he thinks may be contributing to the decrease in young people having sex.
“Most writers talk about two areas. A, more boring things: more children living at home with parents, kids cannot afford their own places, more monitoring of children by their parents, people getting married at later ages,” he explains, “and B, the more exciting explanations people: using the internet and smartphones to access porn, people finding the virtual world more stimulating than the real world—gaming not just porn.”
Looks like we can’t really blame our terrible sex lives on pub closures. Time to get drunk, earn more money, stop living with our parents, watch less porn, and get married. Easy.