America is more sex-positive than ever before. Surveys show that Americans’ views on sex are becoming more and more progressive, it’s easier than ever to find sex thanks to the internet, plus we have highly effective and widely available tools that can prevent unintended pregnancies and STDs. In light of all this, “these should be boom times for sex,” as suggested in a recent piece in The Atlantic. We should be getting it on a lot more than we did in the past—except apparently we’re not. Paradoxically, some experts argue that we’ve having less sex, not more, a phenomenon some in the media have dubbed the “sex recession.”
But is this true? In this era of sex-positivity and easy access, are we really having a lot less sex? If you take a closer look at the data used to support the “sex recession” claim, maybe not.
The most commonly referenced data on this subject (and usually the only data discussed) come from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative US survey carried out each year. One of the key questions participants are always asked is to estimate how often they had sex in the last year using a scale ranging from zero, which means “not at all,” to six, which means “more than three times a week.” In a recent paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers re-scaled people’s responses to this question to compute an estimated total number of sex acts per year, and then looked at how this changed over time.
For people who were surveyed between the years 1989 and 1994, they were estimated to be having sex an average of 60.3 times each year. For those surveyed between 2010 and 2014, the number was 53.7. On the surface, that appears to be a pretty sizeable drop in sexual frequency. However, the problem with concluding that Americans’ sex lives have taken a hit is that “sex” wasn’t defined when people were asked how often they were doing it. What were people counting when they said they were having sex, and how has sexual expression changed over time?
When asked to define “sex,” people are all over the map. For example, in a 2015 study, more than 500 heterosexual college students were given a list of 21 intimate behaviors ranging from “deep kissing” to intercourse, and they were asked to indicate whether each one constituted having sex. It turned out that there wasn’t 100 percent agreement on anything.
Of course, most people said that deep kissing wasn’t sex and that penile-vaginal intercourse was; however, they were split on whether things like oral sex counted. While only about a third of the participants said that oral sex was “definitely sex,” the rest weren’t sure.
This is crucial to take into account, because oral sex has become increasingly common in the last quarter century. Consider this: A national survey conducted in the early 1990s found that 27 to 28 percent of men and 19 to 20 percent of women said they either gave or received oral sex during their most recent sexual event. By contrast, a different national survey published in 2010 reported that 37 to 44 percent of men and 31 to 37 percent of women either gave or received oral during their most recent sexual experience.
More from Tonic:
As you can see, we’re going down a lot more than we used to, but a lot of us aren’t sure if that counts as sex, so it’s not clear whether surveys that ask about “sex” in ambiguous ways are tapping into this.
The same goes for anal sex—the data shows that we’re having a lot more of that these days, too. And while people are far more likely to count this activity as sex, somewhere between a quarter and a third of college students aren’t convinced that it is (hence why some religious teens can justify having anal sex while calling themselves “virgins”).
There have also been increases in the use of sex toys and cybersex, which are other forms of sexual expression that a lot of people don’t necessarily count as having sex either. In short, our sex lives today are far more diverse and varied than they’ve ever been. And this is precisely why we need to be very specific when we survey people about the manners in which they’re getting their freak on.
Maybe people are having less sex today in a very literal sense—in other words, maybe they’re having less penile-vaginal intercourse, the behavior people almost universally agree counts as having sex. But, if anything, it seems that this is being replaced with an erotic buffet of other pleasurable activities.
In light of this, rather than being in the midst of a “sex recession,” another way to look at it is that we’re in the midst of another sexual revolution. Our sexual practices are changing and as a result, we need to change the way we study sex, because what it means isn’t the same from one generation to the next.
All of this change is kind of uplifting if you think about it. For example, when you consider the fact that oral sex is increasing and, further, that receiving oral sex increases the odds of female orgasm, maybe that explains why the so-called “orgasm gap” appears to be shrinking. If vaginal intercourse is down but oral sex and female orgasms are up, that might be reason to celebrate rather than panic.
So relax. Let’s stop getting hung up on quantity of sex and instead focus on quality. No matter what your definition is, when it comes to sex, more doesn’t always mean better.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology.