Social psychology

Less drinking is the main reason why young people are having less sex, this new study says

less drinking - shy couple under sheets

A new study finds that less drinking of alcohol consumption and fewer romantic relationships are the main reasons why young people in the United States are having sex less often than they did a decade ago.

People are having sex less and less, in the United States and elsewhere (for example Germany and Japan). In the US, this decline in sexual activity has been especially true of young adults.

Of course, the news media have eagerly charted this trend, and have offered various explanations to explain it. These include declining marriage rates, work-related stress, or a generalized psychological malaise.

But so far, the scientific literature has not devoted much attention to why people — especially young people — seem to be having sex less than they did in decades past.

Now a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family has identified a few explanations that go beyond the merely speculative. The study’s main finding is that the decline in young-adult sexual activity is mainly due to a reduction in alcohol consumption and a drop in the number of young people’s romantic relationships.

Possible factors: less drinking, lower earnings, the Internet, and more

The authors of the article, Lei Lei of Rutgers University and Scott South of the University of Albany, took into account a range of possible factors that might be contributing to the decline in the numbers of young men and women having sex. In addition to the possible explanations mentioned above, they considered trends such as lower earnings, fewer romantic relationships, more young people living with their parents, increasing Internet use, psychological distress, and less drinking of alcohol, to name just a few.

To get their answers, the researchers relied on data from the PSID (Panel Study of Income Dynamics). This is a nationally representative survey of about 18,000 people living in 5,000 families across the United States. Maintained by faculty at the University of Michigan, the PSID has been running since 1968. It collects information on its participants’ employment status, income, spending habits, health, marriage, childbearing, and more.

Specifically, they looked at the PSID’s “Transition to Adulthood” (TA) supplement, which collects information from participants aged 18 to 28. The current study focused on respondents aged 18 to 23, who took part in the survey between 2007 and 2017. Their average age was 20. This sample included a total of 3,213 respondents.

Data on sexual activity

One of the questions that participants in the TA survey answer is “About how many times have you had sexual intercourse in the past four weeks?”

On average, about 56% of respondents said they’d had sex at least once in that period.

Older respondents in the sample were more likely to have had sex in the past four weeks. This also applied to respondents from “non‐intact” families (i.e. those whose families do not currently include two parents). Likewise, college students and graduates were more likely to have not had sex in the past four weeks. The same applied to respondents who frequently attend religious services.

Overall, the researchers found that the number of respondents who reported having had sex in the past four weeks dropped by about 4% per year between 2007 and 2017.

Main reasons: less drinking, and fewer relationships

To explore what might be driving this decline in sexual activity among young adults, the researchers compared the answers on the sex question to respondents’ answers on other questions in the survey. These included topics such as alcohol consumption, levels of videogaming, relationship status, employment status, and more.

They found that the main drivers explaining the decline in young-adult sexual activity were less drinking (i.e. a reduction in overall alcohol consumption) and a drop in the formation of romantic relationships (which included marriages as well as informal, dating relationships).

Specifically, they found that a drop in marriages, living-together situations, and relationships explained 34% of the decline. Likewise, less drinking explained about one‐quarter of the decline. The increase in computer gaming also explained roughly a quarter of the drop. Lower earnings accounted for 17%. And the increase in young people’s likelihood to live with their parents accounted for about 10%.

Using an alternative regression model, the researchers even found that the decline in alcohol consumption explained the largest portion of the decline in sexual activity. This was followed closely by the trend in romantic relationships. In this model, each of these explained about 40% of the net trend in sexual activity. This model also showed that the increase in computer gaming explained about 30% of the decline, and the drop in earnings about 18%.

The decline in alcohol use among younger people is a long-term trend. A recent study found that from 2002 to 2018, the number of U.S. college students who did not drink at all rose from 20% to 28%

Don’t blame the Internet

Several other possible explanations turned out to have very little effect on the overall drop in sexual activity. These included psychological distress, changes in household structure, marijuana use, TV watching, or an increase in student debt.

Another factor commonly proposed in media articles is the rise in Internet use. Yet the researchers actually found Internet use is positively correlated with the likelihood of having had sex in the past four weeks.

But, as mentioned above, this is not true of computer gaming (which of course has some overlap with Internet use). The researchers found that the greater the reported frequency of computer gaming, the greater the downward effect on sexual activity.

Taken together, the factors that the researchers looked at can account for about three‐quarters of the decline in young-adult sexual activity between 2007 and 2017. That still leaves about one quarter of the decline unexplained.

And that means that an explanation for that missing quarter “awaits further research,” as the authors write.


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Study:Explaining the Decline in Young Adult Sexual Activity in the United States
Authors: Lei Lei and Scott J. South
Published in: Journal of Marriage and Family
Publication date: September 28, 2020
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12723
Photo: by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

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