American sex has been in the news. Over a quarter (26%) of American adults didn’t have sex at all in 2021, according to the latest General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative survey of American adults released most years since 1972.
The general response to that startling statistic would probably be something along the lines of, “Doesn’t that make sense with COVID keeping people at home and socially distanced?”
Yes, that does make sense, but also, the trend we’re seeing in the 2021 survey of American adults having less sex is in line with pre-pandemic levels.
That’s right—in 2016 and 2018, the last two times the survey was conducted, 23% of people reported not having sex at all either.
So, what’s going on here? Why does emotional intimacy suddenly seem to be such a chore?
What are the numbers saying about American Sex?
When looking at the raw survey numbers, even a nationally representative sample isn’t going to be a perfect one-to-one illustration of what all 258 million+ American adults are doing with their sex lives.
Of the 4,032 Americans who responded to the GSS 2021 survey, 633 said that they hadn’t had sex in the last 12 months.
However, while the numbers are important, they only tell a small part of the story.
Why are adults having less sex?
As we discussed earlier, part of the answer (about 3% if we assume no growth or regression since 2018) is due to COVID and an inability to be in contact with other humans.
Another part of the answer, according to sex educator and author Kenneth Play, is that our ability to connect in real life has diminished due to our online lives becoming richer.
“We have too many options that compete for our attention in this hyper-convenient society,” he said. “It makes social connection more of a chore than ever before.”
Stress associated with the busyness of modern life in combination with our societies’ desire for hyper-convenience makes for the perfect “less sex recipe.”
Stephen Quaderer, the creator of an inclusive app centered on sexual exploration, also weighed in. Quaderer thinks that part of what’s led to Americans having less sex is its stigmatization by broader society.
Essentially, some experts claim that public discussions around sex have become less and less mainstream as issues like sex work become more polarizing. Quaderer thinks a major reason for that is because social media companies and tech giants (like Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok), our major communication hubs, have pushed sex-related conversations to the margins as a byproduct of the polarization.
University of Toronto Ph.D student Maggie MacDonald agreed with Quaderer’s sentiment. According to her, sexuality is a major social element that we like to connect with others about. The main method of our connection with others today is digitally-based, and because sexuality is heavily moderated by the tech firms running the means of digital communication, online sexual content, and connection are often stifled, which can bleed into peoples’ sex lives.
But in all of these expert opinions, there’s a major missing piece of the discussion. How could the mass consumption of porn possibly be impacting the intimate relationships people are having—or not having, as the stats show?
A contributing factor to American sex decreasing
As Play mentioned earlier, “we have too many options” in a society that’s focused on convenience. One of those options is porn, and it’s worth considering how that’s playing a role in Americans having less sex. It isn’t the sole reason for what these stats show, but given what research shows about how porn can impact relationships, it could very well be a factor.
Porn checks the box of convenience and so much more. It’s always available at the touch of a button, it’s ready when you want it, it caters to your sexual preferences, and there’s no need to woo a sexual partner or deal with the work of a relationship.
So in our digital world, why would someone choose a real partner when porn is “that good?” As it turns out, there are many negative impacts porn can have that the average consumer might not be aware of before pressing “play.”
One of the bigger lies of porn is that consumers can enjoy exaggerated gratification of thousands of virtual sex partners and also have the long-term satisfaction of a real, healthy committed relationship. Research has shown how porn can harm consumers’ sexual satisfaction and drive a wedge between them and their partner.Maddox, A. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Viewing Sexually-Explicit Materials Alone Or Together: Associations With Relationship Quality. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 40(2), 441-448. Doi:10.1007/S10508-009-9585-4Copy Perry S. L. (2020). Pornography and Relationship Quality: Establishing the Dominant Pattern by Examining Pornography Use and 31 Measures of Relationship Quality in 30 National Surveys. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(4), 1199–1213. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01616-7Copy Rasmussen, K. (2016). A historical and empirical review of pornography and romantic relationships: Implications for family researchers. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8(2), 173-191. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12141Copy
Why this matters
“There’s a certain way of experiencing sexual arousal that is the opposite of closeness,” said Dr. Gary Brooks, a psychologist who has worked with porn addicts for the last 30 years. “At best, it can be managed somewhat by some people, but most of the time it creates a barrier that poisons relationships.”Interview with Dr. Gary Brooks, Oct. 23, 2013.Copy
Leading relationship experts, Doctors John and Julie Gottman of the world-renowned Gottman Institute, also explain, “when watching pornography, the user is in total control of the sexual experience, in contrast to normal sex in which people are sharing control with the partner. Thus a porn user may form the unrealistic expectation that sex will be under only one person’s control… the relationship goal of intimate connection is confounded and ultimately lost.”Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (April 5, 2016). An open letter on porn. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/an-open-letter-on-porn/Copy
It’s no wonder how real-life sexual encounters—that involve give and take, patience, trust, emotional intimacy, and time—can seem less appealing if porn is so available.
But ultimately, the research is clear when it comes to porn and partners: porn can take a heavy toll on real-life relationships.Minarcik, J., Wetterneck, C. T., & Short, M. B. (2016). The effects of sexually explicit material use on romantic relationship dynamics. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(4) 700-707. doi:10.1556/2006.5.2016.078Copy Park, B. Y., et al. (2016). Is internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysunction? A Review with Clinical Reports, Behavioral Sciences, 6, 17. doi:10.3390/bs6030017Copy
In many cases, people who are in relationships with porn consumers report feeling distressed or hurt by their partner’s pornography consumption. Even if a partner has no issues with their significant other’s porn habit, it can still damage the relationship. In fact, research consistently shows that porn consumption is associated with poorer relationship quality and sexual dissatisfaction.Wright, P. J., & Tokunaga, R. S. (2018). Women's perceptions of their male partners’ pornography consumption and relational, sexual, self, and body satisfaction: Toward a theoretical model.42(1), 55-73. doi:10.1080/23808985.2017.1412802Copy Stewart, D. N., & Szymanski, D. M. (2012). Young adult women’s reports of their male romantic partner’s pornography use as a correlate of their self-esteem, relationship quality, and sexual satisfaction. Sex Roles, 67(5), 257-271. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0164-0Copy
In one study, couples were tracked over a six-year period to see what factors influenced the quality of their marriage and their satisfaction with their sex lives. The researchers found that of all the factors considered, porn consumption was the second strongest indicator that a marriage would suffer.Perry, S. (2017). Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence From Longitudinal Data. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559. Doi: 10.1007/S10508-016-0770-Y, retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27388511/Copy Not only that, but the marriages that were harmed the most were those of individuals who viewed porn the most.Perry, S. (2017). Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence From Longitudinal Data. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559. Doi: 10.1007/S10508-016-0770-YCopy
On its face, porn can seem harmless and in some cases may even seem like a good way to heat up a relationship or keep loneliness at bay when you’re in between partners. But study after study point to the fact that porn can have absolutely devastating consequences for relationships, both sexually and emotionally.
What it comes down to is this: there is no substitute for real connection, and porn isn’t worth risking that. No matter why intimate relationships aren’t happening for so many adults, porn doesn’t help people get closer to each other.
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