Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Sex Recession And What It Means To Be Male

The Atlantic has published a truly remarkable jeremiad, written by Kate Julian, that seems tailor made to draw a blog out of my depleted well. Title: "Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?"

It's very long, but it's also very worth the time invested in it. Given how hyper-sexualized our culture is, the leading question may seem nonsensical to you. Most people believe teenagers are rabid horn-dogs; hell, most people think everyone else is bumping uglies every other hour.

But it's true: pretty much everyone is having less sex, and younger people are having a lot less sex than their parents did at their age. In the space of a single generation, the number of high schoolers who have had sex has dropped from 54% to 40%. Fifteen percent of people in their early twenties are abstinent: that's twice the rate of abstinence of Gen X at that age.

In 1995, two thirds of 17 year olds said they'd had a "special romantic relationship" in the previous 18 months. By 2014, the number of 17 year olds who said they had "dated, hooked up, or otherwise had a romantic relationship" with someone had plummeted to less than half. And that's a much broader category.

Parents may be relieved. They shouldn't be. Because it's not just sex, it's couplehood in general that's declining fast. SIXTY percent of people 35 and under live without a spouse or a partner. (One third of that sixty percent still lives at home with their parents, and I'm sure that's not something Mom and Dad signed up for.)

This is not a welcome development, because intimacy -- physical or not -- is a human need. Without it, most of us feel unfulfilled at best and go insane to various degrees at worst.

There are a myriad of possible reasons given for the decline in sex, all of which likely have at least some validity: might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.

It's not all negative. Childhood sexual abuse rates have sharply declined, and promiscuity is one possible documented outcome of sexual abuse. And women in particular are less inclined to have unwanted sex, just for the sake of having it.

But as the article continues its deep dive into modern hookup culture (actual "dates" are seen as almost quaint these days), many things jump out at me, none of them especially pleasant in their ramifications:

  • Masturbation has gone from taboo and heavily stigmatized to almost being celebrated. 
Nobody bats an eye anymore when women talk about their BOBs (battery operated boyfriends): it's pretty much a given that women retreat into their nightly Toy Story, starring Woody and Buzz Lightyear. And even male masturbatory aids like Fleshlights are becoming more common and less remarked upon. 
While most of us do appreciate the ability to relieve certain pressures on occasion, 
the idea that this could be preferable to intimacy with a warm, loving partner is almost inconceivable to me. Chalk it up to "shared joy increases". 
  • The normalization of porn and its disentanglement (for some) from actual sex
Pornography has always been normal, of course. Check out the walls of Pompeii, or ancient cave art, and you'll see sex acts to inspire you, if you're one of those people still having sex. What's new is its de-eroticism. It's just one more digital (no pun intended) activity you indulge in, like binge-watching TV. It might constitute the whole of your sex life; it may have little relation. 
Problem is: this isn't true for everyone. Many men bring porn-fed, completely unrealistic expectations  into their sexual relationships. It's highly inappropriate to choke someone in your first encounter. Many women hate anal sex, and even those who love it require lots of foreplay beforehand.  It's statistically unlikely you're just going to be able to shove it in and she'll be moaning in orgasmic bliss. shall I put the bukkake for your imagination.

Bad sex leads more and more women to simply give up on sex in general. 
  • Sex is just one more "adult" activity that's getting delayed.
...along with many other things that used to be completely normal, like getting a job, going out without your parents, getting a driver's license, or drinking alcohol. In my day (he wheezed), all of these activities were eagerly looked forward to by the vast majority of the population. (I was virtually a pariah in first year university because I had no interest in alcohol whatsoever.) The reasons for this widespread delay are manifold, but a shitty economy and bubble-wrap parenting have a lot to do with it, I'd wager. Teenagers are suffering from anxiety and depression at historically unheard of rates, partly because the world really is going to hell, and partly because many parents have failed to properly equip their offspring to deal with mundane setbacks. Sex is just one of the things caught in the wash...but it's worth noting that both anxiety and depression AND the drugs we treat them with sap libido. 
  • Heartbreakingly, many young adults yearn for stable, loving relationships...but have no idea how to build one. And some of them think a relationship is irresponsible, since multiple degrees and career MUST come first.
As one correspondent put it, "We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up". 

This is problematic for two reasons. One, confirming something I have long known to be true: for most people, casual sex is not as rewarding as sex with a steady partner. This really shouldn't be surprising: on a purely sexual level, it takes a while to truly learn your lover's likes and dislikes. Going deeper, though...people are not sex dolls and they have much, MUCH more to offer you than sexual relief.

The second problem is that...whatever the reasons people have for eschewing relationships, when they do finally get around to pursuing one, they're woefully unprepared. What relationships do arise are marked by a lack of essential communication, an inability to define such simple things as what the relationship is. I'm reminded of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory: "she's a girl, she's a friend, but she's not my girlfriend."
The idea of actually going out and meeting someone strikes terror into the hearts of many young people today--which isn't surprising, since text messaging has rendered many of them terrified of hearing a stranger's voice. But here's the other thing: in the #MeToo era, actually asking a stranger out is something that is Just Not Done anymore. Not fifteen years ago, it was completely and utterly normal and expected. Now it's creepy, borderline call the cops. Seventeen percent of Americans aged 18-29 believe that a man inviting a woman out for a drink "always" or "usually" constitutes sexual harassment. 

This flabbergasts me. That's still a low number, but in older age groups it's a tiny fraction of that number. Maybe there is something to the bewilderment I'm seeing from so many males: how can I relate to a woman if simply asking one out is wrong? I'm assuming -- maybe this isn't a safe assumption -- that we're talking about "hey, would you like to go for coffee sometime", NOT "hey, can I take you home and give you a tour of my ceiling?"

Person after person saying that they'd rather text than phone or meet face to face, not only for the reason I can relate to ("I might get rejected!") but also simply because "it's awkward". We have reached a pretty pass when talking to someone is "awkward"...not to mention when awkward must be avoided at all costs.

Let me explain something to you. LIFE is awkward. Life is full of little awkward moments, and the only way to make them less awkward is to power through 'em, preferably laughing at yourself. 
  • The current generation doesn't want anyone to see them naked outside a bedroom (or sometimes inside one). 
Women are increasingly amazed that a man might want to perform oral sex on them. This stems from acute body dissatisfaction, of course, but also from something not mentioned in the article. Men "going down on" women is as vanishingly rarely portrayed in porn as a loving relationship. The reverse is of course not true, since men receiving oral must be seen in every single heterosexual porn flick. But men, too, worry about what they look like naked. 

I was amazed to learn that most high schools no longer require students to shower after gym class. You don't get naked regularly, you're not us Just...ew, though. Has gym class changed such that people no longer sweat in it? 

The most embarrassing moment of my young life, not to mention one of the most painful, occurred in grade six, after a gym class. For some reason I no longer remember, I did not wear underwear to school that day. This was not a problem until I put my shorts on after gym...and zipped up

That wasn't the bad part. The bad part was having to get my (male) teacher to...extract. I was screaming in pain and couldn't see through the tears...and although I never forgot to wear underwear to gym class evermore, I also never hesitated to shower all the way through grade 11,  after which regulations blessedly no longer required to me to exhibit my athletic numptyness to my peers. 

Men are supposedly afraid of (sigh) being called out on penis size. There are lots of ready-made replies to that: why are you looking so hard for it is my favourite, since anybody idiotic enough to remark on another man's lack of equipment is petrified of being thought of as gay. Satisfied your mother just fine works too. I'm a grower, not a shower should shut 'em up.  

For women...I got nothin'. It has by turns deeply saddened and infuriated me that women are treated the way they are. I first became aware of it in third grade, when I heard this charming bit of schoolyard doggerel:

Fatty, fatty, two by four
Can't fit through the bathroom door...

The original lyrics of this refer to a male. But it was always and without exception sung to girls at my school, and when I asked why, nobody could tell me. It just was. 
The damnedest thing is, today's hookup culture has cemented body image as a chief concern. If you're going to be "just fucking around", you'd better look fuckable. Little do people know anymore that when you actually love someone, their beauty overwhelms you no matter what they look like.
  •  Gays and lesbians don't have these problems to anywhere near the same extent.
This suggests to me that men and women have serious problems relating to each other. And this, once again, conjures #MeToo.

I've read elsewhere, in many elsewheres, that a seemingly large set of men are confused. Another, seemingly larger set, are angry, calling #MeToo a "witch hunt". 

It's not confusing and it's not a witch hunt. It's about not treating women as sexual objects, unless they have EXPLICITLY agreed to be objectified in the context of an encounter that is already sexual. 

If it seems like you have to watch your every word and action, that means you've realized just how pervasive misogyny is in this culture. If you find yourself raging at "emasculation", you might consider that your definition of what it means to be a man was somewhat lacking. 

Yes, lacking. Believe it or not, women are doing you a huge FAVOUR by "redefining" manhood. For everything they're taking away, such as the right to express your anger freely, they're offering multiple alternatives. Why not fear? Why not sadness? Why not insecurity? Because none of those things are "manly"? Bullshit, they're all human and you know you feel them sometimes. 

You still get to be a protector. You can still be a provider. (Hell, in this economy you may not have a choice on that.) You can still be buff. And gruff and rough and tough (no guff!) You can be everything you used to be, only respecting the women (and other men) in your life. Is that really so difficult?

Side benefit, if you want it: treating people with respect can lead to sex...and a relationship. If, you know, sex and relationships are things you're interested in. They should be.

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