These are sexually twisted times for sexless men and sex-frenzied 20-somethings.
In the United States, nearly one in three men between the ages of 18 and 30 report having no sex at all in the past year, while nearly one in five women in that age bracket report the same. Both statistics have jumped from hovering around 10 per cent in 2008.
Data on how much sex people have when they are outside the gender binary is nonexistent as far as I can tell, which seems like an oversight. We can’t know how much sexlessness seems to be sweeping the continent unless we survey everyone. So the conversation around sexlessness and promiscuity is full of holes and often does not factor in anyone who isn’t straight.
Although both young men and young women are having less sex these days, men’s higher rates of celibacy get the most real estate in headlines. Google “men having less sex” and “women having less sex” and you’ll notice the former search nets articles with men in the headline. Meanwhile, searching the latter yields a slew of articles about why everyone generally is having less sex.
There are lots of theories on why men specifically aren’t getting any. Men’s sexlessness seems to coincide with reduced labour force participation, hence the sexless spike after 2008. On the other hand, according to researcher Tsung Chieh Fu, a lot of young people particularly are playing video games and spending more time on social media.
That’s right, your friends boinked because Valorant and TikTok weren’t inflating their screen time.
Then again, an article in Huck magazine examined case studies of men claiming they self-sabotage when sex is on the table. Whatever the case may be, men’s increasing sexlessness is a complex thing.
What’s interesting to me is this surge of virginal and/or celibate lifestyles has coincided with the rise of a so-called hookup culture. More people than ever are having no sex, but at the same time, paradoxically, more people are apparently turning their backs on monogamous sexual relationships in favour of casual fucks.
It’s hard to pin down what the problem is with hookup culture in the mainstream view. A viral Reddit thread posted in 2020 to r/unpopularopinion provides some answers, but they’re disconcertingly illuminating.
The thread’s original post claims sex in a long-term monogamous relationship is “always better” and abruptly states that “STDs aren’t sexy” as if casual sex and safe sex are mutually exclusive. Users respond that sex should be “a big deal” again, that sex between near-strangers is now considered normal (what the problem is with that is anyone’s guess), and that hookup culture is “disgusting.”
Some argue that hookup culture poses unique risks to women. An article from Thought Catalogue suggests that women could be “sexually coerced” to the point they “face the dangers of hookup culture even if they don’t wish to participate.”
However, the fact of the matter is hookup culture isn’t real. Studies as early as 2014 have refuted that hookup culture exists, with one study by researchers Martin A. Monto and Anna G. Carey finding “no evidence of substantial changes in sexual behavior” that would indicate university students in particular are having more sex with strangers. That certainly tracks with increasing rates of sexlessness.
Hookup culture is a phantom haunting us on a grand scale right down to a local one. An article from the Brown Daily Herald looked specifically at the culture at Brown University and found that although students perceived their peers’ sex lives as highly active, they were really wrong.
I’ll jump to the point here: I think the racket about men’s sexlessness specifically, as well as the range of reactions to hookup culture all stem from the general public’s refusal to acknowledge violence against women. The purported problems with sexlessness and hookup culture alike are, in actuality, symptoms of patriarchy and rape culture.
There is a chain of terrifying associations underlying headlines about sexless men. If men are not voluntarily having less sex, that means we might be facing an epidemic of incels who believe that they are entitled to sex from women. Some people have already taken that leap, interpreting rising rates of sexlessness as a sign that people should have a right to sex.
That is a highly alarming position in no small part because anyone’s right to sex jars with the rest of society’s right to not have sex. If nobody wants to have sex with a particular man, the only solution to fulfil his hypothetical right to sex would be to waive the need for his sex partners’ consent or, in other words, to allow rape.
And here we arrive at the reason why men’s sexlessness makes headlines. Although women cannot control men’s participation in the labour force, nor addictions to League of Legends, the unspoken accusation is that men’s celibacy is women’s fault for not having sex with them.
This allergy to acknowledging rape culture seeps into conversations about casual sex too. What are popularly known as problems with hookup culture are in fact symptoms of rape culture and patriarchy which we mislabel as problems with promiscuity.
For instance, the feeling some women have that they must have sex even if they don’t want to is not inherently a characteristic of casual sex. In fact, most sexual assaults — nearly 80 per cent — are instigated by someone close to the victim. The feeling that women are engaging in sexual practices they don’t want to is a trait of a rape culture, a widespread attitude devaluing safe sexual activity and promoting sexual violence.
If we were really worried about protecting women from sexual assault, we’d just be telling them not to get close to men.
What is the solution for us, particularly women, if casual sex is supposedly a problem?
This is how the anti-hookup culture crowd’s agenda collides with men’s unfuckability. Women, apparently, owe men sex, but we are also somehow at risk for pursuing sex with more than one partner. The only solution is for us to have sex strictly within the sanctity of marriage, lock ourselves in a man’s domicile, available for sex whenever he wants it, never saying no and certainly never having sex with another man. Don’t bother even asking about sex with women.
Sex is both a normal and non-mandatory part of human life. It should not be a big deal, but the way we practise it — safely, consensually — should be. Sexual practices are all tangled up with wonderful things like love and orgasms as well as horrible things like misogyny.
We cannot have a productive conversation about getting people to live the healthy sex lives they want if we’re going to pretend abstinence is the answer and patriarchy isn’t the problem.