A defining moment in civilization just hit. No, I’m not referring to the elections (yawn, they have those every two years), nor yet Barbra Streisand’s release of an entire album of Trump-trolling tracks (though “Make Streisand Stop Singing” could prove a winning reelection slogan for the president). The unprecedented development is this: For the first time in history, mature adults are worried that the youngsters aren’t having enough sex.
We know this because The Atlantic has raised the alarm in a cover story. “Americans are in the midst of a sex recession,” we’re told in the piece, in which middle-aged and elderly observers panic about the next generation’s disgraceful lack of interest in the horizontal mambo. How must the arguments be going in the comfy suburbs?
“Emma! I told you to clean up your room.”
“In a minute, Dad!”
“Then I need you to come down here and feed the dog.”
“Jeez, okay, okay!”
“And for heaven’s sake, I thought I told you to get some nooky this week.”
“Daaaaaaadd! I told you I haven’t met the right person yet. I’m only 32!”
While the chin-strokers were debating the possibility of California secession, what actually happened was a sexcession. Between the sheets, my friends, it’s 2008. Libidos are going the way of Lehman Brothers. We’re suffering from national bonkruptcy.
The age at which young people are losing their virginity is rising in the U.S. and in some other developed countries. Only two out of five Americans report having had sex by the conclusion of high school, down from 54 percent in 1991. As of 2014, adults were having sex an average of only 54 times a year, down from 62 in the late 1990s, and the number is believed to have fallen still further since 2014. The nation’s kidults are delaying marriage but also delaying cohabitation. Three-fifths of adults under 35 are living without a spouse or romantic partner. The most common arrangement for this group is to live with one’s parents. A third of them do so.
How can this be? Our culture is so sex-saturated that the air seems vaguely swampy with pheromones. Former taboos have been nuked. Birth control is often free. Dating apps — swipe right to say you’re down to frolic! — have turned the inspiration of poets into something more like an ATM transaction. Confessional columns reveal that young women are hopping into bed with fellows they chose online, like moo goo gai pan. (Then regretting the experience, then repeating.)
Sex is in the air, but it’s not taking root. A tricky detail that is vexing the youngs: You have to actually be in the same room with the other person to make it happen. Young America understands the Internet, not intercourse.
In midtown Manhattan when I was young there used to be lines to get into Studio 54 on West 54th Street as the youth ached and burned to join the Caligulan decadence within. Today, a stone’s throw away on West 55th Street, there are equally long lines to get into an establishment called Black Tap, which despite its dungeony name is a locale renowned not for leather gear but for its mammoth $12 milkshakes. On any given night, scores if not hundreds of young people are baying to get in, not so much to drink the shakes as to snap pictures of them. Which they then post on Instagram to make their friends jealous that they, too, didn’t spend their entire evening waiting in line for dessert. A YouTube personality named Casey Neistat posted a video about the place entitled “Would you wait 5 HOURS FOR A MILKSHAKE?!” It has 3.8 million views. Many other videos offer similar milkshake mania. America’s loss of innocence is a perennial topic for the hacks. Yet when young adults are enthused about milkshakes, and living with their parents, I call that a sure sign America has regained its innocence.
The sex crash is at least making lots of baby neologisms: “Procrasturbation” is a thing now (young men do it to avoid moving to the next stage of life). “Fapstronauts” are a Reddit community of self-abusers. Porn fantasies are so entrenched that their connoisseurs refer to in-person interaction as “meatworld.” “We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up,” said one college student. In Japan, the term for emotionally underdeveloped young fellas who stay home instead of going out on the prowl is “grass-eating boys.” Apparently the average dude about town in Yokohama would prefer to make whoopee with a silicone egg filled with lubricant. Meet Onan the Vegetarian.
New dating technology isn’t very satisfying. The Atlantic asked a (balding, nerdy) 32-year-old bachelor what dating was like for him. For every 30 times he swipes right, only one female returns the show of interest. Then, for every ten messages he sends out, only one of those is returned. So failure even to exchange an electronic hello happens at a rate of 299 out of 300 efforts. How about trying meatworld? Ew, no. After a quarter of a century of sexual-harassment indoctrination, it is now widely agreed that speaking to a stranger in a public place is “creepy.” Prying someone’s attention away from her phone is pretty much impossible anyway.
Must we be grumpy about the dearth of rumpy-pumpy? I’m not, but then again I have two young daughters. They’re welcome to remain home with Mom and me until they’re 40. As for the chronically lonely, Kevin Williamson’s suggestion that they join those famously friendly connection-facilitating institutions known as “churches” seems ever wiser. And after church, you can both go out for a milkshake.