Why are so many young people are having less sex and fewer friendships?

The right-wing media ecosystem wants more sex.

Specifically, conservative and far-right pundits are worried that young men specifically aren’t having enough of it. That’s their take on an analysis of the General Social Survey, a bi-annual survey conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, which shows that since 2010 the rate at which both men and women (18-34) are having sex has declined dramatically since 2008. In 2021, the survey found over 20 percent of males under 35 reported not having had sex in the past year, and 19 percent of females of the same age group; in 2008, those groups’ numbers were 8 and 7 percent, respectively.

Graph used with permission from The Institute for Family StudiesThe survey seems to have struck a chord with conservatives, particularly, who have curiously focused on the males, and ignored the females, in these numbers. Indeed, conservative media pundits —  including pseudo-intellectuals like Jordan Peterson and mainstream media figures like Tucker Carlson — have seized upon this data point to argue that there is a conspiracy against men.

Even before this survey was released, fringe far-right figures such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — who was recently fined for his public denial of school shootings and massacres that lead to targeted harassment of families of school shootings — have painted this phenomenon as a crisis of masculinity (even though under-35 women seem to having equally little sex).

This narrative – the notion that there is some kind of crisis of masculinity, that there is a war against men, even – has become dogma among a certain subset of the right. Holding up this explanation are half-truths, pseudo-science, and misogynistic beliefs that have allowed figures like the recently de-platformed Andrew Tate to attract young men seeking advice on their love life, financial well-being, and other societal issues. Yet Tate and other “manosphere” figures seek only to tap into the fears, anxiety, rage, and frustration that these men feel and encourage them to direct it towards women—going as far to say women should not own property, have access to or be financially independent, or even encourage violence towards women.

This angry group of frustrated men often gather in online forums, places like 4chan and the like, to find community and people who share their exasperation. Young men who believe they are incapable of having sex refer to themselves as “incels,” short for involuntary celibates — and researchers such as Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Professor of Sociology in the School of Public Affairs and the School of Education at American University, notes that they pose a serious problem for Western societies. As Professor Miller-Idriss points out, the danger is that these young men’s feelings can quickly spiral into desperation — and that can lead to attempted or real acts of violence, such as the recent thwarted shooting by an Ohio “incel” and a self-identified incel shooter in the United Kingdom who killed five.

Nearly 60 years ago, C. Wright Mills encouraged that we understand this kind of aggregated social data not as the result of personal failings, but as public issues that can be explained by looking to larger historical and structural relationships. When we look at other data points like the graph below, we find that it is not merely sexual relationships that are on the decline, but also friendships. This, from a sociological standpoint, reveals that there is something larger going on here. Untangling it means we must look at the at the larger economic, cultural, and political changes.

Graph used with permission from The Institute for Family Studies

But the connection between relationships and politics goes beyond the rise of incel culture online. As further analysis by the Institute of Family Studies shows, those who have less sex tend to have more conservative beliefs about pornography, tend to attend church more, and have negative feelings towards pre-marital sex. Thus, it would seem that those not having sex may be caught in a peculiar position in society, brought on by their inability to let go of conservative cultural and religious beliefs which might prevent them from finding relationships.

Graphs used with permission from The Institute for Family StudieSecondly, we must also consider larger cultural and societal changes brought on by social media. Numerous studies have found that platforms like Instagram and Facebook have had a negative impact on young women’s self image in particular. Some scholars, including myself, argue that social media has replaced the public square and traditional spaces where others meet. Unfortunately, the unregulated social media environment that we have today is a poor replacement. This is not to say social media could not evolve to meet those needs, but in its present form it leaves something to be desired.

While quite a bit of attention is being raised about this issue, relatively few media outlets have examined the economic situation of those under 35. Indeed, for some time the economic situation of younger Americans has been dire. As early as 2011, think tanks like Pew were pointing out that there is growing inequity between generations, as indicated in this chart. Deeper analysis shows that stagnant wages which create the need to work more, coupled with ongoing concerns for the pandemic, and a work force which has lost faith in the current system has produced a much less economically secure youth. All this is to say that the resulting stress that can accompany economic instability may be as much to blame as anything else.

When social systems become unstable this can produce a societal condition called anomie, a French word meaning without norms. Sociologists use this term to refer to the feelings of disconnect and alienation that individuals can feel under these circumstances. Anomie, if left unchecked, can produce higher rates of crime, mental illness, and even suicide. Those using the concept point to it as a reason for why human beings seek out and join groups (including church groups, amateur sports, or music subcultures). Such groups can shield us from feelings of isolation and loneliness that stem from societal feelings of desperation and loneliness (i.e. anomie).

In the case of young people having less sex, it would seem there are other more plausible explanations that can help us answer this question—a bleak outlook brought on by economic conditions, changing social norms as a result of new communications technologies, and just simply feeling as though one doesn’t have enough time to invest in their personal relationships. Thus, if we really do see this as a serious issue, then we need to make changes at a variety of levels. This would include making having sex more socially acceptable, improving the economic conditions for those 35 and younger, and passing regulations around social media that will help harness its power towards fostering healthy long-term relationships.

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