The Death of Eros

The Death of Eros, by Mark Regnerus.

Something strange is going on in America’s bedrooms. In a recent issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers reported that on average, Americans have sex about nine fewer times a year than they did in the late 1990s. The trend is most pronounced among the young. Controlling for age and time period, people born in the 1930s had the most sex, whereas those born in the 1990s are reporting the least. Fifty years on from the advent of the sexual revolution, we are witnessing the demise of eros.

Despite all the talk of the “hookup culture,” the vast majority of sex happens within long-term, well-defined relationships. Yet Americans are having more trouble forming these relationships than ever before. Want to understand the decline of sex? Look to the decline in marriage. …

A decline in commitment isn’t the only reason for the sexual recession. Today one in eight adult Americans is taking antidepressant medication, one of the common side effects of which is reduced libido.

Social media use also seems to play a part. The ping of an incoming text message or new Facebook post delivers a bit of a dopamine hit — a smaller one than sex delivers, to be sure, but without all the difficulties of managing a relationship. In a study of married eighteen- to thirty-nine-year-old Americans, social media use predicted poorer marriage quality, lower marital happiness, and increased marital trouble — not exactly a recipe for an active love life.

If these were the only causes, the solution would be straightforward: a little more commitment, a little less screen time, a few more dates over dinner, more time with a therapist, and voilà. But if we follow the data, we will find that the problem goes much deeper, down to one of the foundational tenets of enlightened opinion: the idea that men and women must be equal in every domain. …

Today, the results are in. Equality between the sexes is leading to the demise of sex.

To understand why this is, we need to turn to Gary Becker, an economist who won a Nobel Prize for his study of the economic principles behind human interactions. He documented how the benefits of marriage receded as women’s earning power rose relative to that of men. The years between 1973 and 1983 were decisive. In that decade, young women’s wages climbed steadily while men’s actually fell, never to recover. Women had less reason to marry, and they had less attractive mates should they nonetheless decide to. …

Artificial contraception has made it so that people seldom mention marriage in the negotiations over sex. Ideals of chastity that shored up these practical necessities have been replaced with paeans to free love and autonomy. … The mating market no longer leads to marriage, which is still “expensive” — costly in terms of fidelity, time, and finances — while sex has become comparatively “cheap.”

For every one hundred women under forty who want to marry, there are only eighty-two men who want the same. Though the difference may sound small, it allows men to be more selective, fickle, and cautious. If it seems to you that young men are getting pickier about their prospective spouses, you’re right. It’s a result of the new power imbalance in the marriage market. In an era of accessible sex, the median age at marriage rises. It now stands at an all-time high of twenty-seven for women and twenty-nine for men, and is continuing to inch upward. In this environment, women increasingly have to choose between marrying Mr. Not Quite Right or no one at all. …

Differences between men’s work and women’s work — between breadwinner and homemaker, father and mother — are increasingly viewed as arbitrary and oppressive. And yet this loss of everyday oppositions between men and women has made Americans less, not more, attractive to each other. … Do men who do a greater share of the housework enjoy more sex? No. In fact, they’re penalized in the bedroom. Husbands who do little or no housework had sex with their wives nearly two more times per month than did husbands who do all of it. Meanwhile, doing a greater share of traditionally male work around the house—mowing the lawn, fixing things—correlates with more sex. Men and women are not attracted to sameness, but to difference.

Recognizing this doesn’t mend everything between men and women, however. The cheap sex that was made possible by the Pill, further discounted by pornography, and made more efficient by Tinder has proven to be a bad bargain for women, leaving them (and, in turn, men) lonelier and less connected than they once were. I see it in the statistics and I hear it in their stories.

Read it all.

hat-tip Stephen Neil