‘When I were a lad…’ as the old saying goes, my mates and I would try to sneak into the pubs underage or, when that inevitably failed, just sit on the swings down the park necking cheap cider.
How to look cool with a cigarette was of pressing concern too – not so easy when you start to cough and splutter after accidentally inhaling for real. How to hold it was way more important than actually being able to smoke the thing.
It was all about impressing the girls, you see. Preening and performing like peacocks. We are all, after all, animals. And teenage pregnancy, very much related to that alcohol intake, was a bit of a worry for the more advanced and better looking among us.
Now, according to new research from the US, casual sex among the young is on the wane. Even older ‘young men’ are far more focused on Fortnite or Call of Duty. And they’re also not leaving home until much later.
And it seems that it’s the boys who are letting the side down more than the girls. For women, the main factor in the decline was the fact they are consuming less alcohol, which is said to be the root cause of a quarter of the fall in knicker dropping.
According to the regressive analysis of data spanning from 2007 to 2017, the study of 2,000 young men and women aged 20 to 24 found the proportion who said they had not had a non-romantic sexual encounter in the past year had gone up from 11.7 percent to 15.2 percent. For men aged 18 to 24, it rose from 18.9 percent to 30.9 percent.
Figures from the past year of lockdown are not available, but it seems a safe bet that they will have dipped even more. But, maybe, after the pandemic is over, there could actually be an explosion in casual sex with the renewed sense of freedom.
Here RT.com talks to the report’s authors, Scott J. South, distinguished professor of sociology at the State University of New York and Lei Lei, assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, about their findings.
RT: What inspired you to carry out this research?
LL: We have read reports on the declining trends in sex frequency among adults in the US. This trend is especially acute among young adults, so we wanted to explore why.
SJS: Just scientific curiosity. The decline in sexual activity over the last few decades, especially among young adults, caught many observers by surprise. And while there has been a good deal of speculation as to why this change occurred, there are few rigorous studies testing these explanations.
RT: What were the main findings?
LL: We found that between 2007 and 2017, both young men and young women who were not in a romantic relationship became less likely to have casual sex. Among young men, declines in drinking frequency, increased computer gaming, and the growing percentage who live with their parents explained almost 60 percent of the decline in casual sex. Among young women, the decline in the frequency of drinking alcohol explained a quarter of the decline in casual sex, and using the internet led to more casual sex.
SJS: Both young women and young men are drinking less frequently now than in the past. I don’t think we have a good sense as to why this is.
RT: Obviously imbibing less alcohol is better for one’s health, but it’s not so good for one’s sex life?
LL: For youngsters, less alcohol could mean less in-person socialization, which leads to fewer opportunities to find a potential partner for casual sex.
SJS: I guess you could say this. Many studies have observed a positive association of alcohol consumption and sexual activity. One contribution of our study is to link the decline in alcohol consumption with the decline in young adult casual sexual activity.
RT: And for males, it’s partly down to video games? Is Call of Duty more of a call than the call of burgeoning sexual desire?
LL: Yes, young men are spending more time in video gaming. Gaming can affect how and with whom they socialize, which then affects their opportunity to meet potential sex partners. Other people argue that gaming also provides an alternative gratification to sex.
SJS: We find that young men who play video games frequently are less likely than other men to engage in casual sex.
RT: Isn’t casual sex part of growing up? It’s a kind of exploration, finding one’s way in the world.
LL: Yes, scholars found that some young people treat casual sex as a trial or rehearsal for determining whether a long-term romantic relationship is desirable.
RT: Is this a regression back to days of old where many people had one sexual partner in their entire life, in a way?
LL: I don’t think so. In our analysis, we still observe more than 20 percent of unpartnered young people who’d had casual sex in the past month. The younger generation’s attitudes towards sex won’t regress to the old days. It is just their living arrangements, lifestyles and technology uses inhibited much in-person socialization with peers. This young generation also undertakes less risky behaviors.
SJS: There is evidence from other research that the likelihood of having sex prior to marriage, which had been increasing over many decades, has begun to plateau among recent cohorts.
RT: Is the absolute explosion in electronic devices and social media a source for this?
SJS: The study found that the frequency of internet use does not explain the decline in sexual activity. In fact, although internet use, and presumably the use of electronic devices more generally, has been increasing, women who use the internet frequently are more likely than other women to report having had casual sex. One somewhat obvious explanation is that young adults are using dating apps to find sexual partners.
LL: Probably they are able to find partners or get information about contraception using the internet.
RT: What do you think the impact of Covid-19 will be on this area of life?
LL: I would guess that Covid-19 would further reduce young people’s frequency of having casual sex. The closing of businesses – in-person dining, cinemas and malls – diminishes the opportunities for young people to meet potential sexual partners. Young people may also avoid casual sex due to the risk of disease. Economic insecurity could also be a reason that further dampens young people’s interest in casual sex.
Young adulthood is a period with dense life course events, such as college entrance, entering the labour market, getting married, and starting a family. Their life plans may have been disrupted by Covid, and they may feel that their life has been held back by the pandemic. Besides, young people may feel isolated, and they need to socialize with their peers.
SJS: My guess is that the pandemic has served to reduce casual sexual activity, mainly because it has reduced the congregating of young adults in settings such as bars and parties from where sexual partners are often chosen. But we don’t have good data on this yet.
RT: Where do you predict this trend heading, especially taking into account the pandemic?
SJS: I’d really prefer not to speculate, but because there is no reason to expect that the main drivers of the decline in sexual activity identified in our study – declines in drinking and increases in video gaming and parental co-residence – are likely to abate, then the decline in young adult casual sexual activity might also continue to decline over the long term.
LL: I am not sure. I think the factors that explained this decline in casual sex would remain in effect in the near future. However, there may be a rebound in partying and binge drinking after Covid, leading to more casual sex, as we cherish in-person interactions more after this year of restricted living.
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