Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sex in the U.S.A.

This Washington Post headline caught my attention last week: Americans, including married people, are having sex less than they used to. It took my mind back to the 1990's when a book titled Sex in America, the first national survey of sexual practices and preferences in this country, captured the nation's attention. I was a young journalist working for a conservative organization that had never mentioned the word sex, but I persuaded my editor to allow me to produce a radio report on the book because "it was scientific work, the most comprehensive study of sexuality in America since Kinsey, and definitely not some titillating fiction." 

The radio report turned a relatively obscure new writer into someone who was regularly stopped in the couloirs to expand on the topic.  The rest is history, as they say.

My first encounter with the subject of sex in the U.S.A. was Gay Talese's 1981 bestseller Thy Neighbors Wife, which I read in translation back in Europe. It was an exploration of sexuality in America of the author's time, including the discussion of the so-called "free love," based on his lengthy visit to California's Sandstone Retreat, for swinging couples. Today, I had to google the title of Talese's book. All I remembered was that he had been so enraged by a Croatian journalist (a woman who interviewed him during the presentation of his book in Zagreb in the 1980's)  that he stomped out of the interview in a huff. But Talese's non-fiction book, following John Updike's novel Couples and reports from Woodstock, gave us in eastern Europe the impression that "free love" and wife swapping were common and widespread in America. Stanley Kubrick's 1999 movie Eyes Wide Shut later reinforced that notion.

Gay Talese

So when I moved to Washington, I was baffled with what seemed like sexless and sterile social atmosphere. I never saw a man looking at a woman with an interest, let alone approaching her with any intention other than business. Flirting was an unknown term. But children were abundant, so I figured Americans, even in Washington, must be doing something that leads to sex and marriage.

In short, the 1995 book Sex in America was of great interest to me. Unfortunately, I lost the article that brought me my 15 minutes of fame at work. But I remember the most important finding from the survey on which the book was based: married couples 
had the most and best sex - more than younger people and swinging singles as one would have expected.  Sex was a benefit of being married, along with some tax cuts, shared cost of living and camaraderie.

The new study released last week reveals a dramatic reversal. It says that American adults are having less sex than they did a quarter century ago, with married couples showing the steepest decline. The overall drop in sexual activity has been recorded in all genders, races, regions, education levels and professions. But the rate of frequency of sex between spouses and between co-habiting partners has dropped the most, significantly reducing what was once considered the advantage of being married.

The data gathered between 1989 and 2014 show that American adults today have sex seven to nine times fewer times per year than in the 1990's. And married couples have less sex than people who have never married. Incidentally, during the same period, the number of people living with a spouse or a partner also declined.

The study does not examine causes for the dive, but it cites possible reasons: increased access to entertainment and social media, a decline in happiness among people over the age of 30, higher incidence of depression, and use of antidepressants associated with sexual dysfunction. It is not clear if people are less happy and therefore have less sex or have less sex and therefore are less happy. However, the authors of the study link sexual frequency to marital satisfaction. So the decline could mean that fewer Americans are happy in their marriages and similar relationships.

An important factor in the decline of sex in the marital context is fatigue. As more and more couples rely on two incomes to survive, both sides are tired after work and their minds are on things other than physical connection. Couples now postpone having children until later, and the combination of their more mature age and child-rearing obligations contribute to the decline in sexual activity. Most working couples leave sex for the weekend. But working parents also use weekends to spend more time with their children, making up for the limited time they have for their kids on work days. 

The availability of home entertainment provides a lot of distraction, the study says. People no longer wonder, "What can we do this evening, or this weekend?" when they have a choice of movies and digital games at their fingertips.

But some sociologist say the real reason may be a growing lack of intimacy among Americans, and the emotional effect it has on couples. Sex is not only about stimulating body parts to feel good, but also about connecting with another human being. The absence of this connection makes many couples today struggle with sexual dysfunction and relationship issues.

Experts on the subject say what you need for a sex life is energy, focus, time and the right mood. If you are fatigued or depressed, if you are not emotionally close to your partner, you may want to go to bed just to sleep.

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