W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness


I have long lived under the callow impression that nothing makes sex less sexy than church conventions gathering for protracted debates about sex.

An April 4 essay for The Atlantic by W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone proves me wrong: one thing that makes sex even less sexy than a church convention’s debate about sex is a line chart showing how often people of a given age bracket have made the two-backed beast from 1990 to 2018. 


In case you prefer your statistics translated into the prose of social science, there’s more:

This analysis revealed that changes in sexual frequency can account for about one-third of the decline in happiness since 2012 and almost 100 percent of the decline in happiness since 2014. If Americans still had sex like they did in 2008, or even 2012, we might be a much happier country. Declines in marriage and religiosity have also played some role, but the effects are much smaller—with each factor only accounting for about a tenth of the decline in happiness. And, but for the rise in regular friend contact over the past few years, young men and women would be even less happy.

… Clearly, the United States is in the middle of a “sex recession.” Nowhere has this sex recession proved more consequential than among young adults, especially young men. Some academics and journalists have now begun grumbling about what they are calling a “moral panic” about the decline in young-adult sex. Before the 2018 data came out, the Daily suggested that the decline in sex was modest, and the sociologist Daniel Carlson claimed that the amount of sex one has “is a weak predictor of how satisfied you are with your sex life.” More important than frequency, the argument went, is the quality of your sexual relationship.

Professor Wilcox has done important research about family life and its interaction with faith, and this essay does not diminish my respect for him.

Nevertheless, when the essay follows Kate Julian’s “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” (to which Wilcox and Stone link), it leaves the impression that editors at The Atlantic have an odd fixation with this topic. Can a full-time gig as a contributing coitus editor be in some young writer’s future?

To their credit, Wilcox and Stone acknowledge that academic writing about sex is not aflame with passion: “In the antiseptic language of two economists who study happiness, ‘sexual activity enters strongly positively in happiness equations.’”

Granted: studying the links between people’s sexual encounters and their happiness may lead to new insights about incels or birth rates or even church debates about sex.

But that isn’t the most important moral and religious angle in this much-discussed feature. I found the most rewarding insight from Wilcox and Stone is in their concluding sentences:

Finding a spouse can be hard and, crucially, one of the places young adults have historically found their spouses is church. Thus, while most of the decline in happiness is about declining sex, that’s not the end of the story. Declining sex is at least partly about family and religious changes that make it harder for people to achieve stable, coupled life at a young age. If we’d like more young adults to experience the joy of sex, we will have to either revive these institutions or find new ways to kindle love in the rising generation.

Otherwise, reporting on any sexual recession in the United States raises the airing of First World Problems to the level of professional sport. And it’s every bit as erotic as reading market statistics in agate type.

First Image: The Kiss by Robert at Flickr. Graphic from “The Happiness Recession” at The Atlantic.

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