The De-Sexing of the American Teenager

It was bound to happen eventually, I suppose, marking an episode of The Mockingcast “E” […]

David Zahl / 12.5.18

It was bound to happen eventually, I suppose, marking an episode of The Mockingcast “E” for “Explicit.” I just figured that when it happened, it’d be because of language (*ahem, Rev Jackwagon*) rather than content. But iTunes is notoriously touchy about these things and the “sex recession” is just too relevant of a subject not to touch, especially when The Atlantic puts out a cover story as prodigious as Kate Julian’s “Why Are Young People Having Less Sex?” In conjunction with the article, they produced a beautifully animated, safe-for-work video that summarizes, in three minutes, most of the salient points:

In a nutshell, despite the fact that our culture has never been more open about and encouraging of sexual expression–almost to a compulsory extent–American teenagers and young adults are having considerably less sex than they used to. From 1991 to 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that the percentage of high-school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate plummeted to a third of its modern high. Wowza.

As someone who’s spent the better part of 20 years working with teenagers and college students, I’ve seen too much damage to see these developments as anything but a net positive. And that’s independent of any theological or even personal parenting concerns. (Just watch Mid90s). And yet, as Julian reports, the decline signals something troubling as well, not only a corresponding rise in anxiety and loneliness but a de-prioritizing–or forced retreat from–intimacy and love itself, with all the unhappiness that accompanies other forms of disembodiment. What gives? Julian asked around:

Over the course of my research, I was told the sex recession might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.

Sounds about right to me, though I might underline the porn aspect and add schizophrenic attitudes about sex itself to the list. And who knows how much of a chicken-vs-egg dimension there is here–probably quite a bit. But one thing all of the researchers she consults do agree on is that the decline in physical intimacy has to do with a decrease in romantic relationships among teenagers. That is, despite the (largely unfounded) alarmism about hookup culture and dating apps, the real issue is that young people no longer couple off in the same way. The less relationships, the less sex. To wit, I for one was unaware that the highest reported rate of teen pregnancy occurred in 1957, when anxiety over the WWII-induced male shortage led to an increase in serious teenage relationships. Compare that with today:

In 1995, the large longitudinal study known as “Add Health” found that 66 percent of 17-year-old men and 74 percent of 17-year-old women had experienced “a special romantic relationship” in the past 18 months. In 2014, when the Pew Research Center asked 17-year-olds whether they had “ever dated, hooked up with or otherwise had a romantic relationship with another person”—seemingly a broader category than the earlier one—only 46 percent said yes.

Julian adroitly notes that the sex recession is part of a larger phenomenon of prolonged adolescence, e.g. “the percentage of teens who report going on dates has decreased alongside the percentage who report other activities associated with entering adulthood, like drinking alcohol, working for pay, going out without one’s parents, and getting a driver’s license.” But contrary to some perceptions, this does not mean that young people are simply sitting around, snap-chatting each other into oblivion. Quite the opposite in fact:

These shifts coincide with another major change: parents’ increased anxiety about their children’s educational and economic prospects, and expectations: “It’s hard to work in sex when the baseball team practices at 6:30, school starts at 8:15, drama club meets at 4:15, the soup kitchen starts serving at 6, and, oh yeah, your screenplay needs completion,” said a man who was a couple of years out of college, thinking back on his high-school years. He added: “There’s immense pressure” from parents and other authority figures “to focus on the self, at the expense of relationships”—pressure, quite a few 20-somethings told me, that extends right on through college.

Performancism strikes again! (See also: this post). Which would certainly jive with my own observations of college students’ conflicted relationship with, er, relationships–they’re dying for love but have been told since birth that career success is the most important measure in life. That is, the seculosity of work trumps the seculosity of romance. For now at least.

Perhaps the most revealing portion of the entire article comes when Julian visits Northwestern University and sits in on the incredibly popular Marriage 101 class, taught by Alexandra Solomon:

Over the course of numerous conversations, Solomon has come to various conclusions about hookup culture, or what might more accurately be described as lack-of-relationship culture. For one thing, she believes it is both a cause and an effect of social stunting. Or, as one of her students put it to her: “We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up.” For another, insofar as her students find themselves choosing between casual sex and no sex, they are doing so because an obvious third option—relationship sex—strikes many of them as not only unattainable but potentially irresponsible. Most Marriage 101 students have had at least one romantic relationship over the course of their college career; the class naturally attracts relationship-oriented students, she points out. Nonetheless, she believes that many students have absorbed the idea that love is secondary to academic and professional success—or, at any rate, is best delayed until those other things have been secured. “Over and over,” she has written, “my undergraduates tell me they try hard not to fall in love during college, imagining that would mess up their plans.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the language of plans is the language of control. Love, on the other hand, is something you fall or are swept up into. It’s overpowering and therefore transcendent, or perhaps vice versa. The liabilities of looking for love in the wrong places have been well documented, especially by Christians, less so the moral cost of not looking for love at all, or seeking validation only in one’s own accomplishments, which strikes me as equally dangerous, if not more so. But I digress.

A couple of excerpts hint at how the law may also be playing a role in our national cooling off:

Maybe the problem is those who are so daunted that they don’t make it off the couch…. many times in my conversations people described sex and dating lives that had gone into a deep freeze, as a result of paradox of choice; others referred to option paralysis (a term popularized by Black Mirror); still others invoked fobo (“fear of a better option”)… [ed note: the Law of Romantic Optimization, or Thou Shalt Choose the Perfect Mate]

A new discomfort with nudity might stem from the fact that, by the mid-1990s, most high schools had stopped requiring students to shower after gym class. Which makes sense—the less time you spend naked, the less comfortable you are being naked. But people may also be newly worried about what they look like naked. A large and growing body of research reports that for both men and women, social-media use is correlated with body dissatisfaction…not feeling comfortable in your own skin complicates sex.

I remember Dorothy Martyn telling me once that resentment between spouses is akin to pouring ice water on the marriage bed, and what is resentment if not the feeling that your loved one has transgressed or failed to meet your expectations of them somehow? Of course, you can also lobby resentment at yourself, in which case, you’re nearing the emotional approximation of depression, also known as the anti-sex (Dorothy subscribed to the definition of depression as “anger turned inward.”) Put differently, the law kills love, even when it’s the law of love.

When I asked Dr Martyn what she would then say to a couple stuck in a cycle of sexless resentment, or twisted around the axle of scorekeeping, she simply smiled and said that, contrary to popular belief (and instinct), attraction can return just as quickly as it departed, especially when it comes into contact with the power of “accurate empathy,” AKA, the practice of articulating the other’s point of view even if you don’t agree with it. But that’s a post for another time.

Surely our aversion to vulnerability (and rejection!) predates the disembodiment afforded by technology. Yet clearly there is something about vulnerability, and therefore love, that seems to require physical presence. Or you could say, while physical presence is no guarantee of vulnerability, disembodiment all but precludes it. In other words, parents everywhere can take comfort in Julian’s prediction that this trend away from physical intimacy is only going to continue. Whether or not we’ll get to Japanese territory (read the article!) remains to be seen, but if so, we’d be looking at a set of moral concerns that are basically the opposite of 1968, but no less pernicious.

On the other hand, the timing of these reports is a little uncanny, coming as it does during a time of year when we contemplate the most important teenage pregnancy of all: when God took on human form, and divine love was concretized in flesh, cloaked in vulnerability.

Actually, not just flesh but blood. Who is it we are waiting for at Advent, after all, if not the baby who would grow into a man, and the man who would give up his life to ransom those who reject intimacy with God? People who, in the face of unconditional love, cling to their own work(s) with dispiriting doggedness? Because that’s what we mean when we refer to Jesus as the Incarnation: he’s not just the ultimate picture of God’s character but of how God relates to those with inverted values. Which is to say, hackneyed as the phrase may be, God values relationship with his children–with you and me–more than his own life.

Talk about tidings of great joy, and not just for teenagers.