Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Death of Eros

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Death of Eros

Article excerpt

October 2017

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. As recently as 2000, a majority-55 percent-of Americans between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four were married, compared with only 34 percent who had never been married (see Figure 1). Since then, the two groups have swapped places. By 2014, 52 percent of Americans in that age group had never been married, while only 41 percent were married. Young Americans are now more apt to experience and express passion for some activity, cause, or topic than for another person.

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 voila. 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. Social science cannot tell us if this is true, but it can tell us what happens if we act as though it is. 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. Though women had often entered marriages for financial reasons, many nonfinancial benefits followed, including the formation of a stable, intimate relationship with a spouse and the sense of purpose that comes with raising a family. These are things that no job-however lucrative-can deliver.

The introduction of the Pill has not changed what men and women value most, but it has transformed how they relate. The marriage market before the Pill was populated by roughly equal numbers of men and women, whose bargaining positions were comparable and predictable. Men valued attractiveness more than women, and women valued economic prospects more than men. Knowing that men wanted sex, but realizing that sex was risky without a corresponding commitment, women often demanded a ring-a clear sign of his sacrifice and commitment.

Not anymore. Artificial contraception has made it so that people seldom mention marriage in the negotiations over sex. …

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