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Decoding the So-Called ‘Sex Recession’

How a partnership mindset shift may be the secret to restoring intimacy

Published on: January 31, 2022

Couple holding hands with linked pinky fingers
Credit: Gift Habeshaw/Unsplash

If you feel like the chaos of modern life is getting in the way of your sex life, you’re not alone. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether you’re 18, 28 or 48, chances are you’re having less sex than your contemporaries in the 1990s. It’s a shift in sexual behavior that researchers have dubbed a “sex recession.”

This trend is most pronounced among teenagers and young adults. According to the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 1991, 54 percent of teenagers reported having at least one sexual encounter. By the year 2015, the number dropped to 41 percent.

And yet, this so-called sex recession extends beyond young adults. The research of Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, has shown that the average American adult reported having sex nine fewer times per year since the late 1990s, from around 61 times per year to 52 times per year in the early 2010s.

Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers are still in the early stages of figuring out the impact of lockdowns, school shutdowns and the chaos surrounding vaccines. The early results, however, indicate that the coronavirus crisis has made the sex recession even more pronounced.

A 2020 study of 1,117 married individuals ages 30–50 conducted by the Kinsey Institute found that COVID-19 had had no significant impact on their sex life. But subsequent studies have shown that pandemic life has led to steep declines in the frequency and quality of sex. A study conducted by researchers at Indiana University found that nearly half of American adults have experienced a decline in sexual behavior. Similar findings have emerged from researchers in Australia and Turkey.

All of this begs the question: Why are we having so little sex?

Experts have offered all sorts of possible, and in some instances, conflicting answers. Some argue that these declines in sex should be viewed not as a problem, but as a sign of progress. Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz speculates that we’re witnessing something more like a “sex diet” and that it might stem from the post-#MeToo empowerment of women to say no.

When you’re worried about whether your kid still has school, whether your unvaccinated uncle can come to the picnic or whether the planet will even exist in 50 years, it’s just harder to get in the mood.

Others blame this sex recession on smartphone and social media addiction. Still others blame it on the fear and uncertainty of our current post-9/11 and COVID-19-beset world. As sex therapist Emily Jamea puts it, there’s a reason “two zebras won’t mate in front of a lion.” When you’re worried about whether your kid still has school, whether your unvaccinated uncle can come to the picnic or whether the planet will even exist in 50 years, it’s just harder to get in the mood.

Ending the sex recession

With no clear answers to this question, we think it is time to ask a different question: How can you put an end to the “sex recession” in your own relationship (assuming that’s the kind of thing you’re into)?

The easy answer, peddled to us by magazines with images of air-brushed models on the cover, is that this is a sex problem. If you flip through recent issues of Cosmopolitan, for instance, you’ll learn all sorts of ways to “spice up” your sex life, with suggestions such as watching racy TikTok videos together, investing in a rabbit-shaped purple vibrator or consulting the Kama Sutra. The sex Rx? Just master the tactics of the act and you’ll start having more frequent and mind-blowing nights together.

There’s just one problem with this sex-based solution: Sex isn’t separate from the rest of life. What goes down in the bedroom isn’t sealed away from what goes down in the other areas of life. In fact, sex tends to be more like a mirror image of the rest of life. The feeling of resentment you have when you’re waiting in line at Costco and you recall that your partner hasn’t purchased groceries in over a month doesn’t magically disappear the moment you start taking off each other’s clothes. If anything, that feeling is the very thing that’s keeping you from tearing off your partner’s clothes in the first place.

The point here is that the solution to the intimacy drought can’t just be installing a sex swing in your bedroom or smearing yourself in edible body paint on a random Thursday night. The solution must also account for the life challenges that keep us from feeling connected and in sync.

Enter University of Utah sociologist Daniel Carlson. His research offers a more promising answer to the question of how to end the sex recession: equality. His research team found that couples with greater equality in the distribution of household labor also reported higher sexual frequency and satisfaction. “Relationship quality and stability,” Carlson writes, “are generally highest when couples are happy with their divisions of labor and find them equitable and fair.”

Equality, however, might not be the only factor that explains why couples with equal partnerships report having better and more frequent sex. Communication also plays a key role. In fact, Carlson tells us that these two variables — equality and communication — work together. “With egalitarian relationships,” he observes, “there’s no road map. And so, you have to talk. If you’re not constantly communicating, organizing and arranging things, the other person might forget to do something, and you now feel things are unfair because you’re not talking about it with each other.” Striving for equality, in other words, forces couples to communicate better, which, in turn, increases their odds of getting it on.

The myth of fairness

There is, however, a trap here. We call it the mindset of 50/50 fairness. It’s the mindset that leads you to keep an elaborate mental tally of all the amazing things you’ve done for your partner, while simultaneously keeping a separate tally of all the ways your partner isn’t doing enough.

In the more than 100 interviews we conducted with people about their relationships for our book “The 80/80 Marriage,” we found that this mindset often had the opposite of its intended effect. Most couples turned to fairness to build a more equal marriage. But fairness rarely resulted in equality. As one woman told us, “We become accountants when arguing about things not being fair.” This habit of scorekeeping leads to greater levels of tension, conflict and resentment.

Ironically, fairness often also leads to more, rather than less, inequality in relationships. It leads to overly contributing partners doing more, thinking, “Screw it. If he’s not going to help, I’ll just do it all.” Likewise, it can lead under-contributing partners to do less, thinking, “Nothing I do is ever enough, so why should I do anything?” The result: Those who already contribute too much do more, those who don’t contribute enough do even less, and couples have that much more to fight about.

A smiling young couple and their dog relax in a living room
Photo credit: Stephanie Liverani/Unsplash

A new path to equality

Our interviews led us to an insight that changed everything: Your mindset in relationships is contagious. If you’re stuck in the mindset of fairness, chances are your partner will mirror back your scorekeeping and resentment. You’ll find yourself arguing about the exact, 50/50 balance of household work, free time, and time with friends and extended family.

If, however, you change your mindset, you can begin to change the entire culture of the partnership and achieve a more lasting, connected form of equality. This is what we observed in thriving couples. They achieved true equality by cultivating a mindset of radical generosity. They didn’t keep score — they went ahead and filled up their partner’s car with gas. They didn’t look for their partner’s screwups — they looked for their partner’s strengths. In short, they viewed marriage through a lens of generosity and, as a result, their partner mirrored their generosity, creating an upward spiral that enhanced connection, communication and equality.

These couples also relied on clear structures — rather than fights over fairness — to achieve equality. Consider the division of roles. We found that many of the couples who reported arguing about fairness also employed what we call the “wing it” approach to dividing up roles and responsibilities around the house. They let random historical, accidental and outdated gender norms from the 1950s decide which partner does the dishes, schedules social events and plans activities for the kids.

Thriving couples divided up roles differently. They took a step back from these accidental arrangements to create a clearer structure of roles. They didn’t necessarily divide roles fairly. They divided roles intentionally. In the end, the new structures they came up with reflected each partner’s unique skills and interests. This resulted in a different and more lasting form of equality based on a process of working together, as equal partners, to come up with the best way to win together as a team.

The point here is that, while equality is the goal, our default habit of trying to make everything fair is often the obstacle.

And that brings us back to the complex truth that the antidote to the sex recession not only has little to do with mastering the tactics of sex, it also has little to do with trying to make everything in your relationship “50/50 fair.”

Instead, ending the sex recession involves charting a different path to equality. It’s a path that involves a shift in mindset from fairness to radical generosity, as well as a structural shift from living with the effect of unconscious arrangements to working together, as equals, to build a more intentional structure for your life together.

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