The following story was reported and written before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
In a survey spanning nine years, the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found frequency of sexual intimacy decreased among individuals – 24% of participants in 2009 reported no sex in the prior year, whereas 28% reported the same in 2018.
More recently in 2021, a separate survey conducted by the General Social Survey found 26% of U.S. adults reported no sex in the prior year, a figure that had been rising since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Before, I think we had time to try to maintain or constrain that indulgent part of us, but now we just react,” said Lucy Shirisia, a family and human development instructor at Salt Lake Community College, regarding the decline in sexual intimacy.
Acknowledging varying levels of sex drive, Shirisia said most human beings overall hold the instinctive urge to have sex. “Back in the day, you searched out a partner to make that urge go away. Well now, it’s just a button away.”
Shirisia pointed out that pornography has been debated by researchers as to its liability in the decline of physical sex, but she added that its effect on the body can’t be dismissed. Any form of sex releases happy chemicals such as dopamine, endorphins, vasopressin, oxytocin and serotonin.
When someone watches pornography, the brain releases multitudes more of these chemicals than physical sex, Shirisia said, a statement that is supported by evidence from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. The group found intense exposure to pornographic stimuli results in the downregulation of the natural response to sexual stimuli, which can lead to a reliance on pornography to fulfill orgasms.
Another hypothesis as to why Americans are having less sex arrives from modern stress factors. According to this year’s Stress in America survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association and The Harris Poll, participants reported the highest level of financial stress since 2015. Rises in prices, supply chain issues and global uncertainty topped the list of why Americans are stressed.
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, can cause people to be less interested in having sex, Shirisia said. “We are definitely much more stressed. We are always busy, busy, busy, feeling like we need to fill up our schedules constantly. That can reduce sex drive for sure.”
College students also reported having less sex now than a couple decades ago. The 2018 National College Health Assessment found only 66% of students had sex in the prior year, compared to 72% in the 2000 assessment.
Shrisini believes this can sometimes be attributed to students feeling overwhelmed, and she encourages her students to reflect on their lifestyle if they notice they are not engaging in sex as much.
“In order to have a higher libido or sex drive, you need to be in a calmer state, meaning you need to not be in a high level of stress,” she said. “So, what I tell my students is that if you are overworking, find ways where every day you come home and you relax. You take a walk, you take a bath, anything that works for you, so that your cortisol level drops.”
Whitney Ockey, health promotions manager for the Center for Health and Counseling at SLCC and a certified health education specialist, said she believes healthy and consensual sex between consenting adults can contribute to improved mental health.
The “feel-good” chemicals released during sex are generally stress relieving, Ockey said, but they are not solely produced through sexual contact.
“Endorphins can be released during physical acts such as hugging and are not dependent on orgasms alone,” she said. “If you put two and two together, you can see there is a correlation between sexual activity and positive mental health.”
Although sex can be contributed to improved mental health, Ockey added that sex under the wrong circumstances can be unhealthy.
“If one is engaging in sexual activity that is not consensual or healthy, it can be very harmful and have an opposite effect on mental health,” she said.
The debate surrounding the values of sex has long survived, and as Shrisini teaches in her human sexuality course, sex can mostly be broken down into three different categories: absolutism, relativism and hedonism.
Absolutism is a belief system in which sex is solely reserved for marriage and reproduction. Relativism may say the morality of sex depends on the situation, such as only having sex in committed relationships, and hedonism is a value system that reflects the pursuit of immediate pleasure, which could encourage one-night stands and hook-up apps.
According to a 2009 study of undergraduate students, most students at the time fell into the category of relativism (62.1%), followed by hedonism (24.6%) and then absolutism (13.4%). Shirisia believes that in another decade society will gradually move towards hedonism, and further from absolutism and relativism.
In such a changing sexual landscape, Shirisia encourages students who want to increase their sexual activity to relax and embrace boredom.
“We just have a lot more things to keep us occupied now,” she said. “Back in the day, you would go to work, and you didn’t have a phone to look at. It’s almost like we don’t like boredom anymore.”
Shirisia added that boredom can ignite creativity, from which the urge to have sex is more likely to arise.
“Boredom, we find, is a time where your brain can rejuvenate thoughts,” she said. “Creativity occurs there; introspection where you [can look] back at your experience throughout the day.”
If individuals can find time to de-stress and embrace boredom by limiting distractions from technology and work, Shrisini believes more people would pursue sexual intimacy, and in turn improve their mental health.
More information about sexual wellness and education can be found under community resources listed by the Center for Health and Counseling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers strategies on how to cope with stress.
In 2018, The National Coalition of Sexual health launched the program “Five Action Steps to Good Sexual Health” to offer strategies and resources on how to improve sexual health, as well as to provide conversation starters and encourage sexual positivity.