Helen Fisher says that millennials are “the new Victorians” of sexual austerity. This anthropologist, the world’s most cited scientist in the biology and chemistry of love, has interviewed tens of thousands of singles—5,000 per year—for more than a decade for the Singles in America project, the largest global study of people single. Year after year, Fisher has seen how sex was leaving the top five priorities of the youngest, from where the physical attractiveness of the couple has also been expelled.
Rates of sexual activity have fallen to their lowest level in 30 years. And they have done it dragged by the disinterest of young adults, according to figures from the Pew Research Center for 2020. The American think tank also points out that almost half of adults in the United States -the majority, women- maintain that dating someone has gotten “much more difficult” in the last 10 years and that half of single adults decided to stop looking for a relationship or simply gave up on dating. The sexual recession that began to be talked about in 2018 in American academic circles has an impact above all on heterosexual relationships.
The data had spoken before. In 2016, the Archives of Sexual Behavior magazine published a study that showed that if in 1990 Americans had sex 61 times a year, by 2010 the frequency had fallen to 52. The phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States. In 2019, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded, after analyzing data from 34,000 people, that Britons were having less sex than at any time in the previous 20 years. A similar decline has been observed in Australia and Turkey. According to these numbers, it does not matter if one is 18, 28 or 48 years old, the statistics affirm that in all these cases less sex is being practiced than that practiced by those who were that age in the nineties.
Spain is no different. If we focus on the youngest, in generation Z (born between the mid-nineties and the mid-2000s), we find that 32.4% of those who responded in 2019 to the National Survey on sexuality and contraception, from the Spanish Contraception Society, which interviews people between the ages of 16 and 25, had not had sexual relations during “the last few months.” In addition, according to a study by Sigma Dos for the Women’s Institute, in which 1,500 women between the ages of 18 and 25 were interviewed, 57.7% said they had had sex “without desire”, “to please” or “as a sacrifice” Some interviewees used the term “commitment orgasm”. The photograph corresponds to 2022.
The paradox is that it has never been so easy to have sex. Thanks to applications like Tinder —the most popular, but not the only one— there is the possibility, at least theoretically, of accessing an infinite volume of fast, geolocated and convenient sexual contacts. Pornography is commonplace —in Spain men start consuming it at the age of 14 and women at 16, according to the study New pornography and changes in interpersonal relationships, from the University of the Balearic Islands (2019)—, but at At the same time, and according to the experts consulted, we are more bored than ever, with more mechanical sex than good lovers.
Express sex culture
How did we get here? A little over a decade ago, experts began to see the first signs of weariness on university campuses, where the practice of express sex was already common, the so-called casual sex in the Anglo-Saxon world, the almost instantaneous encounter, without consequences and barely route. The hookup —an Anglo-Saxon word close to our “one-night stand”— was already the norm and not the exception. Everything happens in hookup culture. Lightness is the ultimate aspiration. A contact is considered successful if no one leaves with expectations, and if both parties perform the rituals of detachment with grace and ease: not asking if there will be a next time, running away without hiding it and taking the door, demonstrating autonomy and power.
Academic and writer Donna Freitas interviewed thousands of students at various US universities for her book The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually, Unfulfilled and Confused about Intimacy. of the hookup is leaving a generation unhappy, dissatisfied and confused about their privacy). Freitas managed to overcome her own confusion and define the hookup according to three criteria: one, it involves some form of sexual intimacy; two, it is brief, it can last minutes or a few hours; three, and the most significant for Freitas, the contact aspires to be purely physical, to achieve this both parties try to cut off any communication that could trigger an emotional bond. In the book, Freitas describes hundreds of sexual encounters between totally drunk students. For the academic, the worst consequence of these practices is boredom. “It generates a meaningless sex that nobody remembers, a sex without desire that nobody cares about. Sex because everyone else is doing the same, and sex just because it touches,” she writes.
“It’s a service transaction,” says the Franco-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz. For Illouz, author of The End of Love (Katz, 2021), the culture of express sex has a more dangerous edge: all the rituals that served to interpret relationships have been blown up. “Casual sex is a non-relationship script,” she writes. The connections develop in such an uncertain framework that they leave all parties baffled.
One night stands weren’t invented in 2008, of course, but suddenly technology led to an exponential increase in volume and cemented the belief that there would always be another, if not better, then at least new option with the next swipe to the right (the gesture of swiping photos of potential hookups on the phone). This “binge”, in the words of anthropologist Helen Fisher, prevents us from concentrating and is at the origin of tedium. “The human brain,” she explains, “is only capable of choosing well if it has between five and nine options. From there he loses and begins to make mistakes. With the applications the options skyrocket, it is assumed that the errors also.
The ‘gamification’ of relationships
Dating apps like Tinder have gamified personal interactions: swipe left and right is part of modern leisure, many times you don’t even intend to meet someone. And everything would be more fun if people continued looking for a partner in the analogue world, but there is at least one generation, and more among the younger ones, who consider flirting outside of the digital environment “rare”. In such a way they have internalized that flirts are prearranged online, that the mere existence of the applications makes it inappropriate to approach someone you like in the physical world. One of the experts interviewed for this report told the story of two boys who met at school, liked each other, but were unable to say anything to each other until they met on an app.
If hookup culture, pornography and disinterest in sex seem to meet at any point, it is in practices that are abundant in volume, but crude and mechanical. Eva Illouz points out that casual sex “weakens the rules of reciprocity” and strips the bed partner of his uniqueness, so he can be quickly discarded and replaced. The chances of repeating are so uncertain that no one takes much care of the other. It is a one-sided encounter.
One of the conclusions of the study American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus (Hookup in the United States: The new culture of sex in universities), by the academic Lisa Wade, is that men are the great beneficiaries of express sex. “The hookup is designed for the male orgasm,” Wade notes. “The entire context of neoliberal relations, marked by volume and lack of commitment, favors men, gratifies them more,” says sexologist Adriana Royo, author of Falos y fallacias (Arpa Editores). However, in her consultation “almost 100% of patients” complain of “not feeling loved or loved.” “Say what they say, they are looking for something else: they want sex and then spoon. It is very difficult to separate the physical from the emotional, ”she adds. Helen Fisher supports this thesis: “Casual sex is never casual…, there is always something left. Our brain searches for the link 3,000 million years ago and technology has not changed that.”
The sexologist Ana Sierra believes that the hookup makes the orgasmic gap between heterosexual men and women very evident: “After several quick sexual encounters, many of them tend to believe that they are anorgasmic. We have different bodies and times, it is not true that we take longer to reach orgasm, but the traditional protocols to achieve it, read penetration, do not work for most women. Sierra calls the hookup “here I catch you, here I sully you”. “Women are less protagonists in this culture, it is normal for them to feel more frustrated than them, who, by the way, also lose out because they are emasculated with those macho formats. They also fall in love, but their upbringing sometimes doesn’t allow them to be vulnerable, ”she reasons.
Nobody wants to appear weak. They also go to great lengths to hide their vulnerability. “If casual sex has become a hallmark of feminist politics,” says Illouz in her book, “it is because it mimics masculine power through emotional detachment and the absence of expectations that provide a sense of power and autonomy.” Socially mandated empowerment can be seen by some women as a new slavery. “I see them in my office, afraid to build a relationship and be vulnerable. It is an oppressive freedom. Subjected all the time to being empowered ”, reflects Royo.
In other times sex was learned. Teenagers trained each other, grew together personally and sexually. But in casual encounters, there is usually little time for pedagogy and it can easily end up being poor quality sex. To this is added that some come from home with their references well placed after many hours of porn. “I have guys in my office who are frustrated because they don’t have the amazing boners they see in porn. It is a first sexual reference that does not help because it is not realistic ”, comments a psychotherapist from Madrid who prefers not to identify herself. Javier Sogue, a 22-year-old medical student, does not deny the major, but defends himself: “They also imitate porn actresses.”
Modeling sexual performance through what is seen on a screen can lead to spectatoring, an Anglo-Saxon term that describes hyperattention to how one looks and sounds during sexual intercourse, becoming a spectator of one’s own intercourse. A behavior that since the fifties is associated with sexual dysfunction. Adriana Royo thus describes a week of sexual life of one of her 29-year-old patients: “Out of five, one. Three did not get up and the fourth fell asleep. “They and they watch too much porn. They expect to have amazing orgasms just with penetration and that is not going to happen, there is a lack of sexual education”, says Royo.
The confusion affects mainly heterosexuals. In this breeding ground a new term has been born in the academic world: heteropessimism. It was coined in 2019 by Asa Seresin, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, to define heterosexual frustration in the face of repeated failures and bad experiences. Heteropessimists are those who think, and from time to time formulate out loud, that their lives would be better if they had another sexual orientation. That same year the term entered the Urban Dictionary as “the negative attitude or shame towards one’s own heterosexuality.”
Complaining about the misfortune of being heterosexual is not a new regret. In her book Reinventar el amor (Paidos, 2022), the essayist and journalist Mona Chollet cites an article by Emmanuele de Lesseps published in 1980 in the Questions Feministes magazine: “A few days ago I was talking to a feminist, and I asked her if she defined herself as Heterosexual. Alas, yes!, she answered me ”. For experts, the specificity of 21st century heteropessimism is that the complaint does not aspire to be resolved, it moves in a gray area between the meme and activism, and it persists despite social changes and feminist waves.
Seresin believes that it is a phenomenon of “feelings and emotions” intensified by feminist criticism of patriarchy, queer criticism of heterosexuality, and economic factors that hinder access to property, marriage, and having children—which make less attractive model of nuclear family.
Just another academic from the University of California, Jane Ward, has created the term pseudo-heterosexual to define straight men who use women to impress other men, or those who only seek “narcissistic gratification.” She does it in the book The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (the tragedy of heterosexuality, 2020), from where she does not propose to destroy heterosexuality, but to update it. Ward, a professor of Sexuality and Gender Studies, calls for a “deep heterosexuality”: updating heterosexuality to free it from patriarchal structures and thus live their sexual orientation to its full potential, learning the functioning of the body and the sexuality of women.
What are those who are still looking for something looking for now? Helen Fisher wonders these days in her academic papers. According to her surveys, her financial security and emotional maturity. In her research, only 11% of singles were not interested in a long-term relationship. “Stability is the new sex,” notes the anthropologist. God save the Queen!