From Madison Avenue to Sunset Boulevard, from the Las Vegas Strip to Miami’s club scene, America is obsessed with sex. Titillation sells everything from fast cars to grapes to laundry soap. Porn fuels Internet innovation. Male arousal defines female fashion from earlobe to stiletto heel. Hollywood treats actresses as eye candy to the point that almost half of movies lack named female characters who talk with each other about something other than men.
In fact, the only subculture in America that may be more sex-centric than Hollywood is the religious right, which sees sex as having the power to bring on floods, droughts, economic collapse and Armageddon. In this worldview, unless we all adhere to an Iron Age script, the world will become a raging orgy of sex without consequences! And God will get very, very angry because He cares enormously about what we humans do with our hoo-has and weenies.
Capitalists who see sexual pleasure as an addictive commodity that can be refined and sold—like sugar or heroin—and devout conservatives who offer salvation from the moral abyss via procreative purity are not, as the religious conservatives like to think, opposites. In fact, their sex obsessions might be better thought of as two sides of the same coin.
What gets lost in all of the frenzy about sex—pro and con—is that many Americans simply don’t care. A large, and largely silent, minority thinks the whole sex obsession is weird, boring or even annoying. As psychologists say, the opposite of love isn’t hate—it is indifference, which is what millions of Americans feel about sex.
1. Young people have sex later and less often than popular media or abstinence advocates would have us believe. If real life were a coming-of-age movie, popular high school students would spend most of their energy getting laid and the rest would wish they were popular. In movies, high schoolers act a lot like stereotypical members of fraternities and sororities—partying, getting drunk and hitting on each other. They have hot clothes and hot cars, but almost no family life or responsibilities.
In the real world, teens spend most of their waking time going to classes, doing homework, doing chores, doing sports, babysitting siblings, going to church, volunteering, working and eating. A big part of their energy goes into relationships with people who aren’t other teens—like parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, coaches, counselors, youth pastors, bosses, co-workers and more. They are busy! The average teen doesn’t have sex for the first time until age 17, or around the senior year in high school—in other words, as he or she is transitioning to the next phase of life. A fifth of young people have not had sex when they turn 21.
When conservatives recently learned about pregnancy prevention services offered by school-based clinics, they took to the airwaves ranting about 11-year-olds seeking IUDs behind the backs of their loving parents. In reality, fewer than 2 percent of adolescents initiate sex before their 12th birthday—and the younger the kid, the more likely any sexual encounter was actually exploitation or abuse. (This is why young people in some states have the legal right to seek confidential reproductive healthcare at any age and why caregivers have mandatory reporting requirements when they suspect abuse.)
By their 16th birthday, about a third of kids have had a wanted sexual encounter, but that doesn’t mean they are having sex regularly. Contrary to media hype, today’s adolescents are having less and later sex than any cohort in the last 25 years. The reason health and mental health experts want developmentally appropriate sexual education starting in grade school and birth control access throughout the teen years is because kids need information and access before they become sexually active. Parents worry that conversations with kids about sex and pregnancy will somehow “bring it on,” but the opposite is true. Candid conversations with either educators or parents tend to delay sexual initiation.
2. Waning libido is a normal part of aging for both males and females. Sex drive that declines over time can feel like a failure—or like a disorder—because we often are told that it is. Scattered across the Internet lie articles discussing medical (or psychosocial) causes and cures for sexual indifference. “A Lively Libido Isn’t Reserved for the Young,” one New York Times headline reassured. But the fact is, as people age, decreased interest in sex is as normal as decreased interest in jumping rope or building tree forts.
Several years ago, a group of my friends consisting of couples in their 40s got into a late night conversation about sex and discovered that, in each pair, one partner had little interest in sex—to the disappointment of the other. Later, I described the conversation to an older relative who seemed to be enjoying his retirement years with his wife. “Don’t worry,” he joked. “Eventually you both forget that you ever had any interest and then things are balanced again.” While most people have sex during their 20s once or twice per week, for those 70 and older, average sexual frequency is around 10 times per year. As a therapist, I once had a client in her 70s who met the man of her dreams, an 80-year-old who wanted to have sex every day—just like her. They, and I, considered it a match made in heaven.
Physically, decreases in libido are associated with declines in testosterone. In females, the ovaries produce half of the body’s testosterone and as ovarian function ceases many women experience a corresponding drop in sexual interest. Most men maintain some level of sexual desire into their 60s and 70s but, as with women, changes in testosterone correspond to changes in interest. That said, hormones are just one of many factors in the mix. Stress, depression or medical conditions associated with aging like diabetes or heart disease or cognitive decline can quash sexual desire altogether. Sometimes loss of interest in sex is reversible, sometimes not.
Many couples enjoy sex in their golden years, despite desire that is less frequent or less urgent. But even those who enjoy sex may be on the “semi-annual plan.” Champions of elder sex generally talk about couples being able to maintain physical intimacy and pleasure, not regain the lust of youth.
3. As early as the 20s, the longer women are in relationships the more they tend to lose interest in sex. When couples seek sex therapy, the most common complaint voiced by women is low interest in sex—known in clinical terms as “hypoactive sexual desire.” According to researcher Sarah Murray, sexologists are changing how they think about this problem. “The concept of an absolute level of 'normal' or 'low' sexual desire is being replaced by the view that low sexual desire is relative to one's partner's level of desire.” In other words, it’s only a problem if one or both partners think it’s a problem.
Even so, therapists take this concern seriously. Sexual intimacy is a pleasure in its own right and sex releases hormones that help relationships stay strong through other challenges, like parenting stress. So, therapists address any genuine psycho-sexual dysfunction, help partners understand their remaining differences and then explore patterns of intimacy that can fit for both.
But as with aging, libido differences that emerge over time in young couples appear normal. When Murray and her colleague Robin Milhausen studied young college-age couples, they found small month-to-month declines in sexual interest among females in monogamous relationships. Murray called this a transition from “passionate intimacy” to “compassionate intimacy.” By contrast, young males tended to have a more persistent level of desire. Murray wants couples to understand that this pattern is normal and doesn’t necessarily signal that the relationship is flawed or in trouble.The key for healthy couples is setting realistic expectations, adapting to each other and getting creative about physical intimacy.
4. Asexuality is part of the normal spectrum of desire. When my daughter was in middle school, she interrupted her after-school snack one day to ask me a question: “Mom, I know that there are people who are gay and people who are straight and people who are bi. Are there people who are asexual?” I blinked because—to be honest—until she asked, the question had never crossed my mind. But it took me only about five seconds to answer, “Well, there must be.” I explained that all human interests and desires exist in different degrees in different people. Then, after she went off to do her homework, I went to the Internet where I found the Asexual Visibility and Education network.
In a world plagued by slut shaming, burkas, female genital mutilation, rape culture, sexual performance pressures, homophobia, sexual “sin” and punishment babies, plenty of people have hang-ups that get in the way of sexual desire or pleasure. Also, a host of medical issues ranging from cancer to depression to obesity can nuke interest in sex. But that doesn’t mean all lack of desire is a function of hang-ups or medical problems.
This past spring the mainstream media drew attention to asexuality as a normal sexual orientation and identity. Several young people who identify as either asexual (not experiencing sexual attraction) or gray sexual (having very little sexual interest) have written or spoken to journalists about their experience in a culture that constantly bombards people with sexual images and expectations. (See, for example, the New York Times: "Asexual and Happy"; or Wired: "Young, Attractive, and Totally Not Into Having Sex.")
Not that awareness of asexuality is new to researchers. In a 1983 survey, approximately 5 percent of male respondents and 10 percent of females said they weren’t attracted to either sex. A British study in 2004 found that 1 percent of people said they had “never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all.” What distinguishes asexuality from waxing or waning desire is consistent and persistent lack of interest, which can leave “Aces,” as some call themselves, feeling alienated. As one commenter put it, “Imagine the most ridiculous thing that you can, and then imagine that it’s all anyone else cares about.”
5. The real world includes shades of gray—and brown and gold and the colors of the rainbow. Between most opposites lies a spectrum—myriad shades of gray that might not make good ad copy or blockbuster footage or religio-political theater, but that do make up the real world. Sexual desire is no exception. To make matters more complicated (and wonderful), sexuality is tangled up with romance, intimacy, aesthetic attractions, friendship and partnership, which can vary independently and which can be either static or fluid over time. A YouTube celeb, SwankIvy, who describes herself as an asexuality educator, lays out an array of variations (asexual, aromantic; asexual, gray romantic . . . ) that is dizzying and yet instantly credible as a reflection of life’s multifaceted intricacy. As when I faced that first unexpected inquiry about asexuality, SwankIvy’s unpolished video introduced questions I had never thought to ask.
By the time my daughters finished high school, they lived among young people who had moved beyond sexual (and gender and racial and cultural) binaries. To their peers, asexual is just another kind of queer, which they treat with the same live-and-let-live acceptance they would give to any other sexual or gender identity. Oh, and it’s OK if tomorrow you feel different and want me to call you something else. What they can’t wrap their brains around is why old people like me have such a need to put everyone in tidy boxes.
Is the wearisome tug of war between sex-sellers and finger-waggers another binary their generation will cast aside? I suspect so and I look forward to the possibilities. Imagine a future in which people are free to be as interested in sex as they are or aren’t, without stigma, the way that some of us are and aren’t interested in, say, reading. Imagine that young people no longer get pressured to either bullshit about their sexual prowess or glorify their untrammeled twats by swooshing around in white dresses and making vows of abstinence that they then break. Imagine college-age couples knowing in advance that they will move from passion to compassion, that their bodies are unlikely to change in unison and that long-term physical intimacy will likely require an ever-changing creative commitment. Imagine elders who don’t feel diminished as men or women simply because their libido hasn’t stayed “lively.”
Sexual intimacy and pleasure are precious to most of us at some point in our lives, but there are many ways to embrace life fully and deeply, to love well and live well and experience waves of delight. A silent majority of us are sex-obsessed only once in a while, or not at all, or used to be but aren’t anymore. If we became more visible, I wonder who would be most disappointed—the executives who are betting that titillation will keep us buying or the religious right who might find that their prohibitions aren’t needed, and never were.