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The Indiana Daily Student

academics & research

IU professor co-authors study examining recent trends in US sexual activity


A recent study co-authored by an IU professor found sexual activity among U.S. adults, mainly young men, has declined since 2000, with 1 in 3 men ages 18-24 years old having reported no sex in the past year.

IU School of Public Health professor Debby Herbenick and Peter Ueda, physician and researcher at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, co-authored the study, which was published June 12 and focuses on trends in reported frequency of sexual activity and numbers of partners by sex and age, according to the survey study. They also examined how trends are associated with sociodemographic variables.

“Given that sexually intimate relationships are important for many, though certainly not all, people's well-being and quality of life and the substantial proportion of individuals who are sexually inactive, as shown in our study, we need more knowledge about reasons for, and potential feelings about, sexual inactivity,” Ueda said. 

They used 10 rounds of data from the General Social Survey for their research, spanning from 2000-2018, to analyze trends in 18 to 44-year-olds. The data included frequency of sexual activity, number of sexual partners and sociodemographic variables such as employment, marital status and being a student.

Ueda and Herbenick found that sexual inactivity among men ages 18 to 24 had increased from 19% to 31% from 2000 to 2018. Sexual inactivity also increased among men and women aged 25 to 34 years during that time.

Increased rates of depression and anxiety, the postponing of adult activities and the use of smartphones interfering with human interaction among young U.S. adults and adolescents could be associated with the decrease in sexual activity, according to the study. More reasons for change in sexual activity could be online entertainment and the stress of modern life.

While this study examines frequencies and numbers of sexual activity and partners, more studies will need to look at detailed changes in sexual behaviors, Herbenick said. This is particularly necessary because the General Social Survey did not specifically define what sexual activity was in the survey. Further studies may be able to assess reasons for sexual inactivity and help explain whether sexual inactivity results in satisfaction or dissatisfaction. 

“Changes in sexual frequency aren’t necessarily bad, but how we feel about our sexual experiences, relationships and intimacy matters a great deal,” Herbenick said. 

This study shows both an overall increase in sexual inactivity among men as well as proportions of people with various levels of sexual activity, ranging from having no sex in 12 months to having sex weekly or more. 

Men with lower income and part-time or no employment were more likely to be sexually inactive, the study said. Meanwhile, employment and income levels for women reportedly did not significantly affect their sexual activity. Students were more likely to be sexually inactive.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused Americans to experience depressive symptoms and loneliness, co-author Herbenick said, citing another recent study, which found that in-person intimacy led to better mental health outcomes. 

"While this finding would have been important at any time, it may be particularly salient now that the pandemic has shifted so much in our worlds, resulting in more people of all genders without employment," Herbenick said about her study in a press release. "We're also now living in a time when people don't have many of their usual channels of meeting potential sex or relationship partners."

Most research on sexual health has focused on sexually active individuals, Ueda said, and this study shows that there is a significant proportion of people who are sexually inactive. In the future, more studies will need to be done about reasons for and feelings about sexual inactivity. He said that discussion about involuntary sexual inactivity can be sensitive because “it entails sexual desires, and for some individuals, a sense of rejection and insecurity.”

“Sexual inactivity should not be subject to shame or ridicule,” he said. “We need to improve the public discussion regarding this topic.”

Catherine Mercer, professor of sexual health science at University College London, and medical student Cyrus Ghaznavi also contributed to the study.

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