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New Harvard Research Says U.S. Christianity Is Not Shrinking, But Growing Stronger

By can be found here.
Is churchgoing and religious adherence really in ‘widespread decline’ so much so that conservative believers should suffer ‘growing anxiety’? Absolutely not.

“Meanwhile, a widespread decline in churchgoing and religious affiliation had contributed to a growing anxiety among conservative believers.” Statements like this are uttered with such confidence and frequency that most Americans accept them as uncontested truisms. This one emerged just this month in an exceedingly silly article in The Atlantic on Vice President Mike Pence.

Religious faith in America is going the way of the Yellow Pages and travel maps, we keep hearing. It’s just a matter of time until Christianity’s total and happy extinction, chortle our cultural elites. Is this true? Is churchgoing and religious adherence really in “widespread decline” so much so that conservative believers should suffer “growing anxiety”?

New research published late last year by scholars at Harvard University and Indiana University Bloomington is just the latest to reveal the myth. This research questioned the “secularization thesis,” which holds that the United States is following most advanced industrial nations in the death of their once vibrant faith culture. Churches becoming mere landmarks, dance halls, boutique hotels, museums, and all that.

Not only did their examination find no support for this secularization in terms of actual practice and belief, the researchers proclaim that religion continues to enjoy “persistent and exceptional intensity” in America. These researchers hold our nation “remains an exceptional outlier and potential counter example to the secularization thesis.”

What Accounts for the Difference in Perceptions?

How can their findings appear so contrary to what we have been hearing from so many seemingly informed voices? It comes down primarily to what kind of faith one is talking about. Not the belief system itself, per se, but the intensity and seriousness with which people hold and practice that faith.

The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today. These authors describe this continuity as “patently persistent.”

The percentage of such people is also not small. One in three Americans prays multiple times a day, while one in 15 do so in other countries on average. Attending services more than once a week continues to be twice as high among Americans compared to the next highest-attending industrial country, and three times higher than the average comparable nation.

One-third of Americans hold that the Bible is the actual word of God. Fewer than 10 percent believe so in similar countries. The United States “clearly stands out as exceptional,” and this exceptionalism has not been decreasing over time. In fact, these scholars determine that the percentages of Americans who are the most vibrant and serious in their faith is actually increasing a bit, “which is making the United States even more exceptional over time.”

These Are Not Isolated Findings

The findings of these scholars are not outliers. There has been a growing gulf between the faithful and the dabblers for quite some time, with the first group growing more numerous. Think about the church you attend, relative to its belief system. It is extremely likely that if your church teaches the Bible with seriousness, calls its people to real discipleship, and encourages daily intimacy with God, it has multiple services to handle the coming crowds.

Most decent-size American cities have a treasure trove of such churches for believers to choose from. This shows no sign of changing. If, however, your church is theologically liberal or merely lukewarm, it’s likely laying off staff and wondering how to pay this month’s light bill. People are navigating toward substantive Christianity.

The folks at Pew have been reporting for years that while the mainline churches are in drastic free fall, the group that “shows the most significant growth is the nondenominational family.” Of course, these nondenominational churches are 99.9 percent thorough-blooded evangelical. Pew also notes that “evangelical Protestantism and the historically black Protestant tradition have been more stable” over the years, with even a slight uptick in the last decade because many congregants leaving the mainline churches are migrating to evangelical churches that hold fast to the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

The Other Key Factor: Faithful People Grow More Children

There is another factor at work here beyond orthodox belief. The University of London’s Eric Kaufmann explains in his important book “Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?” (he says yes) that the sustaining vitality, and even significant per capita growth, of serious Christian belief is as firmly rooted in fertility as it is in faithful teaching and evangelism. Globally, he says that the more robust baby-making practices of orthodox Jews and Christians, as opposed to the baby-limiting practices of liberals, create many more seriously religious people than a secular agenda can keep up with.

The growth of serious Christian belief is as firmly rooted in fertility as it is in faithful teaching and evangelism.

Fertility determines who influences the future in many important ways. He puts it bluntly, “The secular West and East Asia are aging and their share of the world population declining. This means the world is getting more religious even as people in the rich world shed their faith.”

Fertility is as important as fidelity for Christianity and Judaism’s triumph from generation to generation. Kaufmann contends, “Put high fertility and [faith] retention rates together with general population decline and you have a potent formula for change.”

It comes down to this: God laughs at the social Darwinists. Their theory is absolutely true, but just not in the way they think. Those who have the babies and raise and educate them well tend to direct the future of humanity. Serious Christians are doing this. Those redefining the faith and reality itself are not.

This why Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart proclaimed in First Things, long before the proposal of the Benedict Option, that the most “subversive and effective strategy we might undertake [to counter the culture] would be one of militant fecundity: abundant, relentless, exuberant, and defiant childbearing.” The future rests in the hands of the fertile.

What About All the Millennial Ex-Christians?

But what about our young people? We are constantly hearing that young people are “leaving the church in droves,” followed by wildly disturbing statistics. This also requires a closer look at who is actually leaving and from where. Pew reports that of young adults who left their faith, only 11 percent said they had a strong faith in childhood while 89 percent said they came from a home that had a very weak faith in belief and practice.

It’s not a news flash that kids don’t tend to hang onto what they never had in the first place. Leading sociologist of religion Christopher Smith has found through his workthat most emerging adults “report little change in how religious they have been in the previous five years.” He surprisingly also found that those who do report a change say they have been more religious, not less. This certainly does not mean there is a major revival going on among young adults, but nor does it mean the sky is falling.

Add to this Rodney Stark’s warning that we should not confuse leaving the faith with attending less often. He and other scholars report that young adults begin to attend church less often in their “independent years” and have always done so for as long back as such data has been collected. It’s part of the nature of emerging adulthood. Just as sure as these young people do other things on Sunday morning, the leading sociologists of religion find they return to church when they get married, have children, and start to live a real adult life. It’s like clockwork and always has been. However, the increasing delay among young adults in entering marriage and family is likely lengthening this gap today.

More Americans Attend Church Now Than At the Founding

What is really counter-intuitive is what Stark and his colleagues at the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion found when looking at U.S. church attendance numbers going back to the days of our nation’s founding. They found that the percentage of church-attending Americans relative to overall population is more than four times greater today than it was in 1776. The number of attendees has continued to rise each and every decade over our nation’s history right up until the present day.

The number of church attendees has continued to rise each and every decade over our nation’s history right up until the present day.

People are making theological statements with their feet, shuffling to certain churches because they offer what people come seeking: clear, faithful, practical teaching of the scriptures, help in living intimately with and obediently to God, and making friends with people who will challenge and encourage them in their faith. To paraphrase the great Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor, if your church isn’t going to believe and practice actual Christianity, then “to hell with it.” This is what people are saying with their choices.

Or as Eric Kaufmann asserts, “Once secularism rears its head and fundamentalism responds with a clear alternative, moderate religion strikes many as redundant. Either you believe the stuff or you don’t. If you do, it makes sense to go for the real thing, which takes a firm stand against godlessness.”

If your Christianity is reconstituted to the day’s fashion, don’t be surprised if people lose interest in it. Few are seeking 2 Percent Christianity. They want the genuine deal, and the demographics on religion of the last few decades unmistakably support the fact.

The Rise of VICTIMHOOD Culture on Campus – Seeing People as GOOD or EVIL – Jonathan Haidt

I thought this video by Jonathan Haidt was extremely insightful and worth putting up on this blog.  Check it out:

 

Don’t Get Married Before You Live Together

Don’t get married before you live together. You just never know what the other person will be like to live with, and you need to figure that out before marriage.

Definitely don’t tie the knot until you’ve traveled together. You absolutely have to find out if your future spouse is a good travel companion – what if you get married and then learn they cry during turbulence but not The Notebook? If you don’t have money to travel, simply hitchhike together and see how your partner reacts when they have a gun to their head.

You need to make sure your marriage can withstand major life changes, so don’t get married until one of you has been fired from their job. If you like your job, then plan to marry someone who’s bad at theirs. Or intentionally sabotage them by hacking into their work email and sending nudes to their boss. If you’re uncomfortable sending your partner’s nudes, send your own. Marriage is about compromise.

Don’t get married before you’ve had children together. Seeing what the other person is like as a parent is key to determining if they’re the right person for you. If it turns out they’re a completely negligent parent, at least you know before you do something extreme like buying an expensive white dress. Throw the tester-baby out the window and call it a day.

You’ll be humiliated if your loved ones travel dozens of miles to see your nuptials and then you get divorced a mere two decades later, so don’t get married until one of you has completely altered their physical appearance. You want to make sure this marriage is about love, not just physical attraction and his trust fund. Shave your head, gain weight, cut your nose off, stay inside for 6 years — I really don’t care. Just do it.

What if weddings just aren’t for you? You need to find that out before you marry your partner, so don’t get married until you’ve married someone else first. Please consider me for the role of your starter bride. And then don’t get divorced — it’s a turn off to future lovers.

Don’t join in holy union until you’ve turned 25 together. It’s imperative that you’ve seen your partner hit the quarter-century mark and come out the other end. Ideally, this will happen to you on exactly the same day (if you’re a twin, you’re in luck!). You have no idea how many good relationships have failed just because one of them hit the wrong side of 25 and the other couldn’t handle it. If you meet after age 25, don’t get married. If you’re single at 25, sorry, but society warned you — excessively.

And don’t get married before you’ve both gone through periods of extreme depression. If your other half isn’t a naturally depressed person, try to induce it by depriving them of food and sleep. You need to know what they’re like when they’re nearly suicidal before your parents drop $60,000 on a wedding.

Are you “in love” enough to go visit them while they’re serving a life sentence in jail? You must find this out before you throw your whole life away! So instead, throw your neighbor Jeanine’s life away by murdering her, and then wait and find out if your LOML comes to see you every weekend. If so, you can walk down the aisle. Or, walk in a lap with the other prisoners. Orange is the new White.

Don’t get married before you’ve watched the other person die. Honestly, that’s a really traumatic event in a marriage, and you want to make sure you can handle it before you commit to spending your whole life together. Bravely volunteer yourself as the one to watch your partner meet their maker. This is usually the step where couples realize it’s not going to work out, so make sure not to skip it.

By Ginny Hogan

Published on February 13, 2019 in McSweeney’s and can be found here.

Video Games and Culture

Video games have become a fascinating place to see people recognize and deal with the fallout of postmodernity.

by Fr. Blake Britton, on January 29, 2019
It would be rather simple to write a series of articles discussing the positive and negative aspects of video games or commenting on the coolest graphics and best storylines. But such a set of articles could not genuinely be called “Catholic.” Something that is “Catholic” deliberates the whole of things, meaning it does not interpret reality as piecemeal or a set of facts in isolation. The Catholic thinker is someone who contemplates, discusses, and writes radically (from the Latin radix—“at the root of things”) seeing reality as it is in its entirety; seeing a thing as it fits within the entire framework of existence. Thus, before we begin a dialogue about specific video games, we must first situate the topic within the context of civilization as a whole. We must go to the origin of this phenomenon and why it has taken the world by storm. The question therefore is, “Why are video games?”

Video games are first and foremost an expression of contemporary culture. A brief study in etymology will clarify our point. The word “culture” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root kwelə meaning “to revolve,” “sojourn,” or “dwell.” This would later evolve into the Latin word incola, “someone who inhabits/dwells” in a certain area. The activities of an incola for the care of his or her sustenance is the verb colere, “to cultivate/till” the earth. Colere is also a word of self-awareness, a recognition of humanity’s capacity for agriculture, construction, and landscaping. The human being is not like other creatures; humans can interact and cooperate with the world around them in a drastic way. One has only to recall the great edifices of Giza, Athens, and Rome for proof.

Even amidst their achievements, however, ancient people were mindful of mystery. They sensed that at the deepest core of reality, the world is given to man, not made by him. It is something simultaneously for us to be subdued and beyond us to be wondered at. The ancients’ realization of this fact led to the development of the verb colere into the noun cultura (culture), denoting “an acknowledgment of” or “honoring of” those things which are essential to a community’s livelihood yet not under their immediate control. One could plant the seed at harvest time (colere), but ultimately, it was the cosmic work of Renenutet, Demeter, or Ceres to provide for its growth (cultura). By studying this etymological and historical relationship between the words colere (to cultivate) and cultura (cult/culture), we can come to a better appreciation of “culture” in the proper sense. Culture appropriately defined represents a claim about the human person’s role in the infrastructure of the world; it is the fruit of a seeing where one truly is in the grand scheme of things; it is the expression of a person’s understanding of reality and their relationship to the order of the universe.

In light of the above-written reflection, let us return to our original question, “Why are video games?” Everything in a civilization is directly influenced by culture: language, food, clothing, music, inventions, architecture, etc. Each of these is a tangible manifestation of a metaphysical presupposition. In other words, the stuff we say, how we say it, what we wear when we say it, and the design of the building we say it in…all these things come from the same place. They are the fruits of culture, the consequences of a philosophical judgment made by society about the essence of reality. Video games are no different. As a matter of fact, I see video games as an apex expression of our postmodern technological culture. More than any other media, video games respond to and affirm the keystone assertion of our civilization: reality is what I make of it.The following quote from Shigeru Miyamoto (the famous creator of MarioThe Legend of ZeldaStar Fox, F-ZeroDonkey Kong, and Pikmin) summarizes the point lucidly: “Players [Gamers] are artists who create their own reality within the game.”

As such, video games have become a fascinating place to see people recognize and deal with the fallout of postmodernity. The virtual world is a seemingly limitless medium in which gamers can experience, suffer, respond to, and escape the egoism, relativism, atheism, and mechanism of culture. I recall one person on YouTube who posted at the bottom of a video game soundtrack: “This Soundtrack, this Game…it feels like a therapy. Especially when you feel down it feels like every sound, every movement you make, everything you can see is there to heal your wounds, your soul…I really love it…” This comment is a perfect example of what we have been discussing.

On the one hand, video games make clear where our culture has failed, where we as a people have lost the language, skill, and discernment to engage the deepest and most vital facets of our being. On the other hand, video games are a rich mine in which to excavate the needs of our people so as to reintroduce basic human qualities and reignite the divine spark of a sedated society.

In the end, what we millennials and post-millennials want is the real world, not the artificial world. Our wanderings in the lands of Minecraft and the mountains of Skyrim are a crying out for reality, not a rejection of it. We long to witness the breath-taking beauty of creation, soar into the heights of authentic heroism and experience the life-giving dynamism of true freedom. “We want reality!” This is the rallying cry of our generation. Unfortunately, many of us are convinced that it no longer exists. So, we seek in the virtual world what we wish existed in the real world.  The world outside our suburban home or terraced row-house is a cold, uninviting place flanked on all sides by the ravenous beast of materialistic industrialism and the constant noise of the machine. We sympathize with Romano Guardini when he first saw the decrepit smokestack of a modern factory disrupting the flawless majesty of Lake Como, Italy. At that moment, he knew the “world of natural humanity, of nature in which humanity dwells, was perishing” (Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como). A world of money, flashing billboards, and high-rise corporations is nothing compared to the peaceful islands of Uncharted 4 or the awe-inspiring scenery of Final Fantasy X.

Besides, why should we participate in the “real world” when all it seems to offer is passing fads, superficial pleasures, and relativistic opinions? We would rather save a magical kingdom, run through endless leagues of virtual pristine forests, or complete a daring mission to gain XP for our avatars. At least then we can feel like we have purpose; we can feel like we have the opportunity to achieve greatness and see a world left better by our living in it.

Show us something beautiful. Prove to us that the world outside our game room can be as inspiring, challenging, and fulfilling as the world within our game consoles. If you can do that, then you will awaken the hearts of millions and summon a generation of men and women ready to complete the greatest quest of all time: the quest to holiness and sainthood in Jesus Christ.

The original article can be found here.

How Everything Became the Culture War

America’s petty tribal arguments are now driving the bus on serious policy. Here’s why we should worry.

Michael Grunwald is a senior staff writer for Politico Magazine.

You can find this article here.

To understand how American politics got the wayit is today, it helps to rewind the tape to the presidential campaign of John McCain—specifically to his effort to win back a listless crowd at an otherwise forgettable campaign event in south-central Pennsylvania in the summer of 2008. The Republican nominee had opened by promising a country-over-party approach to politics, recalling his compromises with Democrats like Ted Kennedy: “We’ll have our disagreements, but we’ve got to be respectful.” The Republican crowd sat in silence. McCain then denounced Vladimir Putin’s incursion into independent Georgia, warning that “history is often made in remote, obscure places.” No one seemed interested in that particular remote and obscure place.

McCain just couldn’t connect with the crowd, until he unleashed a garbled riff about how Congress shouldn’t be on recess when gasoline prices were soaring. “My friends,” he said, “the message we want to send to Washington, D.C. is: ‘Come back off your vacation, go back to Washington, fix our energy problems, and drill and drill now, drill offshore and drill now!’” It lacked the poetic brevity of the “Drill, baby, drill” line his future running mate, Sarah Palin, would use to fire up crowds, but the York Expo Center suddenly erupted with raucous cheers. It felt visceral, almost violent, as if McCain had given his supporters permission to drill someone they hated. McCain flashed an uneasy grin, like a kid who had just set off his first firecracker, delighted but also a bit frightened by its power. He wasn’t really a drill-baby-drill politician, but he could sense his party drifting toward drill-baby-drill politics.

A decade later, McCain is dead, bipartisanship is just about dead—his funeral felt like the rare exception that proved the rule—and the leader of the Republican Party is a world-class polarizer who mocked McCain’s service while cozying up to Putin on his way to the White House. President Donald Trump has pioneered a new politics of perpetual culture war, relentlessly rallying his supporters against kneeling black athletes, undocumented Latino immigrants and soft-on-crime, weak-on-the-border Democrats. He reverses the traditional relationship between politics and governance, weaponizing policy to mobilize his base rather than mobilizing his base to change policy. And in the Trump era, just about every policy issue is a wedge issue, not only traditional us-against-them social litmus tests like abortion, guns, feminism and affirmative action, or even just the president’s pet issues of immigration and trade, which he has wielded as cultural cudgels to portray Americans as victims of foreign exploiters. These days, even climate change, infrastructure policy and other domestic issues normally associated with wonky panels at Washington think tanks have been repackaged into cultural-resentment fodder.

At a time when Blue and Red America have split into two warring tribes inhabiting two separate realities, and “debate” has been redefined to evoke split-screen cable-news screamfests, this ferocious politicization of everything might seem obvious and unavoidable. But it’s also dangerous. It’s as if the rowdy cultural slap-fight the kids were having in the back seat has moved into the front, threatening to swerve the national car off the road. Transforming difficult analytical questions into knee-jerk emotional battlegrounds will dramatically increase the danger that thoughtless short-term choices will throw off our long-term national trajectory. And even beyond the impact on the quality of our public policy decisions, the ferocious politicization of everything is not healthy for the American body politic, which is why a Russian troll farm used fake social media accountsto gin up protests and counterprotests about hot-button issues like police shootings and Trump’s border wall. Our foreign adversaries like it when we yell at one another.

Honestly, though, we don’t need much prodding. Democrats and Republicans are increasingly self-segregated and mutually disdainful, each camp deploying the furious language of victimhood to justify its fear and loathing of the gullible deplorables in the other. One side boycotts Chick-fil-A (over gay rights), Walmart (over sweatshops) and companies that do business with the National Rifle Association, while the other boycotts Nike (over Colin Kaepernick), Starbucks (over refugees, gay marriage and non-Christmas-specific holiday cups) and companies that stop doing business with the NRA. We live in an era of performative umbrage. Every day is Festivus, a ritual airing of our grievances about Kathy Griffin, Roseanne Barr, fake news, toxic masculinity and those fancy coffee machines that Sean Hannity’s viewers decided to destroy for some reason. Every decision about where to shop or what to drive or what to watch is now an opportunity to express our political identities. The 24-hour news cycle has become a never-ending national referendum on Trump.

Politically, it makes sense that debates over highly technical challenges like energy and climate change have been transformed into shirts-and-skins identity issues. Ron DeSantis, the Trump-loving Republican former congressman running for governor of Florida, recently proclaimed that he’s “not in the pews of the Church of Global Warming Leftists,” a very 2018 way of expressing opposition to carbon regulations, renewable energy subsidies and other forms of climate action. He wasn’t disputing that the planet is getting hotter, or questioning the scientific data on the dangers of fossil fuels. He was clarifying which team he’s on, and more specifically which team he isn’t on, the team of tree-hugging scolds who look down on ordinary Americans for eating bacon and using plastic straws. You can see that sentiment expressed in less genteel ways if you search YouTube for “rolling coal,” where pollution-porn videos flaunt diesel trucks (sometimes dubbed “Prius repellents”) retrofitted to spew thick clouds of black smoke into the air, the transportation version of a middle finger to the opposing tribe. And there’s no denying that the opposing tribe of conspicuous composters and recyclers and Tesla drivers have their own identitarian rituals that pointedly broadcast their wokeness.

As long as America keeps sorting itself into two factions divided by geography, ethnicity and ideology, pitting a multiracial team of progressives who live in cities and inner-ring suburbs against a white team of conservatives who live in exurbs and rural areas, this is what debates about public policy—or for that matter about the FBI, the dictator of North Korea and the credibility of various sexual assault allegations—will look like. We will twist the facts into our partisan narratives. The self-inflicted wounds will infect more and more of our lives. And if you want something else to worry about, consider where it might be spreading next.

Politics has always been adversarial. Traditionally, though, we’ve had a fairly robust national consensus about a fairly broad set of goals—a strong defense, a decent safety net, freedom from excessive government interference—even though we’ve squabbled over how to achieve them. What’s different about drill-baby-drill politics is the transformation of even nonpartisan issues into mad-as-hell battles of the bases, which makes it virtually impossible for politicians to solve problems in a two-party system. Cooperation and compromise start to look like capitulation, or even treasonous collusion with the enemy.

Take infrastructure spending, which was once reasonably uncontroversial, at least in principle. Today, many conservatives portray it as a liberal plot to siphon rural tax dollars into urban bike paths, subways, and high-speed rail boondoggles that unions will build and Democratic city slickers will use. The Trump administration actually changed the rules of the most prominent grant program for local transportation projects so that it explicitly favors rural projects, infuriating liberals who now see it as a slush fund for sprawl roads to nowhere serving out-in-the-boonies Trump voters. The war over Obamacare has a similar mine-versus-yours feel; many Republicans see it as a scheme to redistribute tax dollars (and the hard-earned Medicare benefits of older Americans) to lazy and entitled Barack Obama voters, while Democrats see the intense opposition to universal health care as generational warfare on behalf of the aging white GOP base.

There’s no denying that the opposing tribe of conspicuous composters and recyclers and Tesla drivers have their own identitarian rituals that pointedly broadcast their wokeness.

Trump has never shown much interest in the details of policy, but he does understand how to use the levers of government to reward his allies and punish his enemies. He froze the pay of federal employees, a key Democratic constituency, while approving a $12 billion bailout for farmers, who, like other industries, have taken a hit from his trade wars, but, unlike other industries, tend to vote as a Republican bloc. Trump’s tax bill hammered blue states by reining in deductions for state and local taxes, while his energy policies have provided relief to red states that rely heavily on fossil fuels. His administration has picked fights with California, the epicenter of coastal-elite Blue America, over fuel-efficiency standards, net neutrality and water policy.

It’s probably not a coincidence that this shift is happening at a time when college-educated voters are trending Democratic and noncollege whites have been Trump’s most reliable constituency. Policies that hurt colleges, like policies that hurt cities, are policies that hurt Democrats. To listen to pols talk about college these days is to watch a wedge issue in its embryonic stage, as substantive questions about the cost and relevance of higher ed, the burdens of student debt, the adequacy of worker training and the power of political correctness on campus start to morph into red-meat attacks on pointy-headed elitists who look down on ironworkers and brainwash America’s youth. Republicans are starting to fit the Democratic push for universal free college into their larger critique of the Democratic urge to hand out free stuff to Democratic voters. And they’re portraying a liberal arts education as a culturally liberal thing, like kale or Kwanzaa or reusable shopping bags.

I saw a soft-edged version of this anti-college theme at a manufacturing roundtable that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Republican candidate for governor, held in September in Youngstown. DeWine listened for an hour as a group of executives complained how teenagers are constantly told they need college degrees to get ahead in life, how students who might flourish in programs to prepare them for factory jobs are steered into mainstream classes they hate. DeWine perked up when the director of a local career center said that only 12 percent of students who pursue four-year degrees end up earning enough to pay off their loans and that many never learn about other options. “The goal should be exposing kids to more things, not forcing them into anything,” DeWine interjected.

“We need to stop pushing everyone into college,” Renacci said. “Let’s get this stigma off our backs: You can live the American dream without college.”

Renacci’s event was supposed to be about trade, but none of the local farmers expressed any concern about the beating they’re taking from Trump’s trade war. What they expressed concern about was illegal immigrants who commit crimes and demand handouts; the deep state; Democrats who want to steal from Medicare to fund Obamacare; and Antifa thugs. Even though their party controls Washington and Columbus, they believe they’re under siege; one 60-something farmer told me he’s afraid to speak out because “radical Democrats will burn your house down.” When I said that seemed unlikely in the rural expanses of Ashtabula County, he said I should check out the angry leftist millennials he’s seen when he’s visited the Ohio State campus, “wearing boots and backpacks and shouting stupid slogans.” I asked him whether he supports government spending on higher education for those millennials, and he shot back: “I’ll tell you what I don’t support: free college for illegals and higher taxes for me.”

There are real policy debates to be had over higher education, and they’re important. U.S. universities aren’t blameless: They’ve jacked up their tuition costs much faster than inflation, overpopulated their faculties with liberals, failed to hold themselves accountable for the employment outcomes of their students and policed speech to the point that they look more concerned with stamping out “micro-aggressions” than promoting free inquiry. At the same time, a lot of work has been done to try to make colleges, especially community colleges, more relevant to the job market; DeWine’s roundtable event highlighted a model partnership between local educators and manufacturers. The Obama administration also established tough new rules limiting federal dollars to institutions that don’t move students into gainful employment. Ironically, the Trump administration is trying to roll back those rules, as well as others providing relief to students defrauded by Trump University-style for-profit diploma mills.

What they expressed concern about was illegal immigrants who commit crimes and demand handouts; the deep state; Democrats who want to steal from Medicare to fund Obamacare; and Antifa thugs.

But modern politics isn’t about these nuances of policy substance. It isn’t evidence-based. The debate over immigration isn’t really about measured wage effects or growth effects; it’s about whether a diverse America is the “real” one, and whether nonwhite newcomers make the country great. The Trump fans who came to see Renacci in Ashtabula County didn’t care any more about the details of higher education studies than they cared about the details of Paul Manafort’s guilty plea or our trade deficit with Canada. (It’s actually a surplus, a fact that will change approximately zero minds about Trump’s trade rhetoric.) The signal of substance breaks through the noise of politics so rarely that the noise has become the signal.

Donald Trump was not the first Republican president to exploit America’s divisions. Think of Richard Nixon rallying his “silent majority” against bra-burning, free-loving, acid-dropping hippies, or even George H.W. Bush running against flag-burning and Willie Horton. And Trump didn’t create the so-called Big Sort of Americans into two ideologically polarized, geographically and racially segregated, mutually suspicious partisan camps. The rift between the mostly white camp of gun-owning, evangelical-church-going Fox News watchers who live relatively spread out and the more diverse camp of Whole Foods-shopping, funky-cafe-going NPR listeners who live closer together has been widening for decades.

Trump may be America’s leading culture warrior, but a war requires two armies. The frequent journalistic safaris into the right side of America’s divide tend to focus on the unwavering faith that Trump supporters have in Trump, but polls suggest the left side is just as prone to motivated reasoning about politics, and perhaps even more consumed by anger over politics. In a Pew Research Center survey, 47 percent of liberal Democrats said that if a friend supported Trump, it would put a strain on their friendship, and 68 percent of all Democrats said it’s “stressful and frustrating” to talk to Trump supporters. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, had to fire his youth outreach director for posing for an Instagram post while wearing a shirt featuring the 2016 electoral map, with blue states labeled “United States of America” and Trump states labeled “Dumbfuckistan.” It was a perfect manufactured-outrage episode for our time—needless to say, similar shirts on which the blue states are labeled Dumbfuckistan are available for purchase—but it did reflect a common Democratic disdain for Republican rubes in the provinces.

So the culture war is not all about Trump. But Trump has a destructive genius for exploiting the culture war, exploding Washington’s norms of decorum and euphemism to trash his adversaries and torture the truth, portraying Puerto Ricans as ungrateful, immigrants as dangerous and Democrats as un-American. You’re with him or you’re with the terrorists. And the rest of Washington, which was already uncelebrated for civility, has followed him into perennial attack mode, to the point that even Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh bellowed partisan conspiracy theories during his confirmation hearing.

Our higher education system is still one of America’s most valuable competitive assets, and breaking it in a fit of cultural fury would be the national equivalent of choking on diesel smoke to own the libs.

It’s hard to have serious public debates about the massive changes in public policy that Trump is pursuing, because there’s no longer a clear path for facts and logic to break through the daily onslaught of demonization and obfuscation. We’re too busy fighting to think. It’s especially tough to have an evidence-based debate about an issue like trade when Trump proclaims at one rally that his tariffs have prompted U.S. Steel to open seven new plants, and after fact-checkers point out the actual number is zero, he ups the number to eight or nine at his next rally. He understands that modern political debates don’t depend on facts or logic. Where you stand—on questions of whether to believe Kavanaugh’s accusers and whether there was any collusion with Russia, as well as questions about corporate tax rates or lifetime insurance caps—depends almost entirely on where you sit. Deficits are bad when your team is in charge, benign when my team is in charge. I’m being denied due process by a witch hunt, but you belong in jail. I’m no puppet; you’re the puppet.

This is presumably how entire countries turn into Dumbfuckistan. The solutions to our political forever war are pretty obvious: Americans need to rebuild mutual trust and respect. We need to try to keep open minds, to seek information rather than partisan ammunition. We need to agree on a shared foundation of facts from authoritative sources. But those words looked ridiculous the moment I typed them. Americans are not on the verge of doing any of those things. Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back. And we should at least consider the possibility that we’re fighting this forever war because we like it.

The thing I remember most about Trump’s rallies in 2016, especially the auto-da-fé moments in which he would call out various liars and losers who didn’t look like the faces in his crowds, was how much fun everyone seemed to be having. The drill-baby-drill candidate would drill the Mexicans, drill the Chinese, drill the gun-grabbers, drill all the boring Washington politicians who had made America not-great. It sure as hell wasn’t boring. It was a showman putting on a show, a culture-war general firing up his internet troops. It wasn’t a real war, like the one that Trump skipped while John McCain paid an unimaginable price, but it made the spectators feel like they were not just spectating, like they had joined an exhilarating fight. They got the adrenaline rush, the sense of being part of something larger, the foxhole camaraderie of war against a common enemy, without the physical danger.

It’s not clear how a fight like that would ever end.

The Huxley Trap: How technology and masturbation tamed the sexual revolution

By Ross Douthat and published on Nov. 14, 2018 in the New York Times and can be found here.

There are times in any columnist’s life when you worry about being too much oneself, too on-brand, too likely to summon from one’s readers the equivalent of the weary line delivered by a colleague listening to J.R.R. Tolkien read aloud from his Middle-earth sagas: “Not another [expletive] elf!”

The appearance in the same week of a Politico magazine essay on how conservatives lost the culture war over pornography and an Atlantic cover story on the decline of sexual intercourse makes me concerned about this possibility — that if I weave both pieces into an argument about our culture’s decadence, my readers will find it to be a little bit predictable, a little, well, too much.

But like Tolkien with his beloved elves, I’ll persevere, because the articles are worth the recommendation. For Politico, Tim Alberta tells the story of how the internet essentially killed off the anti-pornography movement, by making pornography so ubiquitous and porn use so pervasive that trying to regulate it in any meaningful way seemed like giving orders to the tide.

Then Kate Julian’s Atlantic examination of what she calls the “sexual recession” looks at a surprising reality of life in the sexually liberated West — the fact that despite (or because of?) our permissive culture and the sweeping availability of entertainments that cater to every kind of sexual desire, the sexual act itself has fallen somewhat out of fashion, along with its usual accompaniments (relationships, marriage, childbearing), while onanism and long-term celibacy are on the rise.

Conservatives didn’t expect it because they believed that sexual liberation would inevitably lead to social chaos — that if you declared consent the only standard of sexual morality and encouraged young people to define fulfillment libidinally, you would get not only promiscuity but also a host of dire secondary consequences: Teen pregnancy rates and abortion rates rising together, a pornography-abetted spike in rape and sexual violence, higher crime rates among fatherless young men … basically everything that seemed to be happening in the 1970s and 1980s, when the anti-porn crusade Alberta describes was strongest.

But many of those grim social trends stabilized or turned around in the 1990s, and instead of turning teenage boys into rapists, the internet-enabled victory of pornographic culture had, perhaps, the opposite effect. Rates of rape and sexual violence actually fell with the spread of internet access, suggesting that the pleasures of the online realm were either a kind of substitute for sexual predation, a kind of sexual tranquilizer, or both. And that tranquilizing effect seems to extend beyond predation to the normal pursuit of sexual relationships, because some combination of Netflix, Tinder, Instagram and masturbation is crucial to the decline-of-sex story that Julian’s Atlantic essay tells.

So the pornified, permissive post-sexual revolution order today seems much more stable than conservative pessimists expected 30 years ago, with no social collapse looming on the horizon.

But liberal optimists were wrong as well — wrong to expect that the new order would bring about a clear increase in sexual fulfillment, wrong to anticipate a healthy integration of sexual desire and romantic attachment, wrong to assume that a happily egalitarian relationship between the sexes awaited once puritanism was rejected and repression cast aside.

This isn’t the sex-positive utopia prophesied by Wilhelm Reich and Alex Comfort and eventually embraced by third-wave feminists. It’s a realm of fleeting private pleasures and lasting social isolation, of social peace purchased through sterility, of virtual sex as the opiate of the otherwise sexually unsuccessful masses.

And the one person who really saw it coming was Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World,” the essential dystopia for our times, which captured the most important feature of late-modern social life — the way that libertinism, once a radically disruptive force, could be tamed, domesticated and used to stabilize society through the mediation of technology and drugs.

True, none of our pharmaceuticals quite match his “soma” — the “perfect drug,” a booster calls it, with “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol” but no hangover or religious guilt. (Our own versions are more dangerous and unevenly distributed.) But our hedonic forms of virtual reality are catching up to his pornographic “feelies” and his “Violent Passion Surrogate.” (“All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”) And on the evidence of many internet-era social indicators, they increasingly play the same tranquilizing and stabilizing roles.

Above all Huxley nailed the way that a society sufficiently far gone into hedonism will lose even the language to describe clearly why, say, “a single-use silicone egg that men fill with lubricant and masturbate inside” (a recent Japanese innovation mentioned by Julian) might not be a positive development.

The people trying to argue against porn in Alberta’s article, or the people struggling to articulate their sexual and romantic discontents in Julian’s, are trying to find their way back to a worldview that takes moral virtue and human flourishing seriously again. But they inhabit a society that often recognizes only arguments about pleasure versus harm, and that at some level has internalized the logic of Mustapha Mond, one of the Controllers of Huxley’s world civilization: “Chastity means passion, chastity means neurasthenia. And passion and neurasthenia mean instability. And instability means the end of civilization. You can’t have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.”

Pleasant vices and stability: With some technological assistance, that’s the sexual culture we’ve been forging. The only good news, and the best evidence that we might yet escape Huxley’s trap, is that we retain enough genuinely-human aspiration to be unhappy with it.

Sex has never been easier to find. Why aren’t young people having it?

The good news is young people are having sex later and less frequently than previous generations.

The bad news is young people are having sex later and less frequently than previous generations.

A fascinating new Atlantic article takes a deep dive into what author Kate Julian dubs “the sex recession.”

“To the relief of many parents, educators, and clergy members who care about the health and well-being of young people, teens are launching their sex lives later,” Julian writes. “From 1991 to 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey finds, the percentage of high-school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent. In other words, in the space of a generation, sex has gone from something most high-school students have experienced to something most haven’t. (And no, they aren’t having oral sex instead — that rate hasn’t changed much.)”

This, despite the fact that sex has arguably never been easier to find (Hi, Tinder) or regarded with less shame. The share of Americans who say sex between unmarried adults is “not wrong at all” is at an all-time high, Julian notes, birth control is easy to access and we toss around terms like polyamory, kink and BDSM with abandon. (Hi, “Fifty Shades”).

“These should be boom times for sex,” Julian writes.

The fact that they’re not is, in many ways, good news. The U.S. teen pregnancy rate has been declining since the ’90s and is at a third of its modern high. Some experts, Julian notes, say the statistics indicate that young people feel less pressured into sex they don’t want to have, thanks to shifting gender expectations, a better understanding of consent and growing awareness of diverse sexual orientations, including asexuality.

Hooray!

Then again …

“Signs are gathering that the delay in teen sex may have been the first indication of a broader withdrawal from physical intimacy that extends well into adulthood,” Julian writes.

That, to me, is the most interesting thread in Julian’s long, multifaceted, nuanced article.

A healthy, happy sex life is an important indicator in a person’s overall well-being. If forces are swirling together into a storm that sabotages our ability to achieve that, we should recognize the red flags waving on the landscape of what seems like, at first glance, all good news.

Through interviews and data analysis, Julian explores the impact of several factors that may be contributing to the lower rates of sex among teens and 20-somethings: an increase in the number of adults under 35 living with their parents, helicopter parents, lower rates of marriage and co-habitation, Netflix and other on-demand entertainment options serving as a no-fuss substitute, easy access to porn for sexual release, dating apps that are ubiquitous but inefficient, an over-reliance, in general, on screens for so much of people’s relating, communicating, connecting.

Taken all together, that feels like a lot of red flags.

“When, over the course of my reporting, people in their 20s shared with me their hopes and fears and inhibitions, I sometimes felt pangs of recognition,” Julian writes. “Just as often, though, I was taken aback by what seemed like heartbreaking changes in the way many people were relating — or not relating — to one another.

“In time, maybe, we will rethink some things,” she continues. “The abysmal state of sex education, which was once a joke but is now, in the age of porn, a disgrace. The dysfunctional relationships so many of us have with our phones and social media, to the detriment of our relationships with humans. Efforts to ‘protect’ teenagers from most everything, including romance, leaving them ill-equipped for both the miseries and the joys of adulthood.”

All of which has me, as a parent, contemplating how to raise my kids to respect and protect their own and other people’s bodies and desires, but also to cultivate the skills to form human connections that surpass the fleeting and lukewarm satisfaction of Netflix and other screen-based avocations.

No small undertaking, but one that feels more essential than ever.

By Hedid Stevens and published in the Chicago Tribune on November 15, 2018 and can be found here.

Social Media is Outpacing the Legal System

Courts have not caught up to the realities of social media and its role in workforce issues. As an employment lawyer, representing both employees and employers, I know that social media policies need to relate to the industry in question. In the case of the airline industry, especially in the case of flight attendants, social media is the prevalent way that thousands of airline employees communicate with each other because they often have shifting work assignments and rarely work with the same people or at the same location on a regular basis. Therefore, they rely on social media to exchange ideas, comment and or complain about their industry or unions, and discuss the nature of their work.

Some points to consider about social media in the workplace are:

  • Courts have generally not considered social media posts and online bullying have a severe impact in the real world. The old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” no longer applies in the world of social media which is public and enduring. Social media posts are a different form of harassment than is face-to-face harassment.
  • Courts have not penalized employers whom have refused to investigate claims of violations of their social media policies, and have distinguished the failure of employers to follow their own policies from actionable harassment.
  • Employers are often quick to discipline or terminate employees who they determine have embarrassed or damaged them, yet they are slow or refuse to enforce social media policies to protect employees from insults or abuse on social media from other employees or managers.
  • Much like other policies that employers have “on the books,” such as sexual harassment policies, social media policies are often not enforced by employers. It is up to the employee to take proactive action, hopefully after consulting an experienced attorney, to require employers to enforce and apply these policies.

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Please click here to learn more about the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C. and how we can assist you in addressing your problems with the least risk to yourself.

OUTSOURCING PRACTICE TIPS

Outsourcing is akin to hiring a professional outside of your law practice to help you achieve a goal within your law practice. Lawyers spend about six hours a day doing non-billable work and are constantly faced with the issue of how to provide high quality legal services while keeping overhead and expenses down. Using a legal support service enables attorneys to meet their goals.

The below recommendations draw upon my 45 years of experience as a practicing litigation attorney and my role as COO of Legal Research, Inc. a legal research and writing firm. I have confirmed my observations with others to ensure validity and consistency of thought.

A number of the following factors add up to the logical choice of “leasing” instead of “buying” lawyers so that flexibility of firm scheduling and growth can be enjoyed, instead of creating fixed costs and possible dismissal scenarios when work is reduced or disappears.

Despite years of economic growth, most people feel that our economy is unpredictable, or can become so, in a short time period. A bull market can quickly become a bear market, and it is easier to downsize if costs and personnel are not fixed.

Hiring a full-time attorney brings with it financial and other responsibilities, not to mention risks. A major risk, and now a commonplace risk, is that attorneys and other legal professionals are suing their firms or companies for discrimination of some sort or sexual harassment.

Many lawyers, including millennials, who are starting to assume leadership roles in their firms, also want more flexibility so that they can achieve work/life balance. Studies indicate that they are willing to accept a lesser salary for more free time or flexible schedules. Millennials may be the group that finally acknowledges that life does not consist of just piling on billable hours, and that if one does not enjoy working those hours, they must look to other things that deserve one’s time, attention and care.

I reviewed an article in which I was quoted in The Pennsylvania Lawyer in July 1994, (“Lawyer Temps – Here to Stay”). In the article I mentioned that firms were concerned about violating attorney/client privilege by the use of “temporary attorneys” and didn’t want other attorneys to know about their “secret weapons.” At least one of those issues has resolved itself, as states have addressed the use of outsourcing firms, and they have become part of the fabric of the law. The Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.2 (c), discuss these issues called limited-scope engagements.

Interestingly, it was only after employment agencies became involved in large-scale hiring of “contract” attorneys with the advent of increased discovery as cases grew ever-larger, that the hiring of temporary lawyers achieved greater legitimacy. Yet, the overburdened solo or small firm lawyer still hesitates to embrace the concept that can not only be a freeing experience to them, but can assist them in all matter of cases, from evaluation of a case to receiving help with researching the law, conducting discovery, drafting motions, briefs, and pleadings, and appearing at hearings, trials, or engaging in the appellate process.

When you feel overloaded, when there is a deadline looming you can’t meet, or an emergency matter arises, outsourcing services can free up your time and resources so that you can accomplish more or work on the more lucrative areas of your practice. Legal support services value client confidentiality, and work within the parameters set with regard to the type of work product desired, deadline, and amount of time and resources each project budget has. The attorney has total control and input into the process. Working within the budget and controlling the outcome help you accomplish more.

The many advantages of using a legal support service include:

  • Assistance in handling trials, arbitrations, court appearances and depositions
  • Attaining legal research and analysis to assist in pursuing cases more aggressively, or negotiate more favorable settlements by having the relevant case law at hand
  • Access to trained attorneys with practical and courtroom experience
  • Access to a library of research and sample court documents, including trial and appellate briefs, motions, petitions and pleadings
  • Paying for the services of a temporary attorney only as needed
  • For solos and small firms, the ability to secure the advice and guidance of other experienced attorneys outside of their usual circle of contacts

Now that you know the many ways outsourcing can assist you, please consider using a company that is experienced, trustworthy, and has excelled at legal research and writing for 45 years. So, please call Legal Research Inc. at 215-563-7776 or email Faye Riva Cohen, Esq. at frc@fayerivacohen.com to discuss assisting you with your research and writing needs.

By Faye Riva Cohen, Esquire and was originally published as a Pulse Post on Linkedin and can be found here.

Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?

Despite the easing of taboos and the rise of hookup apps, Americans are in the midst of a sex recession.

The share of Americans who say sex between unmarried adults is “not wrong at all” is at an all-time high. New cases of HIV are at an all-time low. Most women can—at last—get birth control for free, and the morning-after pill without a prescription.If hookups are your thing, Grindr and Tinder offer the prospect of casual sex within the hour. The phrase If something exists, there is porn of it used to be a clever internet meme; now it’s a truism. BDSM plays at the local multiplex—but why bother going? Sex is portrayed, often graphically and sometimes gorgeously, on prime-time cable. Sexting is, statistically speaking, normal.

Polyamory is a household word. Shame-laden terms like perversion have given way to cheerful-sounding ones like kink. Anal sex has gone from final taboo to “fifth base”—Teen Vogue (yes, Teen Vogue) even ran a guide to it. With the exception of perhaps incest and bestiality—and of course nonconsensual sex more generally—our culture has never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation.

But despite all this, American teenagers and young adults are having less sex.
To the relief of many parents, educators, and clergy members who care about the health and well-being of young people, teens are launching their sex lives later. From 1991 to 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey finds, the percentage of high-school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent. In other words, in the space of a generation, sex has gone from something most high-school students have experienced to something most haven’t. (And no, they aren’t having oral sex instead—that rate hasn’t changed much.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has plummeted to a third of its modern high. When this decline started, in the 1990s, it was widely and rightly embraced. But now some observers are beginning to wonder whether an unambiguously good thing might have roots in less salubrious developments. Signs are gathering that the delay in teen sex may have been the first indication of a broader withdrawal from physical intimacy that extends well into adulthood.

Over the past few years, Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has published research exploring how and why Americans’ sex lives may be ebbing. In a series of journal articles and in her latest book, iGen, she notes that today’s young adults are on track to have fewer sex partners than members of the two preceding generations. People now in their early 20s are two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as Gen Xers were at that age; 15 percent report having had no sex since they reached adulthood.

Some social scientists take issue with aspects of Twenge’s analysis; others say that her data source, although highly regarded, is not ideally suited to sex research. And yet none of the many experts I interviewed for this piece seriously challenged the idea that the average young adult circa 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. Nor did anyone doubt that this reality is out of step with public perception—most of us still think that other people are having a lot more sex than they actually are.When I called the anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies love and sex and co-directs Match.com’s annual Singles in America survey of more than 5,000 unpartnered Americans, I could almost feel her nodding over the phone. “The data is that people are having less sex,” she said, with a hint of mischief. “I’m a Baby Boomer, and apparently in my day we were having a lot more sex than they are today!” She went on to explain that the survey has been probing the intimate details of people’s lives for eight years now. “Every year the whole Match company is rather staggered at how little sex Americans are having—including the Millennials.”

Over the course of many conversations with sex researchers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, therapists, sex educators, and young adults, I heard many other theories about what I have come to think of as the sex recession. I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.
Many—or all—of these things may be true. In a famous 2007 study, people supplied researchers with 237 distinct reasons for having sex, ranging from mystical (“I wanted to feel closer to God”) to lame (“I wanted to change the topic of conversation”). The number of reasons not to have sex must be at least as high. Still, a handful of suspects came up again and again in my interviews and in the research I reviewed—and each has profound implications for our happiness.

1. Sex for One

The retreat from sex is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Most countries don’t track their citizens’ sex lives closely, but those that try (all of them wealthy) are reporting their own sex delays and declines. One of the most respected sex studies in the world, Britain’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, reported in 2001 that people ages 16 to 44 were having sex more than six times a month on average. By 2012, the rate had dropped to fewer than five times. Over roughly the same period, Australians in relationships went from having sex about 1.8 times a week to 1.4 times. Finland’s “Finsex” study found declines in intercourse frequency, along with rising rates of masturbation.

Meanwhile, Sweden, which hadn’t done a national sex study in 20 years, recently launched one, alarmed by polling suggesting that Swedes, too, were having less sex. The country, which has one of the highest birth rates in Europe, is apparently disinclined to risk its fecundity. “If the social conditions for a good sex life—for example through stress or other unhealthy factors—have deteriorated,” the Swedish health minister at the time wrote in an op-ed explaining the rationale for the study, it is “a political problem.”This brings us to fertility-challenged Japan, which is in the midst of a demographic crisis and has become something of a case study in the dangers of sexlessness. In 2005, a third of Japanese single people ages 18 to 34 were virgins; by 2015, 43 percent of people in this age group were, and the share who said they did not intend to get married had risen too. (Not that marriage was any guarantee of sexual frequency: A related survey found that 47 percent of married people hadn’t had sex in at least a month.)

Early on, most Western accounts of all this had a heavy subtext of “Isn’t Japan wacky?” This tone has slowly given way to a realization that the country’s experience might be less a curiosity than a cautionary tale. Dismal employment prospects played an initial role in driving many men to solitary pursuits—but the culture has since moved to accommodate and even encourage those pursuits. Roland Kelts, a Japanese American writer and longtime Tokyo resident, has described “a generation that found the imperfect or just unexpected demands of real-world relationships with women less enticing than the lure of the virtual libido.”Let’s consider this lure for a moment. Japan is among the world’s top producersand consumers of porn, and the originator of whole new porn genres, such as bukkake (don’t ask). It is also a global leader in the design of high-end sex dolls. What may be more telling, though, is the extent to which Japan is inventing modes of genital stimulation that no longer bother to evoke old-fashioned sex, by which I mean sex involving more than one person. A recent article in The Economist, titled “Japan’s Sex Industry Is Becoming Less Sexual,” described onakura shops, where men pay to masturbate while female employees watch, and explained that because many younger people see the very idea of intercourse as mendokusai—tiresome—“services that make masturbation more enjoyable are booming.”

From 1992 to 2014, the share of American men who reported masturbating in a given week doubled, to 54 percent, and the share of women more than tripled, to 26 percent. Easy access to porn is part of the story, of course; in 2014, 43 percent of men said they’d watched porn in the past week. The vibrator figures in, too—a major study 10 years ago found that just over half of adult women had used one, and by all indications it has only grown in popularity. (Makes, models, and features have definitely proliferated. If you don’t know your Fun Factory Bi Stronic Fusion pulsator from your Power Toyfriend, you can find them on Amazon, which has these and some 10,000 other options.)
Today, masturbation is even more common, and fears about its effects—now paired with concerns about digital porn’s ubiquity—are being raised anew by a strange assortment of people, including the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the director of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, who is enjoying an unlikely second act as an antiporn activist. In his book Man, Interrupted, Zimbardo warns that “procrasturbation”—his unfortunate portmanteau for procrastination via masturbation—may be leading young men to fail academically, socially, and sexually. Gary Wilson, an Oregon man who runs a website called Your Brain on Porn, makes a similar claim. In a popular tedx talk, which features animal copulation as well as many (human) brain scans, Wilson argues that masturbating to internet porn is addictive, causes structural changes in the brain, and is producing an epidemic of erectile dysfunction.
The truth appears more complicated. There is scant evidence of an epidemic of erectile dysfunction among young men. And no researcher I spoke with had seen compelling evidence that porn is addictive. As the authors of a recent review of porn research note in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, “The notion of problematic pornography use remains contentious in both academic and popular literature,” while “the mental health community at large is divided as to the addictive versus non-addictive nature of Internet pornography.”This isn’t to say there’s no correlation between porn use and desire for real-life sex. Ian Kerner, a well-known New York sex therapist and the author of several popular books about sex, told me that while he doesn’t see porn use as unhealthy (he recommends certain types of porn to some patients), he works with a lot of men who, inspired by porn, “are still masturbating like they’re 17,” to the detriment of their sex life. “It’s taking the edge off their desire,” he said. Kerner believes this is why more and more of the women coming to his office in recent years report that they want sex more than their partners do.

The recession metaphor is imperfect, of course. Most people need jobs; that’s not the case with relationships and sex. I talked with plenty of people who were single and celibate by choice. Even so, I was amazed by how many 20-somethings were deeply unhappy with the sex-and-dating landscape; over and over, people asked me whether things had always been this hard. Despite the diversity of their stories, certain themes emerged.One recurring theme, predictably enough, was porn. Less expected, perhaps, was the extent to which many people saw their porn life and their sex life as entirely separate things. The wall between the two was not absolute; for one thing, many straight women told me that learning about sex from porn seemed to have given some men dismaying sexual habits. (We’ll get to that later.) But by and large, the two things—partnered sex and solitary porn viewing—existed on separate planes. “My porn taste and partner taste are quite different,” one man in his early 30s told me, explaining that he watches porn about once a week and doesn’t think it has much effect on his sex life. “I watch it knowing it is fiction,” a 22-year-old woman said, adding that she didn’t “internalize” it.

Many of the younger people I talked with see porn as just one more digital activity—a way of relieving stress, a diversion. It is related to their sex life (or lack thereof) in much the same way social media and binge-watching TV are. As one 24-year-old man emailed me:

The internet has made it so easy to gratify basic social and sexual needs that there’s far less incentive to go out into the “meatworld” and chase those things. This isn’t to say that the internet can give you more satisfaction than sex or relationships, because it doesn’t … [But it can] supply you with just enough satisfaction to placate those imperatives … I think it’s healthy to ask yourself: “If I didn’t have any of this, would I be going out more? Would I be having sex more?” For a lot of people my age, I think the answer is probably yes.

Even people in relationships told me that their digital life seemed to be vying with their sex life. “We’d probably have a lot more sex,” one woman noted, “if we didn’t get home and turn on the TV and start scrolling through our phones.” This seems to defy logic; our hunger for sex is supposed to be primal. Who would pick messing around online over actual messing around?

Maybe adolescents are not the hormone-crazed maniacs we sometimes make them out to be. Maybe the human sex drive is more fragile than we thought, and more easily stalled.

2. Hookup Culture and Helicopter Parents

I started high school in 1992, around the time the teen pregnancy and birth rates hit their highest levels in decades, and the median age at which teenagers began having sex was approaching its modern low of 16.9. Women born in 1978, the year I was born, have a dubious honor: We were younger when we started having sex than any group since.

But as the ’90s continued, the teen pregnancy rate began to decline. This development was welcomed—even if experts couldn’t agree on why it was happening. Birth-control advocates naturally pointed to birth control. And yes, teenagers were getting better about using contraceptives, but not sufficiently better to single-handedly explain the change. Christian pro-abstinence groups and backers of abstinence-only education, which received a big funding boost from the 1996 welfare-reform act, also tried to take credit. Yet the teen pregnancy rate was falling even in places that hadn’t adopted abstinence-only curricula, and research has since shown that virginity pledges and abstinence-only education don’t actually beget abstinence.

Pretty much ever since, people have been overestimating how much casual sex high-school and college students are having (even, surveys show, students themselves). In the past several years, however, a number of studies and books on hookup culture have begun to correct the record. One of the most thoughtful of these is American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, by Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College. The book draws on detailed journals kept by students at two liberal-arts colleges from 2010 to 2015, as well as on Wade’s conversations with students at 24 other colleges and universities.Wade sorts the students she followed into three groups. Roughly one-third were what she calls “abstainers”—they opted out of hookup culture entirely. A little more than a third were “dabblers”—they hooked up sometimes, but ambivalently. Less than a quarter were “enthusiasts,” who delighted in hooking up. The remainder were in long-term relationships.

When I spoke with Wade recently, she told me that she found the sex decline among teens and 20-somethings completely unsurprising—young people, she said, have always been most likely to have sex in the context of a relationship. “Go back to the point in history where premarital sex became more of a thing, and the conditions that led to it,” she said, referring to how post–World War II anxiety about a man shortage led teen girls in the late 1940s and ’50s to pursue more serious romantic relationships than had been customary before the war. “Young women, at that point, innovate ‘going steady,’ ” Wade said, adding that parents were not entirely happy about the shift away from prewar courtship, which had favored casual, nonexclusive dating. “If you [go out with someone for] one night you might get up to a little bit of necking and petting, but what happens when you spend months with them? It turns out 1957 has the highest rate of teen births in American history.”

In more recent decades, by contrast, teen romantic relationships appear to have grown less common. In 1995, the large longitudinal study known as “Add Health” found that 66 percent of 17-year-old men and 74 percent of 17-year-old women had experienced “a special romantic relationship” in the past 18 months. In 2014, when the Pew Research Center asked 17-year-olds whether they had “ever dated, hooked up with or otherwise had a romantic relationship with another person”—seemingly a broader category than the earlier one—only 46 percent said yes.

These shifts coincide with another major change: parents’ increased anxiety about their children’s educational and economic prospects. Among the affluent and educated, especially, this anxiety has led to big changes in what’s expected of teens. “It’s hard to work in sex when the baseball team practices at 6:30, school starts at 8:15, drama club meets at 4:15, the soup kitchen starts serving at 6, and, oh yeah, your screenplay needs completion,” said a man who was a couple of years out of college, thinking back on his high-school years. He added: “There’s immense pressure” from parents and other authority figures “to focus on the self, at the expense of relationships”—pressure, quite a few 20-somethings told me, that extends right on through college.Malcolm Harris strikes a similar note in his book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Addressing the desexing of the American teenager, he writes:

A decline in unsupervised free time probably contributes a lot. At a basic level, sex at its best is unstructured play with friends, a category of experience that … time diaries … tell us has been decreasing for American adolescents. It takes idle hands to get past first base, and today’s kids have a lot to do.

Marriage 101, one of the most popular undergraduate classes at Northwestern University, was launched in 2001 by William M. Pinsof, a founding father of couples therapy, and Arthur Nielsen, a psychiatry professor. What if you could teach about love, sex, and marriage before people chose a partner, Pinsof and Nielsen wondered—before they developed bad habits? The class was meant to be a sort of preemptive strike against unhappy marriages. Under Alexandra Solomon, the psychology professor who took over the course six years ago, it has become, secondarily, a strike against what she sees as the romantic and sexual stunting of a generation. She assigns students to ask someone else out on a date, for example, something many have never done.

Over the course of numerous conversations, Solomon has come to various conclusions about hookup culture, or what might more accurately be described as lack-of-relationship culture. For one thing, she believes it is both a cause and an effect of social stunting. Or, as one of her students put it to her: “We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up.” For another, insofar as her students find themselves choosing between casual sex and no sex, they are doing so because an obvious third option—relationship sex—strikes many of them as not only unattainable but potentially irresponsible. Most Marriage 101 students have had at least one romantic relationship over the course of their college career; the class naturally attracts relationship-oriented students, she points out. Nonetheless, she believes that many students have absorbed the idea that love is secondary to academic and professional success—or, at any rate, is best delayed until those other things have been secured. “Over and over,” she has written, “my undergraduates tell me they try hard not to fall in love during college, imagining that would mess up their plans.”
The conversation proceeded to why soup-bringing relationships weren’t more common. “You’re supposed to have so much before you can get into a relationship,” one woman offered. Another said that when she was in high school, her parents, who are both professionals with advanced degrees, had discouraged relationships on the grounds that they might diminish her focus. Even today, in graduate school, she was finding the attitude hard to shake. “Now I need to finish school, I need to get a practice going, I need to do this and this, and then I’ll think about love. But by 30, you’re like, What is love?
What’s it like to be in love?

In early May, I returned to Northwestern to sit in on a Marriage 101 discussion section. I had picked that particular week because the designated topic, “Sex in Intimate Relationships,” seemed relevant. As it happened, though, there wasn’t much talk of sex; the session was mostly consumed by a rapturous conversation about the students’ experiences with something called the “mentor couple” assignment, which had involved interviewing a couple in the community and chronicling their relationship.

3. The Tinder Mirage

Simon, a 32-year-old grad student who describes himself as short and balding (“If I wasn’t funny,” he says, “I’d be doomed”), didn’t lack for sex in college. (The names of people who talked with me about their personal lives have been changed.) “I’m outgoing and like to talk, but I am at heart a significant nerd,” he told me when we spoke recently. “I was so happy that college had nerdy women. That was a delight.” Shortly before graduation, he started a relationship that lasted for seven years. When he and his girlfriend broke up, in 2014, he felt like he’d stepped out of a time machine.

He had better luck with Tinder than the other apps, but it was hardly efficient. He figures he swiped right—indicating that he was interested—up to 30 times for every woman who also swiped right on him, thereby triggering a match. But matching was only the beginning; then it was time to start messaging. “I was up to over 10 messages sent for a single message received,” he said. In other words: Nine out of 10 women who matched with Simon after swiping right on him didn’t go on to exchange messages with him. This means that for every 300 women he swiped right on, he had a conversation with just one.

At least among people who don’t use dating apps, the perception exists that they facilitate casual sex with unprecedented efficiency. In reality, unless you are exceptionally good-looking, the thing online dating may be best at is sucking up large amounts of time. As of 2014, when Tinder last released such data, the average user logged in 11 times a day. Men spent 7.2 minutes per session and women spent 8.5 minutes, for a total of about an hour and a half a day. Yet they didn’t get much in return. Today, the company says it logs 1.6 billion swipes a day, and just 26 million matches. And, if Simon’s experience is any indication, the overwhelming majority of matches don’t lead to so much as a two-way text exchange, much less a date, much less sex.

So why do people continue to use dating apps? Why not boycott them all? Simon said meeting someone offline seemed like less and less of an option. His parents had met in a chorus a few years after college, but he couldn’t see himself pulling off something similar. “I play volleyball,” he added. “I had somebody on the volleyball team two years ago who I thought was cute, and we’d been playing together for a while.” Simon wanted to ask her out, but ultimately concluded that this would be “incredibly awkward,” even “boorish.”At first, I wondered whether Simon was being overly genteel, or a little paranoid. But the more people I talked with, the more I came to believe that he was simply describing an emerging cultural reality. “No one approaches anyone in public anymore,” said a teacher in Northern Virginia. “The dating landscape has changed. People are less likely to ask you out in real life now, or even talk to begin with,” said a 28-year-old woman in Los Angeles who volunteered that she had been single for three years.

This shift seems to be accelerating amid the national reckoning with sexual assault and harassment, and a concomitant shifting of boundaries. According to a November 2017 Economist/YouGov poll, 17 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 now believe that a man inviting a woman out for a drink “always” or “usually” constitutes sexual harassment. (Among older groups, much smaller percentages believe this.)

Laurie Mintz, who teaches a popular undergraduate class on the psychology of sexuality at the University of Florida, told me that the #MeToo movement has made her students much more aware of issues surrounding consent. She has heard from many young men who are productively reexamining their past actions and working diligently to learn from the experiences of friends and partners. But others have described less healthy reactions, like avoiding romantic overtures for fear that they might be unwelcome. In my own conversations, men and women alike spoke of a new tentativeness and hesitancy. One woman who described herself as a passionate feminist said she felt empathy for the pressure that heterosexual dating puts on men. “I think I owe it to them, in this current cultural moment particularly, to try to treat them like they’re human beings taking a risk talking to a stranger,” she wrote me. “There are a lot of lonely, confused people out there, who have no idea what to do or how to date.”

I mentioned to several of the people I interviewed for this piece that I’d met my husband in an elevator, in 2001. (We worked on different floors of the same institution, and over the months that followed struck up many more conversations—in the elevator, in the break room, on the walk to the subway.) I was fascinated by the extent to which this prompted other women to sigh and say that they’d just love to meet someone that way. And yet quite a few of them suggested that if a random guy started talking to them in an elevator, they would be weirded out. “Creeper! Get away from me,” one woman imagined thinking. “Anytime we’re in silence, we look at our phones,” explained her friend, nodding. Another woman fantasized to me about what it would be like to have a man hit on her in a bookstore. (She’d be holding a copy of her favorite book. “What’s that book?” he’d say.) But then she seemed to snap out of her reverie, and changed the subject to Sex and the City reruns and how hopelessly dated they seem. “Miranda meets Steve at a bar,” she said, in a tone suggesting that the scenario might as well be out of a Jane Austen novel, for all the relevance it had to her life.

How could various dating apps be so inefficient at their ostensible purpose—hooking people up—and still be so popular? For one thing, lots of people appear to be using them as a diversion, with limited expectations of meeting up in person. As Iris, who’s 33, told me bitterly, “They’ve gamified interaction. The majority of men on Tinder just swipe right on everybody. They say yes, yes, yes to every woman.”

Stories from other app users bear out the idea of apps as diversions rather than matchmakers. “Getting right-swiped is a good ego boost even if I have no intention of meeting someone,” one man told me. A 28-year-old woman said that she persisted in using dating apps even though she had been abstinent for three years, a fact she attributed to depression and low libido: “I don’t have much inclination to date someone.”

“After a while it just feels exactly the same as getting good at a bubble-popping game. I’m happy to be good at it, but what am I really achieving?” said an app user who described herself as abstinent by choice. Another woman wrote that she was “too lazy” to meet people, adding: “I usually download dating apps on a Tuesday when I’m bored, watching TV … I don’t try very hard.” Yet another woman said that she used an app, but only “after two glasses of white wine—then I promptly delete it after two hours of fruitless swiping.”

Many critiques of online dating, including a 2013 article by Dan Slater in The Atlantic, adapted from his book A Million First Dates, have focused on the idea that too many options can lead to “choice overload,” which in turn leads to dissatisfaction. Online daters, he argued, might be tempted to keep going back for experiences with new people; commitment and marriage might suffer. Michael Rosenfeld, a sociologist who runs a longitudinal study out of Stanford called “How Couples Meet and Stay Together,” questions this hypothesis; his research finds that couples who meet online tend to marry more quickly than other couples, a fact that hardly suggests indecision.

Maybe choice overload applies a little differently than Slater imagined. Maybe the problem is not the people who date and date some more—they might even get married, if Rosenfeld is right—but those who are so daunted that they don’t make it off the couch. This idea came up many times in my conversations with people who described sex and dating lives that had gone into a deep freeze. Some used the term paradox of choice; others referred to option paralysis (a term popularized by Black Mirror); still others invoked fobo (“fear of a better option”).

And yet online dating continues to attract users, in part because many people consider apps less stressful than the alternatives. Lisa Wade suspects that graduates of high-school or college hookup culture may welcome the fact that online dating takes some of the ambiguity out of pairing up (We’ve each opted in; I’m at least a little bit interested in you). The first time my husband and I met up outside work, neither of us was sure whether it was a date. When you find someone via an app, there’s less uncertainty.

As a 27-year-old woman in Philadelphia put it: “I have insecurities that make fun bar flirtation very stressful. I don’t like the Is he into me? moment. I use dating apps because I want it to be clear that this is a date and we are sexually interested in one another. If it doesn’t work out, fine, but there’s never a Is he asking me to hang as a friend or as a date? feeling.” Other people said they liked the fact that on an app, their first exchanges with a prospective date could play out via text rather than in a face-to-face or phone conversation, which had more potential to be awkward.

Anna, who graduated from college three years ago, told me that in school, she struggled to “read” people. Dating apps have been a helpful crutch. “There’s just no ambiguity,” she explained. “This person is interested in me to some extent.” The problem is that the more Anna uses apps, the less she can imagine getting along without them. “I never really learned how to meet people in real life,” she said. She then proceeded to tell me about a guy she knew slightly from college, whom she’d recently bumped into a few times. She found him attractive and wanted to register her interest, but wasn’t sure how to do that outside the context of a college party. Then she remembered that she’d seen his profile on Tinder. “Maybe next time I sign in,” she said, musing aloud, “I’ll just swipe right so I don’t have to do this awkward thing and get rejected.”

Apart from helping people avoid the potential embarrassments (if also, maybe, the exhilaration) of old-fashioned flirting, apps are quite useful to those who are in what economists call “thin markets”—markets with a relatively low number of participants. Sexual minorities, for example, tend to use online dating services at much higher rates than do straight people. (Michael Rosenfeld—whose survey deliberately oversampled gays and lesbians in an effort to compensate for the dearth of research on their dating experiences—finds that “unpartnered gay men and unpartnered lesbians seem to have substantially more active dating lives than do heterosexuals,” a fact he attributes partly to their successful use of apps. This disparity raises the possibility that the sex recession may be a mostly heterosexual phenomenon.)

In all dating markets, apps appear to be most helpful to the highly photogenic. As Emma, a 26-year-old virgin who sporadically tries her luck with online dating, glumly told me, “Dating apps make it easy for hot people—who already have the easiest time.” Christian Rudder, a co-founder of OkCupid (one of the less appearance-centric dating services, in that it encourages detailed written profiles), reported in 2009 that the male users who were rated most physically attractive by female users got 11 times as many messages as the lowest-rated men did; medium-rated men received about four times as many messages. The disparity was starker for women: About two-thirds of messages went to the one-third of women who were rated most physically attractive. A more recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute found that online daters of both genders tend to pursue prospective mates who are on average 25 percent more desirable than they are—presumably not a winning strategy.

So where does this leave us? Many online daters spend large amounts of time pursuing people who are out of their league. Few of their messages are returned, and even fewer lead to in-person contact. At best, the experience is apt to be bewildering (Why are all these people swiping right on me, then failing to follow through?). But it can also be undermining, even painful. Emma is, by her own description, fat. She is not ashamed of her appearance, and purposefully includes several full-body photos in her dating profiles. Nevertheless, men persist in swiping right on her profile only to taunt her—when I spoke with her, one guy had recently ended a text exchange by sending her a gif of an overweight woman on a treadmill.

An even bigger problem may be the extent to which romantic pursuit is now being cordoned off into a predictable, prearranged online venue, the very existence of which makes it harder for anyone, even those not using the apps, to extend an overture in person without seeming inappropriate. What a miserable impasse.

4.  Bad Sex (Painfully Bad)

One especially springlike morning in May, as Debby Herbenick and I walked her baby through a park in Bloomington, Indiana, she shared a bit of advice she sometimes offers students at Indiana University, where she is a leading sex researcher. “If you’re with somebody for the first time,” she said evenly, “don’t choke them, don’t ejaculate on their face, don’t try to have anal sex with them. These are all things that are just unlikely to go over well.”

I’d sought out Herbenick in part because I was intrigued by an article she’d written for The Washington Post proposing that the sex decline might have a silver lining. Herbenick had asked whether we might be seeing, among other things, a retreat from coercive or otherwise unwanted sex. Just a few decades ago, after all, marital rape was still legal in many states. As she pushed her daughter’s stroller, she elaborated on the idea that some of the sex recession’s causes could be a healthy reaction to bad sex—a subset of people “not having sex that they don’t want to have anymore. People feeling more empowered to say ‘No thanks.’ ”

Bloomington is the unofficial capital of American sex research, a status that dates back to the 1940s, when the Indiana University biologist Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering sex surveys inaugurated the field. It retains its standing thanks partly to the productivity of its scientists, and partly to the paucity of sex research at other institutions. In 2009, Herbenick and her colleagues launched the ongoing National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, which is only the second nationally representative survey to examine Americans’ sex lives in detail—and the first to try to chart them over time. (The previous national survey, out of the University of Chicago, was conducted just once, in 1992. Most other sex research, including Kinsey’s, has used what are known as convenience samples, which don’t represent the population at large. The long-running General Social Survey, which much of Jean Twenge’s research is based upon, is nationally representative, but poses only a few questions about sex.)

I asked Herbenick whether the NSSHB’s findings gave her any hunches about what might have changed since the 1990s. She mentioned the new popularity of sex toys, and a surge in heterosexual anal sex. Back in 1992, the big University of Chicago survey reported that 20 percent of women in their late 20s had tried anal sex; in 2012, the NSSHB found a rate twice that. She also told me about new data suggesting that, compared with previous generations, young people today are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors prevalent in porn, like the ones she warns her students against springing on a partner. All of this might be scaring some people off, she thought, and contributing to the sex decline.

“If you are a young woman,” she added, glancing down at her daughter, “and you’re having sex and somebody tries to choke you, I just don’t know if you’d want to go back for more right away.”

Some of herbenick’s most sobering research concerns the prevalence of painful sex. In 2012, 30 percent of women said they’d experienced pain the last time they’d had vaginal intercourse; during anal intercourse, 72 percent had. Whether or not these rates represent an increase (we have no basis for comparison), they are troublingly high. Moreover, most women don’t tell their partners about their pain. J. Dennis Fortenberry, the chief of adolescent medicine at Indiana University’s medical school and a co-leader of the NSSHB, believes that many girls and women have internalized the idea that physical discomfort goes with being female.

A particularly vivid illustration of this comes from Lucia O’Sullivan, a University of New Brunswick psychology professor who has published research documenting high rates of sexual dysfunction among adolescents and young adults. That work grew out of a lunch several years ago with a physician from the university’s student-health center, who told O’Sullivan that she was deeply concerned by all the vulvar fissures she and her colleagues were seeing in their student patients. These women weren’t reporting rape, but the condition of their genitals showed that they were enduring intercourse that was, literally, undesired. “They were having sex they didn’t want, weren’t aroused by,” O’Sullivan says. The physician told her that the standard of care was to hand the women K‑Y Jelly and send them on their way.Painful sex is not new, but there’s reason to think that porn may be contributing to some particularly unpleasant early sexual experiences. Studies show that, in the absence of high-quality sex education, teen boys look to porn for help understanding sex—anal sex and other acts women can find painful are ubiquitous in mainstream porn. (This isn’t to say that anal sex has to be painful, but rather that the version most women are experiencing is.) In a series of in-depth interviews, Cicely Marston of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that teenage boys experimenting with anal sex—perhaps influenced by what they’ve seen in porn—may find that sudden, unlubricated penetration is more difficult than it looks, and more agonizing for the recipient. Some of her subjects appear to have pressured their partner; others seem to have resorted to what another researcher described to me, clinically, as “nonconsensual substitution of anal for vaginal sex.”

In my interviews with young women, I heard too many iterations to count of “he did something I didn’t like that I later learned is a staple in porn,” choking being one widely cited example. Outside of porn, some people do enjoy what’s known as erotic asphyxiation—they say restricting oxygen to the brain can make for more intense orgasms—but it is dangerous and ranks high on the list of things you shouldn’t do to someone unless asked to. Tess, a 31-year-old woman in San Francisco, mentioned that her past few sexual experiences had been with slightly younger men. “I’ve noticed that they tend to go for choking without prior discussion,” she said. Anna, the woman who described how dating apps could avert awkwardness, told me she’d been choked so many times that at first, she figured it was normal. “A lot of people don’t realize you have to ask,” she said.

As Marina Adshade, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the economics of sex and love, said to me, “Men have bad sex and good sex. But when sex is bad for women, it’s really, really bad. If women are avoiding sex, are they trying to avoid the really bad sex?”

Sex takes time to learn under the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances. Modeling your behavior after what you’ve seen on-screen can lead to what’s known as “spectatoring”—that is, worrying about how you look and sound while you’re having sex, a behavior the sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson long ago posited was bad for sexual functioning. Some young women told me they felt pressured to emulate porn actresses—and to achieve orgasm from penetration alone, which most women can’t do. “It took me a while to be comfortable with the fact that I don’t have to be as vocal during sex as the girls seem to be in porn,” a 24-year-old woman in Boston said. A 31-year-old in Phoenix explained that in her experience, porn has made men “expect that they can make any woman orgasm by just pounding away.”

Learning sex in the context of one-off hookups isn’t helping either. Research suggests that, for most people, casual sex tends to be less physically pleasurable than sex with a regular partner. Paula England, a sociologist at NYU who has studied hookup culture extensively, attributes this partly to the importance of “partner-specific sexual skills”—that is, knowing what your partner likes. For women, especially, this varies greatly. One study found that while hooking up with a new partner, only 31 percent of men and 11 percent of women reached orgasm. (By contrast, when people were asked about their most recent sexual encounter in the context of a relationship, 84 percent of men and 67 percent of women said they’d had an orgasm.) Other studies have returned similar results. Of course, many people enjoy encounters that don’t involve orgasms—a third of hookups don’t include acts that could reasonably be expected to lead to one—but the difference between the two contexts is striking. If young people are delaying serious relationships until later in adulthood, more and more of them may be left without any knowledge of what good sex really feels like.

As I was reporting this piece, quite a few people told me that they were taking a break from sex and dating. This tracks with research by Lucia O’Sullivan, who finds that even after young adults’ sex lives start up, they are often paused for long periods of time. Some people told me of sexual and romantic dormancy triggered by assault or depression; others talked about the decision to abstain as if they were taking a sabbatical from an unfulfilling job.

Late one afternoon in February, I met up with Iris, the woman who remarked to me that Tinder had been “gamified,” at the Lemon Collective, a design studio and workshop space in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The collective hosts DIY and design classes as well as courses geared toward the wellness of Millennial women; Valentine’s Day had been celebrated with a wildly oversubscribed real-estate workshop called “House Before Spouse.” (“We don’t need partners to be financially savvy and create personal wealth,” the event’s description said. “Wine and cheese will be served, obviously.”)

As we chatted (over, obviously, wine), Iris despaired at the quality of her recent sexual interactions. “I had such bad sex yesterday, my God, it was so bad,” she said wearily. “He basically got it in and—” She banged a fist against her palm at a furious tempo. It was the first time she’d slept with this man, whom she had met on Tinder, and she wondered aloud whether she could coach him. She was doubtful, though; he was in his 30s—old enough, she thought, to know better.

Iris observed that her female friends, who were mostly single, were finding more and more value in their friendships. “I’m 33, I’ve been dating forever, and, you know, women are better,” she said. “They’re just better.” She hastened to add that men weren’t bad; in fact, she hated how anti-male the conversations around her had grown. Still, she and various platonic female friends—most of whom identified as straight—were starting to play roles in one another’s lives that they might not be playing if they had fulfilling romantic or sexual relationships. For instance, they’d started trading lesbian-porn recommendations, and were getting to know one another’s preferences pretty well. Several women also had a text chain going in which they exchanged nude photos of themselves. “It’s nothing but positivity,” she said, describing the complimentary texts they’d send one another in reply to a photo (“Damn, girl, your tits!”). She wasn’t ready to swear off men entirely. But, she said, “I want good sex.” Or at least, she added, “pretty good sex.”

5. Inhibition

“Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift,” Jonah Disend, the founder of the branding consultancy Redscout, told Bloomberglast year. He said that designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” The article concluded that however “digitally nonchalant” Millennials might seem—an allusion, maybe, to sexting—“they’re prudish in person.” Fitness facilities across the country are said to be renovating locker rooms in response to the demands of younger clients. “Old-timers, guys that are 60-plus, have no problem with a gang shower,” one gym designer told The New York Times, adding that Millennials require privacy.

Some observers have suggested that a new discomfort with nudity might stem from the fact that, by the mid-1990s, most high schools had stopped requiring students to shower after gym class. Which makes sense—the less time you spend naked, the less comfortable you are being naked. But people may also be newly worried about what they look like naked. A large and growing body of research reports that for both men and women, social-media use is correlated with body dissatisfaction. And a major Dutch study found that among men, frequency of pornography viewing was associated with concern about penis size. I heard much the same from quite a few men (“too hairy, not fit enough, not big enough in terms of penis size,” went one morose litany). According to research by Debby Herbenick, how people feel about their genitals predicts sexual functioning—and somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of people, perhaps influenced by porn or plastic-surgery marketing, feel negatively. The business of labiaplasty has become so lucrative, she told me in an email, “that you will actually see billboards (yes, billboards!) in some cities advertising it.”

As one might imagine, feeling comfortable in your body is good for your sex life. A review of 57 studies examining the relationship between women’s body image and sexual behavior suggests that positive body image is linked to having better sex. Conversely, not feeling comfortable in your own skin complicates sex. If you don’t want your partner to see you getting out of the shower, how is oral sex going to work?

Maybe, for some people, it isn’t. The 2017 iteration of Match.com’s Singles in America survey (co-led by Helen Fisher and the Kinsey Institute’s Justin Garcia) found that single Millennials were 66 percent less likely than members of older generations to enjoy receiving oral sex. Which doesn’t bode particularly well for female pleasure: Among partnered sex acts, cunnilingus is one of the surest ways for women to have orgasms.

Ian Kerner, the New York sex therapist, told me that he works with a lot of men who would like to perform oral sex but are rebuffed by their partner. “I know the stereotype is often that men are the ones who don’t want to perform it, but I find the reverse,” he said. “A lot of women will say when I’m talking to them privately, ‘I just can’t believe that a guy wants to be down there, likes to do that. It’s the ugliest part of my body.’ ” When I asked 20-somethings about oral sex, a pretty sizable minority of women sounded a similar note. “Receiving makes me nervous. It feels more intimate than penetration,” wrote one woman. “I become so self-conscious and find it difficult to enjoy,” wrote another.

Over the past 20 years, the way sex researchers think about desire and arousal has broadened from an initially narrow focus on stimulus to one that sees inhibition as equally, if not more, important. (The term inhibition, for these purposes, means anything that interferes with or prevents arousal, ranging from poor self-image to distractedness.) In her book Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski, who trained at the Kinsey Institute, compares the brain’s excitement system to the gas pedal in a car, and its inhibition system to the brakes. The first turns you on; the second turns you off. For many people, research suggests, the brakes are more sensitive than the accelerator.

That turn-offs matter more than turn-ons may sound commonsensical, but in fact, this insight is at odds with most popular views of sexual problems. When people talk about addressing a lack of desire, they tend to focus on fuel, or stimulation—erotica, Viagra, the K‑Y Jelly they were handing out at the New Brunswick student-health center. These things are helpful to many people in many cases, but they won’t make you want to have sex if your brakes are fully engaged.

In my interviews, inhibition seemed a constant companion to many people who’d been abstinent for a long time. Most of them described abstinence not as something they had embraced (due to religious belief, say) so much as something they’d found themselves backed into as a result of trauma, anxiety, or depression. Dispiritingly but unsurprisingly, sexual assault was invoked by many of the women who said they’d opted out of sex. The other two factors come as no great shock either: Rates of anxiety and depression have been rising among Americans for decades now, and by some accounts have risen quite sharply of late among people in their teens and 20s. Anxiety suppresses desire for most people. And, in a particularly unfortunate catch‑22, both depression and the antidepressants used to treat it can also reduce desire.

“I have a therapist and this is one of the main things we’re working on,” a 28-year-old woman I’ll call April wrote to me, by way of explaining that, owing to intense anxiety, she’d never slept with anyone or been in a relationship. “I’ve had a few kisses & gone to second base (as the kids say) and it really has never been good for me.” When we later spoke by phone, she told me that in adolescence, she’d been shy, overweight, and “very, very afraid of boys.” April isn’t asexual (she gives thanks for her Magic Bullet vibrator). She’s just terrified of intimacy. From time to time she goes on dates with men she meets through her job in the book industry or on an app, but when things get physical, she panics. “I jumped out of someone’s car once to avoid him kissing me,” she said miserably. As we were ending the conversation, she mentioned to me a story by the British writer Helen Oyeyemi, which describes an author of romance novels who is secretly a virgin. “She doesn’t have anyone, and she’s just stuck. It’s kind of a fairy tale—she lives in the garret of a large, old house, writing these romantic stories over and over, but nothing ever happens for her. I think about her all the time.”

In exchanges like these, I was struck by what a paralyzing and vicious cycle unhappiness and abstinence can be. The data show that having sex makes people happier (up to a point, at least; for those in relationships, more than once a week doesn’t seem to bring an additional happiness bump). Yet unhappiness inhibits desire, in the process denying people who are starved of joy one of its potential sources. Are rising rates of unhappiness contributing to the sex recession? Almost certainly. But mightn’t a decline in sex and intimacy also be leading to unhappiness?

Moreover, what research we have on sexually inactive adults suggests that, for those who desire a sex life, there may be such a thing as waiting too long. Among people who are sexually inexperienced at age 18, about 80 percent will become sexually active by the time they are 25. But those who haven’t gained sexual experience by their mid-20s are much less likely to ever do so. The authors of a 2009 study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine speculated that “if a man or woman has not had intercourse by age 25, there is a reasonable chance [he or she] will remain a virgin at least until age 45.” Research by Stanford’s Michael Rosenfeld confirms that, in adulthood, true singledom is a far more stable category than most of us have imagined. Over the course of a year, he reports, only 50 percent of heterosexual single women in their 20s go on any dates—and older women are even less likely to do so.

Other sources of sexual inhibition speak distinctly to the way we live today. For example, sleep deprivation strongly suppresses desire—and sleep quality is imperiled by now-common practices like checking one’s phone overnight. (For women, getting an extra hour of sleep predicts a 14 percent greater likelihood of having sex the next day.) In her new book, Better Sex Through Mindfulness, Lori Brotto, an obstetrics-and-gynecology professor at the University of British Columbia, reviews lab research showing that background distraction of the sort we’re all swimming in now likewise dampens arousal, in both men and women.

How can such little things—a bad night’s sleep, low-grade distraction—defeat something as fundamental as sex? One answer, which I heard from a few quarters, is that our sexual appetites are meant to be easily extinguished. The human race needs sex, but individual humans don’t.

Among the contradictions of our time is this: We live in unprecedented physical safety, and yet something about modern life, very recent modern life, has triggered in many of us autonomic responses associated with danger—anxiety, constant scanning of our surroundings, fitful sleep. Under these circumstances, survival trumps desire. As Emily Nagoski likes to point out, nobody ever died of sexlessness: “We can starve to death, die of dehydration, even die of sleep deprivation. But nobody ever died of not being able to get laid.”

When toys “r” us announced this spring—after saying it had been struggling because of falling birth rates—that it would be shutting down, some observers mordantly remarked that it could be added to the list of things that Millennials had destroyed.

Societal changes have a way of inspiring generational pessimism. Other writers, examining the same data I’ve looked at, have produced fretful articles about the future; critics have accused them of stoking panic. And yet there are real causes for concern. One can quibble—if one cares to—about exactly why a particular toy retailer failed. But there’s no escaping that the American birth rate has been falling for a decade.

At first, the drop was attributed to the Great Recession, and then to the possibility that Millennial women were delaying motherhood rather than forgoing it. But a more fundamental change may be under way. In 2017, the U.S. birth rate hit a record low for a second year running. Birth rates are declining among women in their 30s—the age at which everyone supposed more Millennials would start families. As a result, some 500,000 fewer American babies were born in 2017 than in 2007, even though more women were of prime childbearing age. Over the same period, the number of children the average American woman is expected to have fell from 2.1 (the so-called replacement rate, or fertility level required to sustain population levels without immigration) to 1.76. If this trend does not reverse, the long-term demographic and fiscal implications will be significant.

A more immediate concern involves the political consequences of loneliness and alienation. Take for example the online hate and real-life violence waged by the so-called incels—men who claim to be “involuntarily celibate.” Their grievances, which are illegitimate and vile, offer a timely reminder that isolated young people are vulnerable to extremism of every sort. See also the populist discontent roiling Europe, driven in part by adults who have so far failed to achieve the milestones of adulthood: In Italy, half of 25-to-34-year-olds now live with their parents.

When I began working on this story, I expected that these big-picture issues might figure prominently within it. I was pretty sure I’d hear lots of worry about economic insecurity and other contributors to a generally precarious future. I also imagined, more hopefully, a fairly lengthy inquiry into the benefits of loosening social conventions, and of less couple-centric pathways to a happy life. But these expectations have mostly fallen to the side, and my concerns have become more basic.

Humans’ sexual behavior is one of the things that distinguish us from other species: Unlike most apes, and indeed most animals, humans have sex at times and in configurations that make conception not just unlikely but impossible (during pregnancy, menopause, and other infertile periods; with same-sex partners; using body parts that have never issued babies and never will). As a species, we are “bizarre in our nearly continuous practice of sex,” writes the UCLA professor Jared Diamond, who has studied the evolution of human sexuality. “Along with posture and brain size, sexuality completes the trinity of the decisive aspects in which the ancestors of humans and great apes diverged.” True, nobody ever died of not getting laid, but getting laid has proved adaptive over millions of years: We do it because it is fun, because it bonds us to one another, because it makes us happy.

A fulfilling sex life is not necessary for a good life, of course, but lots of research confirms that it contributes to one. Having sex is associated not only with happiness, but with a slew of other health benefits. The relationship between sex and wellness, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes both ways: The better off you are, the better off your sex life is, and vice versa. Unfortunately, the converse is true as well. Not having a partner—sexual or romantic—can be both a cause and an effect of discontent. Moreover, as American social institutions have withered, having a life partner has become a stronger predictor than ever of well-being.

Like economic recessions, the sex recession will probably play out in ways that are uneven and unfair. Those who have many things going for them already—looks, money, psychological resilience, strong social networks—continue to be well positioned to find love and have good sex and, if they so desire, become parents. But intimacy may grow more elusive to those who are on less steady footing.

When, over the course of my reporting, people in their 20s shared with me their hopes and fears and inhibitions, I sometimes felt pangs of recognition. Just as often, though, I was taken aback by what seemed like heartbreaking changes in the way many people were relating—or not relating—to one another. I am not so very much older than the people I talked with for this story, and yet I frequently had the sense of being from a different time.

Sex seems more fraught now. This problem has no single source; the world has changed in so many ways, so quickly. In time, maybe, we will rethink some things: The abysmal state of sex education, which was once a joke but is now, in the age of porn, a disgrace. The dysfunctional relationships so many of us have with our phones and social media, to the detriment of our relationships with humans. Efforts to “protect” teenagers from most everything, including romance, leaving them ill-equipped for both the miseries and the joys of adulthood.

In October, as I was finishing this article, I spoke once more with April, the woman who took comfort in the short story about the romance novelist who was secretly a virgin. She told me that, since we’d last talked, she’d met a man on Tinder whom she really liked. They’d gone on several dates over the summer, and fooled around quite a bit. As terrified as she had been about getting physically and emotionally intimate with another person, she found, to her surprise, that she loved it: “I never thought I would feel that comfortable with someone. It was so much better than I thought it was going to be.”

As things progressed, April figured that, in the name of real intimacy, she should explain to the man that she hadn’t yet had sex. The revelation didn’t go over well. “I told him I was a virgin. And he broke up with me. Beforehand, I figured that was the worst thing that could happen. And then it happened. The worst thing happened.” She paused, and when she spoke again her voice was steadier and more assured. “But I’m still here.”

By Kate Julian on 12/18 in The Atlantic and can be seen here.

 

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