At some stage in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the panic of the lockdown had settled into a steady rhythm and social life began to resume, I got talking to a young man in a bar. I was lonely, bored, and tepidly thrilled by the idea of a conversation that would be initiated in a space that was not my own. The man, I quickly learned, was a regular on dating apps. Having always professed a strong reserve for this form of meeting people, and a suspicion of the supposed chosen ones found on it, I listened in with faint sociological curiosity. On his dating profile there were six, perfectly crafted, seemingly natural photos, in which his cheekbones were luminously pronounced.
Although he conceded that he was mainly looking for something casual, having recently given up his underpaid job as a political pollster and moved back in with his parents, his profile included a strong interest in history and visiting museums. One of the photos showed him flanked by a castle. The app on which I had met him was one of the more wholesome hookup platforms. On it, he told me, a cultured look was likely to improve his dating credit (a credit system, which my friend, who works in data, tells me is a fantasy). He explained that he and his friends had created an array of fake male and female profiles on various apps that enabled them as a group to gain a maximum understanding of what women want; he had a 90 percent success rate.
Bemused, I wondered why I found my date — a man roughly my age — and his approach to desire and seduction so profoundly unseductive. Had a marketized view of desire infiltrated his mind? Or were some fundamental differences between the approaches of men and women to romance and sex at the heart of our mismatch?
These are some of the questions that have come to occupy the chorus of writers who make up the growing sex panic industry. Together, they wonder what has gone wrong among young people that has led them to have so little sex. Why, come concerns from all sides of the political spectrum, are the vibes so bad?
Death of Desire by Algorithm
At the start of lockdown, there was speculation that the pandemic would produce a great upsurge of sexual activity, as had occurred during the Blitz and other periods of imposed confinement. These hopes were soon undermined by a study published by the journal Sexual Medicine, which found a decline over the first months of COVID-19 in sexual frequency and relationship satisfaction across all age groups and demographics in the United States. Not only were people making love less frequently — the study also noted that the quality of romantic encounters when they did occur was disappointing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a respiratory virus, which made risk at once pervasive and undiscernible, proved to be less sexy than air raids. Depression symptoms, relationship status, and the perceived necessity of social distancing contributed to the drop in sexual pleasure, particularly among women.
The constraints of the pandemic pushed sex ever-further indoors, into the confines of family life, and onto digital spaces, isolating it from the public sphere. The Netherlands was one of the few countries to advocate seeking out a “sex buddy”; in other countries, it was expected that those not in a relationship would abstain from casual sex as a civic duty. Occasionally, there were playful acknowledgements that this might not be the most conducive way to wait out a crisis.
There are a number of studies that measure governments’ various degrees of success in discouraging sex outside of domestic settings. One study reveals that 40 percent of gay and bisexual men in the UK continued to have casual sex despite lockdown restrictions — though the rate of hookups was down in Australia, where more punitive measures came in earlier.
On dating apps, however, it became more common during the pandemic — as Tinder claims in a press release on the future of dating — to see Gen Zers expressing desire for friendship as well as, or rather than, sex. Sixty percent of users admitted that they came to the app because they felt lonely. During the pandemic, one twenty-two-year-old from Philadelphia reported going on Grindr and Scruff “partially just to talk to someone, partially to exchange nudes and maybe find someone to hook up with later — at the very least just get on their radars.”
Dating apps provided an immediate solution to the vital need to connect during a period of heightened loneliness in a way that links to earlier models of lonely hearts, where the drive for sexual and romantic connection implicitly acknowledged the difficulty of finding that connection and the limitations of the contemporary landscape for desire.
There is nothing new about this trend, which the Atlantic announced as a “sex recession” in 2018. Last year the Institute of Family Studies published a study tracking sexual behavior in the United States. The study shows that young adults abstaining from sex had more than doubled from 8 percent to 21 percent from 2008 to 2021.
Rates of sexual activity have also been in sharp decline in the UK, Sweden, and Finland, across all demographic groups. But the drop is sharpest, in the United States, for those under the age of twenty-five. Things are looking no better in China, where nearly half of “empty nest” youths have sex only once every six months or less; or in Japan, where young men view sex as “tiresome.” Since the Atlantic published its piece, numerous articles have reflected on the causal factors that have led a generation to decline from sex despite having the digital tools to access a wider dating pool than ever before. More recently, the New York Times has suggested that reversing this sexual recession could be the key to solving the loneliness epidemic.
Love’s Virtual Turn
When Gary Kremen, a computer scientist graduate of Stanford Business School, founded Match.com in 1993, only 5 percent of Americans had access to the internet. But Kremen firmly believed that the internet would drive the future of love. In making dating more cost-efficient and seemingly democratic (a supposed democracy that did not work in the “pickup” community’s favor), the internet promised to transform love and sex, making everyone a potential match. “Match.com,” a thirty-one-year-old Kremen told a TV reported in 1995, “will bring more love to the planet than anything since Jesus Christ.”
Over the next decade Match.com became an international phenomenon, with its membership rising to more than forty-two million members — providing a model for the now $9.6 billion global online dating market, with the Match group (which owns Grindr, Tinder, Match.com, OkCupid, and Hinge) accounting for roughly $3 billion of that market. In making “the marketplace of love . . . more efficient,” as Rufus Griscom wrote in Wired in 2002, it promised to do away forever with the “collective investment in the idea that love is a chance event,” as it proved that “serendipity is the hallmark of inefficient markets.” On Kremen’s website for his campaign for the Santa Clara Valley Water District board in 2014, a race for which he spent $400,000, his bio claimed that his role in online dating meant that he has been “indirectly responsible for over 1,000,000 babies.”
It was not until Grindr launched in 2009, transforming gay culture, sex, and dating, that a new hookup ecosphere emerged. Sex and dating became at once more local and accessible, prompting an apparently new and freer sexual landscape. In using GPS technology (now the standard way of meeting people online) at a moment when smartphones were beginning to gain traction, Grindr presented a way to hook up that was easier — and some might argue safer — than cruising, without entirely losing that history, thus extending the culture of sex within the gay community through a virtual terrain. The success of Tinder, the heterosexually inclined app modeled on Grindr that launched three years later, hinged on its directness about romantic and sexual intentions.
Misdiagnosing the Problem
That the increased availability of sex did not make encounters more likely befuddled sexual theorists and romantic gurus. When Helen Fisher, a love anthropologist, came to rewrite her 1992 bestseller Anatomy of Love in 2016, she had to account for the changes that had occurred in the intervening two decades. To do so, she added a section to her book on the rise of “slow love.” In her reflections on today’s romantic culture she suggests that we might understand millennials’ hesitancy about love as an indication of a mature attitude toward desire. She praises the generation — who earn on average 20 percent less than their parents did at the same age — as model citizens for taking the time to find partners and settle down.
“Slow love” provides a pleasant-sounding screen for the transformation of love and sex that refuses to interrogate its broader social and economic causes. Such a view overlooks how the economics of dating looms large in Gen Z’s and millennials’ decisions about sex and relationships. There is, for instance, a correlation between an insecure, impersonal work market and a dating culture that — because of the amount of time that is required to invest in the apps to make them yield successful connections — leads, like today’s work culture, invariably to “dating burnout.” Daters feel increasingly “stressed” and “let down” by consistently going on dates that do not result in attachments.
The widespread anxiety that desire is not in a good state, particularly among the young, has led to an intense production of talk about sex. In Washington Post columnist Christine Emba’s recent book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, she proposes to make sex good again by making it the subject of moral improvement and by intensifying biological essentialism. For Emba, good sex is romantic, monogamous, and “less free.” She concedes that while she acknowledges that “a rising share of the population identifies as gay, queer or nonbinary,” her vision of love excludes them.
In the introduction to Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Kathleen Stock — a philosopher and prominent anti-trans voice in the UK — views the current malaise in sexual culture as stemming from digital saturation, hookup culture anxiety, the effects of pornography, and, in her estimation, the wrongful positioning of sex work as work.
In Perry’s and Stock’s line of thinking, sex is conceived as a problem to be solved for the young by the old — a conundrum that can only be made good through tighter restrictions, historical regression, and conceiving of sex and gender experimentation as a danger to women.
These narratives ignore that the problem is not technology per se, but a technology that is attached to a highly privatized vision of intimacy.
Making Time for Sex
Recognizing that sexual culture is “an essential part of our social fabric,” the New York Times columnist Magdalene Taylor exhorts readers to have more sex, as if, like slow love, one could simply speed desire up again, and generate new social connections that will hold off the rise in loneliness. But, as the psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster writes in her recent book Disorganisation & Sex, we might need to think a little harder about creating the social context that “could tolerate the sheer multiplicity of sexuality” and “the singularity of individual styles of pleasure and unpleasure” that are part of a good sexual culture.
This social context would recognize the material and structural forces that produce lonely cultures and bad sex: a world of privatized relations; the evisceration of desire by the algorithm; and the intensity and hours of work that for most people make dating feel like a sunk cost that cannot easily be recouped. As the journalist Malcolm Harris observes, “a decline in unsupervised free time probably contributes a lot” to young people’s lack of desire. “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.”
Sex requires openness to dull, embarrassing, or even bad experiences as well as good ones (bad experiences that, handled well, with good communication, are eventually made better). But, in a context in which sex has such high stakes, the kind of free experimentation which makes it fun becomes rarer.
Talking about sex freely — as opposed to moralizing sex — tends to generate better sexual connections. A study that compares youth sexuality in the Netherlands and the United States shows that the Dutch’s progressive culture and sex education create the conditions for more positive sexual experiences: most Dutch teenagers report that their first sexual encounters are well-timed, wanted, and fun, whereas most American teenagers say that they wish they had waited longer, a waiting game for a desirable future that has only extended with the repeal of Roe v. Wade.
We need to articulate an alternative to both the right-wing culture of state-sponsored ignorance about sex on the one hand, and the liberal fetishization of romance and intimacy on the other, which looks to the market for solutions to a sexual culture that are social and political. This will require accommodating ourselves to a view of intimacy that is rooted in experimentation, and that recognizes that — precisely because sex betokens the most complex and difficult relations of all — time and space are needed to figure out what forms our desire might take.