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My Theory on Why Millennials Have Less Sex

My Theory on Why Millennials Have Less Sex: © Howard Pyle / Corbis

© Howard Pyle / Corbis

We’re surrounded by sex. It’s plastered on our billboards, spread across our magazines, and constantly wrestling its way to the front of our minds. You’re reading Playboy.com, for crying out loud. With all this titillation so readily available, it’s easy to imagine that all the people are having all the sex all the time.

Not so fast.

According to data collected by Jean Twinge at San Diego State, the average Millennial can now expect to have eight different sexual partners over the course of his or her long, well-Instagrammed life. This number represents a sharp decline from the members of Generation X, who report 10 lifetime sexual partners, and Baby Boomers, who report having done the Bedsheet Shuffle with 11 different people. A recent article by Justin Lehmiller here on Playboy.com catalogued all of the ways millennials are not having sex.

In other words: if the creation of a diverse sexualum vitae is among your goals, you might want to invest in a time machine.

I was just as baffled by this revelation as anyone. But then I flew home from a wedding in Boston and thought maybe I’d figured out the cause of the Sexual Devolution. The décor inside baggage claim at LAX appears to have been last updated in 1972. And all that fluorescent lighting revealed something about my fellow travelers: everyone was staring at their phones.

Here’s a fairly simple truth: it’s really hard to meet new people to have sex with if you’re not, you know, meeting new people.

So maybe the decline in new sexual partners could be put down simply to a decline in new friends, generally?

Inspired to find out more, I did some research.

A study published in American Sociological Review seemed to confirm my suspicions. It reported that in the previous 20 years, Americans’ core social networks had dropped from an average of three people to an average of two people.

Then in 2009 the Pew Research Center reported that “Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported.”

This news was hailed with some glee on the Internet. A headline typical to the reaction:

“Technology not causing social isolation!” The stories were all similar, often noting that the new study showed that people who use cellular phones have core networks that are 12 percent larger than people who don’t.

So maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

But as I read further I noticed that the Pew study isn’t actually quite as conclusive as one might be led to believe. In fact, that study confirmed that people’s core social networks had dropped by the exact number as the 2006 study found. And, tellingly, the Pew study found that people who used social media are 30 percent less likely to know their neighbors and 26 percent less likely to provide those neighbors with companionship.

In addition, the Pew study found that people’s core networks were less likely to contain non-kin. That is to say, people seemed to be staying in touch with people they already know. A National Institute of Health study from 2011 confirms this: 91 percent of those surveyed used social media to stay in touch with old friends, while only 49 percent used those media to make new friends.

This makes sense to me. When I graduated from high school 19 years ago, I had no intention of keeping track of the tribulations of every one of my ex-classmates. But thanks to Facebook I’ve seen a photograph of just about every child born to the class of 1996 at Jefferson West High. (Your kids are adorable, Kristin Dodds.)

All this keeping track of our old prom dates is great for our capacity to wonder what might have been, but it must also be having some effect on our ability to meet new, adult-prom dates. Right?

Yes, says evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar. In an interview with The Guardian, Dunbar noted that:

“Together with apes and monkeys, we’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within – but there is a natural grouping of 150. This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation – there’s some personal history, not just names and faces.”

Each of us is like the suitcase I took to that wedding in Boston: I could stuff it and squeeze it and jiggle the zipper, but in the end there’s only so much space for shoes I might need or ties I might wear.

If we want to add new friends – some of whom might want to touch our genitals – we need to let go of old friends (even if some of them have touched our genitals).

And it might be the case that the only way to do this is to put our phones down, lift our heads up, and, you know, talk to each other.

Unless, of course, the reason you’re staring at your phone is that you’re looking at Tinder.

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