Sex has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Despite its apparent ubiquity — on porn, social media and dating apps — numerous studies show that young people are having less of it and seem to be enjoying it less than ever before. Meanwhile, the maneuvering required to turn faces on apps into flesh and blood encounters has become a running joke, while a generation has now come of age flicking jadedly through faces — and it shows.
Nearly 60 years since the dawn of the sexual revolution, we find ourselves in a frosty romantic hinterland of wants and taxonomies, animated by power-play rather than passion; kink rather than personality, and in which only the most callous can survive.
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Since it’s all become so much work, it’s no wonder nobody much can be bothered to have it anymore. The British National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) — one of the world’s most thorough sex surveys, conducted once a decade since 1991 — released its latest findings for the period up to 2012, showing that British sex lives are on a long downward drift. The numbers of both men and women who had not had any sex in the past month rose to nearly 30 per cent; in 2001 it was 23% of women and 26% of men.
What’s most striking is that sex is dropping off among what was traditionally the horniest demographic — young men. The proportion of Americans aged between 18 and 29 who reported having no sex in the past year more than doubled between 2008 and 2018, to 23% — a bigger proportion than among the over-50s, according to the 2019 University of Chicago General Social Survey.
Over this same period, the share of men aged 18 to 29 who had not had sex in a year nearly tripled to 29 per cent, while the rise among women was a modest eight percentage points, to 18%. The male pullback from sex in America echoes well-documented trends in Germany and Japan. In 2010, Japan’s population of herbivores — men apathetic towards sexual relationships — accounted for 61% of those in their 20s and 70% in their 30s. And as any number of British women repeatedly flummoxed by male apathy or disregard will tell you, it feels the same here too.
The state of gender in a given society can always be read through the sex lives of its citizenry, and in that regard we are in the grips of a paradox. On the one hand gender differences are being eroded by warriors of woke, who see them as oppressive social constructions. And away from identity politics, the gulf between men and women has never been smaller, by technical, legislative, cultural, professional and social measures.
Yet as they encounter each other in the chambers of Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and OkCupid, the climate between men and women is frosty. Everyone is cross and fed up with everyone else for being so rubbish that they have to keep swiping.
In 1996, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones helped women realise that half the human race (men) might usefully be called “fuckwits” when it came to dating and romance. The dynamics of internet dating, with its illusion of graspable sexual paradise, has either created a new tsunami of apparent fuckwits, or it has made the sheer extent of them inescapable.
Meanwhile, the boredom and jadedness stitched into heavy use of apps (“nope”, “like”, “nope”, “nope”, “nope”, “like”) has produced a ubiquitous undercurrent of queasy unpleasantness. The result is that men, formerly seen as an alternating source of fun, trouble and heartbreak, become “men: ugh”. Women, once the promised land for many a Romeo, become bitches, gold-diggers, game-players, and, most significantly, for a depressing bloc known as “women: meh”.
This sexual stand-off, characterised by simmering distrust and putrid fatigue, oozes off internet dating portals. I’ve often found myself, after a night of binge-scrolling, surprised to remember that dating is filed under “romance”, which is supposed to be — at least at the start — a little about positive, fuzzy feelings or the potential to develop them.
Rather than sought after, one feels lectured, harangued and responsible for doing something terrible simply by existing. Anxiety levels rise, one feels nervous and in trouble. I remind myself, as if waking from a nightmare, that it’s ok; I never have to even meet these men, and never have to speak to them.
Here are some examples of the different types of anger a woman will encounter on a casual swipe-fest: explicitly cross, jaded, and wearing up front the belief that we are all too often more trouble than we are worth. It’s a style characterised by commands and bullet points.
So Joe, “27, entrepreneur” advertises as such
“- No drama (deal with your insecurities before we can engage in good convo)
– Similar morals (which we’ll more than likely suss out in person)
– Good head on your shoulders and is a pure grinder (someone who gets the essence of hard working from the ground up)
– NATURAL HAIR (colouring is cool)
– And most importantly, can dance
– If I’m not your type then do not swipe right’
– DO NOT WASTE OUR TIME WITH DEAD CONVO. BRING SUSTENANCE TO THE TABLE”
Why am I being shouted at? “No drama!” Sometimes I’m dramatic. And dancing — I can’t dance! Stressful scenes flit across my mind. Wellbeing plunges.
Then there’s “Alo”, 23, who goes down the line of total mockery of the process (and by implication, those they expect to meet). Alo had stated as his profession “prime minister” (funny enough) and in the personal info section simply put “I downloaded this as a joke”. Right then. And there are countless more Joes and Alos.
These men were young — but things don’t necessarily improve with age. Among those old enough to remember the more earnest, excitable world of print personals, there’s still that telltale trace of aggression and of having been burned before by all those terrible women out there. Take Craig, a 41-year-old American who barks terrifying facts and veiled warnings at the women foolish enough to dawdle:
Old luddite; I don’t Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc. I will meet in person and buy you a drink. Furthermore, single dad, career, travel, etc. I have a complex schedule and place a high value on my free time’”
How you get from here to any encounter that relates to what was formerly considered erotic, intimate, loving or even sexy, beats me. Women have held out more than men against the end of sex — rates of female sexlessness have risen less — but in the end, even we will give up.
A number of us already are, with women simply coming offline, choosing friendship instead. In 2017, the Canadian writer Sarah Ratchford wrote a piece called “Why I’m Giving Up Men and Just Staying Home” which explained the disillusionment with modern, digitally-enabled masculinity. “Alongside the wage gap and the emotional labour gap, the antics of softboys, f-ckboys, fading and ghosting constitute a pronounced communication gap,” she wrote.
She describes her choice to pack the whole thing in and focus on friends, and discusses the similar choice of a friend called Paola. “Now, because men can’t seem to hack interpersonal relationships, Paola identifies her friendships as her primary relationships — and she doesn’t see that changing.”
Getting laid has never been so complicated — nor so chilly a business. Attempts to pretend gender binaries don’t exist, the obsession with kink and labels, and the belief that you can gorge as much as you want, in just the way you want, from a digital cornucopia of sexual options, has spelled doom. It’s the end of the affair — with sex — at last.
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