Less Sex, More Success: Have We Figured Out The Secret To Empowering Pleasure?

More single people are having less sex... but could that be a good thing?

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There’s a preconceived notion that single people have all the fun. They go out constantly, they schedule three dates a week, and of course, they’re having lots of sex. And while that may be true for some (get it girl, live your truth), for others, the amount of casual sex they’re having might have actually dropped considerably. 

According to a study from Rutgers University, young people aged between 18 and 23 are having significantly less casual sex compared to previous generations. Where 38% of young people engaged in casual sex in 2007, only 24% did so 10 years later in 2017. Another article even went so far as to suggest that the US was experiencing a “sex recession,” as more and more millennials were abstaining well into their 20s. 

Here in Ireland there are fewer hard stats to consider, though anecdotal evidence from fellow single people in the Year of our Lord 2023 would suggest that many of us are having less sex than we did in our younger years… and seemingly a whole lot less than the generations before us. 

So what are the reasons behind this drop? Is it as simple as people just… not being horny anymore? Unsurprisingly, no. Everything from mental health to the cost of living crisis to alcohol consumption is having an impact on young people’s sex lives. But it’s not all bleak. As it turns out, increased education could actually be allowing us to have better sex than ever before. Awareness around consent, pornography, and female pleasure seems to be encouraging young people to have the kind of sex they actually want to have – and not settling for anything less. 

Empowering pleasure

“The housing crisis is an obvious block for young people trying to be intimate,” says sex educator and host of Glow West podcast Dr Caroline West, “but young people are also benefiting from increased access to sex education. Worldwide research shows that when young people have access to comprehensive sex education, they actually delay the start of their sexual debut, have fewer partners, and have a better understanding of consent and contraception. They feel more empowered to have the kind of sex they want, on their terms and with who they want, and sometimes that means no sex or less unwanted sex.”

It’s this increased awareness that led 22-year-old Saachi to reducing the amount of sex she was having. Last year, she was in the midst of what she describes as a “pretty intense hook-up phase”. She says: “The act made me feel desired, and gave me a sort of dopamine high, so I started hooking up with people as much as I could, putting myself in risky situations with people I’d never met, in places I’d never been to. This phase slowly came to a close when I realised I wasn’t actually enjoying the sex at all, just the validation that came with it.” 

via Cottonbro Studio

Over time, Saachi felt empowered to remove unwanted sex from her life. It meant that she was having less of it, but that she was checking in with herself, and considering her own needs anytime she did. “A lot of my friends have had similar trajectories when it comes to casual sex, which I think is super cool,” she says. “I love that people (especially women) aren’t settling for how they are treated during sex, and demanding respect.”

Talking about it

For the first time this year, secondary school students in Ireland will learn about the impact of pornography, LGBTQ+ relationships, and the importance of consent in sexual relationships. An updated sex education curriculum is long-overdue, and many are hopeful that it will lead to a cultural shift in how Ireland’s young people approach sex, and talk about it too. 

29-year-old Cara* says that she and her friends speak about sex frequently, even though they’ve been having a lot less of it in recent years. Growing up hasn’t led to fewer dates, she says, but it has led to less sex. “The difference is massive. When I was younger I slept with people all the time. Not because I necessarily wanted to, but because I thought that’s what you did when you were single.” Following her latest breakup, Cara noticed a shift in her own attitude towards sex – and that she was more than okay with having less of it. 

“I wouldn’t call it an age thing, but an experience thing. I know what I want from potential romantic partners and what I don‘t want. I’m able to stop at the end of a date and think ‘do I want to go home with this person, or do I want to go home alone?’ My friends and I chat regularly about consent and pleasure and all of these things. That wasn’t so ingrained in our conversations a few years ago.”

These days, it’s common to be single in your late 20s and 30s. It’s not strange or shunned or shameful. As more people decide what they do and don’t want in relationships, they’re also deciding what they do and don’t want in the bedroom. And they’re not afraid to talk about it either. Where once we were terrified to admit that we weren’t getting any (hello first year of college), these days there’s less shame around sex in general. And in turn, there’s less shame around not having it. 

Dr Caroline says that although honest communication around the amount of sex you’re having can be difficult, it’s the key to a healthy attitude towards intimacy… whether you’re in a relationship or not. “We all have different sex drives and ideas about what kind of sex works for us, so it’s important to talk about this,” she says. “Our partners aren’t mind readers, and empathetic conversations about what kind of pleasure we want means that we can have the kind of intimacy that nourishes us. Sex should be mutually satisfying, and communication and consent are the keys to having good sex – however we define that!”

*Some names have been changed. 

This article first appeared in the October 2023 issue of STELLAR magazine.