The End of Sex?

October 1st, 2017

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In a recent issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers reported that on average, Americans have sex about nine fewer times a year than they did in the late 1990s. What’s going on here?

Last month, Mike Regnerus published an article titled, “The Death of Eros.” Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy. He cites the Archives study in noting that, controlling for age and time period, people born in the 1930s had the most sex, whereas those born in the 1990s are reporting the least. Sex is on the decline. “We are witnessing the demise of eros.”

The study reveals the frequency with which married couples had sex fell 19 percent between 2000 and 2014. An even steeper decline is evident in the 2016 data. But it’s not just married couples. Cohabiting Americans are also reporting a drop in sexual activity.

Regnerus cites several reasons for this decrease, including the decline of marriage and the rise of social media. “In a study of married eighteen- to thirty-nine-year-old Americans, social media use predicted poorer marriage quality, lower marital happiness, and increased marital trouble—not exactly a recipe for an active love life.” He also cites economic shifts, the introduction of the Pill, and gender equality.

I’m not sure whether gender equality plays a part, but Regnerus is a serious scholar and we ought to seriously consider this troubling trend. I began to notice it years ago. I was seeing an increase in marriages where couples long ago stopped having sex. I remember a leader in our community, a Christian, who told me he hadn’t had sex with his wife in 10 years. He was angry, deep into porn, and masturbating frequently. He didn’t know where to turn. A sexless marriage is Something We Can’t Talk About In Polite Society.

We’re going to. Over the next few weeks, I’ll cite what might be additional reasons for the death of eros. You decide if they’re compelling. The first is our left-brain world (the subject of today’s column). A second is the dramatic rise of accessible porn (next week). A third is the Western church’s understanding of the gospel. We’ll tackle that last.

Regarding our left-brain world, no one is “left-brain” or “right-brain” only. But we are biased toward one or the other. The Western world is biased toward the left. That presents a problem, as the left hemisphere assumes it sees all. It doesn’t. It needs the right hemisphere. But in a left-brain society, the left is “unplugged” from the right, leaving the left to endlessly recycle what it already knows.

That’s because the left hemisphere doesn’t have direct contact with the body’s emotional signals. It only receives signals via the right hemisphere—the half of the brain that interacts with the autonomic nervous system via the limbic system.[1] That’s a mouthful, but it means the “unplugged” left-brain world only keeps recycling old news—over and over and over and over. Nothing new is learned. Boredom results, with the left hemisphere grasping for anything “exciting.” The result is left-brain individuals are trapped in a vicious cycle between feelings of boredom, emptiness and restlessness, on the one hand, and gross stimulation and sensationalism on the other.

This cycle has its roots in the Didactic Enlightenment (1800-1815). It promoted rationalistic thinking—what we know today is the domain of the left hemisphere. What subsequently developed was an “appetite for the new and the different, for fresh experience and novel excitements,” writes Patricia Spacks.[2] Use of the word “boredom” escalated dramatically during the 20th century. By 1990, 23 percent of French men and 31 percent of French women reported being bored while having sex—l’atrophie du désir.’

A left-brain world is dull. It’s rationalistic and technical. It knows algorithms but not archetypes, math but not meaning, programming but not purpose. It’s sexual technique but without a telos (Greek for purpose). This has emptied life of meaning by destroying what Peter Berger called the “sacred canopy” that reflects our collective beliefs about life, death and, yes, even sex. We’ve lost our sexual bearings. The result is a sort of existential sexual boredom reflected in the bedroom. Trapped in a vicious left-brain cycle, our boredom, in turn, turns to sensationalism.

Sensationalism is what the porn industry does in spades. The average age a boy is exposed to hardcore pornography is 14. This has contributed to a generation of men who, according to a 2011 article in Psychology Today, cannot be aroused by their actual, real life partners, and that “many are becoming convinced that [erectile dysfunction] at twenty-something is normal.” Pixels make our real life sex partners seem rather pale.

Next week we’ll see how the plague of porn contributes to the demise of eros.

 

[1] Barbara Dowds, Beyond the Frustrated Self: Overcoming Avoidant Patterns and Opening to Life (London: Karnac Book, 2014), p. 70.

[2] Patricia Spacks, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 18,

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5 Responses to “The End of Sex?”

  1. Dave T says:

    Mike, how much of the left-brained-ness that we all seem to have – until perhaps we awake as from a slumber – would you attribute to both or either of the following: 1.) “science talk” as if it’s the end-all to knowledge, so that nothing is true unless it’s quantified in some way, and 2.) a failure to do theology well because of an ill-focus on formulaic interpretation, i.e., a failure to see Jesus speaking symbolically or ironically. Granted, one has to have a well-trained subjectivity on a strong leash. For example, if we see Jesus say the words for money we assume he’s talking only about money, and not about the heart, or loyalties, or “the world” vs. the kingdom. Only a right-brain inclination can see past quantification and see into metaphor – and therefore see past signifiers and into deeper issues vs. surface symptoms.

  2. Mike Metzger says:

    Dave:

    Well said. I agree on both counts. Right on!

    I’ll try to tease this out a bit more in the coming weeks. It’s worth noting that Iain McGilchrist describes left brain thinking as better with language but is ultimately lifeless. The lifelessness leads to the death of sex.

  3. George Hepburn says:

    Mike,

    I believe you have hit the nail on the head here.

    Sex without telos. I hear of this as I listen to men speaking freely of how they express their sex lives.

    All one has to do is spend some time on the golf course or at the pub and you will quickly get an earful corroborating the findings of some of the studies you have cited.

    I find it sad to say the least, and certainly turning away from God’s plan for us in the bedroom.

    I believe the joy of a healthy, satisfying sexual relationship is lost if expressed outside of a God ordained marriage.

    Thanks for stepping into this much needed topic.

  4. Jeff Simpson says:

    Just read this article from The Atlantic which also touches on eros as “thirst for otherness.”

    “Why Happy People Cheat” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/why-happy-people-cheat/537882/

    “Sometimes when we seek the gaze of another, it’s not our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves. The Mexican essayist Octavio Paz described eroticism as a ‘thirst for otherness.’ So often, the most intoxicating ‘other’ that people discover in an affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.”

  5. Josh Glaser says:

    Hi Mike, if there’s any place in your three posts on this topic to mention Christopher West’s “God, Sex, and the Meaning of Life” coming to Timonium on November 10, that would be great. (Here’s the link: http://corproject.com/events/god-sex-the-meaning-of-life-baltimore/.)

    Whether or not you do, thanks for what you do!

    Gratefully,
    Josh Glaser

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