We may live amidst what seems a libidinous culture, but oddly also an increasingly sexless time. Of course, the drop in early teen sex – and even more so, teen pregnancies – represents positive developments, but when lack of social interaction leads to celibacy in the twenties, thirties and beyond, the implications are less than wholesome.
The Atlantic recently described a “sex recession” in the United States and most western countries, with fewer people dating and even those in relationships getting intimate less often than in the past, while fewer enjoy regular bonds of any kind. Even ogling seems out of fashion, as the decline of Hooters suggests. The family may have been stressed by the “sexual revolution,” but the “sex recession” could ultimately erode the very existence of familialism in our time.
The most extreme cases of libidinous decline are in Asia. In 2005, a third of Japanese single people ages 18 to 34 were virgins; by 2015 this expanded to 43 percent. A quarter of men over 50 never marry. This “sex recession” even impacts places like Hong Kong’s famous Wan Chai “red light” district, now being reinvented as an upscale hipster area as the sex trade plummets. China’s current generation of men are so socially disconnected that the Communist Party, and some private firms, now teach them how to date; similar attempts have been made, with apparently little effect, in Singapore.
The role of technology
The tech-savvy children of modernity clearly have problems relating to the opposite sex, a phenomenon traced in part due to their immersion on social media and access to internet porn. As social media becomes increasingly pervasive, and algorithms more sophisticated, more people appear to be exchanging human contact for that of a machine. According to Amazon, half of the conversations with the company’s smart-home device Alexa are of non-utilitarian nature – groans about life, jokes, existential questions. The Institute for Creative Technologies suggests that people are less scared about self-disclosure when they believe they’re interacting with a virtual person, rather than a real one. “By 2022, it’s possible that your personal device will know more about your emotional state than your own family,” suggests Annette Zimmermann, research vice-president at the consulting company Gartner.
Not surprisingly, a survey of American millennials found 65 percent don’t feel comfortable engaging with someone face-to-face, and 80 percent prefer conversing digitally. Similar patterns have been found in Australia where time glued to screens has raised a generation “incapable of small talk, critical thinking and problem-solving.”
In some countries, notably Japan and Germany, there’s a growing interest in using artificial beings to perform various tasks, and even provide sexual services, as an alternative to the grisly trauma of human intimacy. Shops offering sex robots provide, as one promoter suggests, “a safe space for men to practice healthy sexual interactions “without the complexity of a normal human relationship.
The demographic implications
As mammals we are equipped with a sex drive that, in the past, fueled the formation of families and the procreation of children. This drive also created many problems, including over population and sexual oppression, but the decline could now foster an unexpected, and unprecedented, population decrease never seen outside periods of famine, warfare or plague.
In many countries, economics also help discourage family formation. High property prices and rents associated with dense cities correlate closely with low marriage and fertility rates. The places where child-bearing has plunged towards historic lows are generally those with the highest house costs; including Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco.
In some countries, notably China but also India, an imbalance of men and women is further discouraging both sexual adventures and family formation. Facing difficult odds, “leftover men”, also called guang gun or “bare branches”, are demeaned as “biological dead ends of their family tree”, explains Mei Fong, author of the book One Child. This is particularly true among working class Chinese who are unable to offer the level of possessions, like a car or apartment, that their prospective wives, or their parents, demand.
Marriage and child-bearing is also declining across both Europe and North America. This is already evident in the slowing labor force growth in the United States, as well as the European Union and China.
Can this process be reversed, short of slipping Viagra into the water supply? Certainly limiting children’s exposure to social media, and particularly pornography, should be at the top of every parent’s agenda. The media also could focus less on dysfunction of families, however entertaining, and more on their positive attributes.
Those who grew up in the shadow of Paul Ehrlich’s “population bomb,” or amidst the wanton sexuality of the 1960s and 1970s, now confront an unimaginable future. There may be some good out of these trends — for the environment, reducing abuse of women and the threat of mass unemployment. But in the end the prospect of an ever more sexless, and family free, world seems a grim one, and slightly less than human.
This article first appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.
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