We’re having less sex than ever, but could our falling libidos lead to disaster? Stylist investigates...
Earlier this year, keepers at the Chengdu giant panda breeding and research centre in China resorted to desperate measures. Their pair of pandas, Ke Lin and Yongyong, were not mating. They’d tried everything: special exercise routines, soft lighting, even animal Viagra. But the pair just weren’t playing ball. Running out of options they turned to a more human aphrodisiac: pornography. Female panda Ke Lin was shown ‘panda porn’ (a video of two pandas mating in the wild), and, lo and behold, a miracle occurred. Moments later, the mood finally struck and Ke Lin finally found some time for the long-suffering Yongyong.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the human race, a racy video isn’t enough to send our pulses skyward anymore. Sales of porn are booming (the adult film industry is now worth a whopping £9.5bn and according to the Stylist Census, 32% of you admit to watching it occasionally), but it seems we’re not having quite the same voracious reaction.
Last year, the Stylist Census revealed that, to be honest, we’re not copulating much at all — with many of us (18.5%) unable to remember the last time we had sex and 15.3% doing it just once a week on average (followed by 13.3% who do it twice). Compare this to the Fifties, a time we’re led to believe was much more prudish, but statistics unearthed by groundbreaking US researcher Alfred Kinsey found that a third of Americans were having sex twice a week – the theory being that women had more time because they didn’t have to slavishly divide their days between demanding careers, childcare and busy social lives.
And our waning sex drive isn’t just resulting in Saturday nights spent watching box sets – our fertility rates are dropping fast too. In 1953, the average first-time mother was 26, and she would go on to have between two and four offspring. Today, she’s 30 and will bear an average of 1.7 children. As a country, we’re having fewer babies. And this is a time when we need to be having more than ever. Britain’s population is ageing. In fact, in the more developed countries, as defined by the UN, the average population age has risen from 29 in 1950 to 37.3 in 2000 and is predicted to reach 45.5 by 2050. Quite simply, we are bringing fewer children into the world while at the other end of the spectrum, thanks to advances in medical science, people are living longer. This imbalance, experts say, is creating a ‘mushroom’ effect; there aren’t enough young people coming into the workforce while more and more workers reach retirement age. But it’s the working population’s taxes that pay into the NHS, state pensions, education and childcare.
“Needless to say, this poses a problem,” says Francesco Caselli, professor of economics at LSE. “As our birth rate declines and the numbers of retired people increase, there is a greater burden on younger generations; fewer people are having to sustain the burgeoning older generations who live for a long time.” It’s like trying to balance a burger on a cocktail stick. “Once a country’s fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift,” says Jonathan V Last, author of What To Expect When Nobody’s Expecting. “You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, the population begins to contract. This dual problem – a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall – has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences.”
This will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on our futures where we could be working well into our 70s, while the money available for state benefits is spread so thinly that it becomes of negligible value. “Nobody really knows what will happen,” says Caselli. “But most economists agree that there will be higher taxes, we will be forced to work for longer and we can expect lower benefits when we ourselves retire.” Oh dear.
But aside from creating more potential workers, scientists have found that more sex is vital to keeping the working population in tip-top shape; it can ward off stress, boost cardio health and even help us live longer. In a 1999 study from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, scientists found that regular sex is an immunity booster. The researchers asked 111 students how frequently they had sex the previous month, while also measuring the levels of immunoglobulin in their saliva (this antibody is the first line of defence against colds and flu) and found that participants who had sex up to twice a week had 30% more immunoglobulin than those having sex less than once a week. Basically, the more we’re doing it, the less likely we are to need the NHS, take time off work and demand retirement through ill health.
Not only that, neurologists at the State University of Munster in Germany found that sex triggers the release of endorphins which are the body’s natural painkillers, while other research has shown that men who orgasm more, live longer.
THE PURPOSE OF SEX
In these modern times, when the greatest diseases threatening us are cancer and heart-related conditions, more contact with other humans could be exactly what we need. In a 2006 issue of the science journal Nature, researchers theorised that sexual reproduction (as opposed to asexual reproduction as seen in some species) evolved in humans in order to concentrate harmful mutations. They would eventually be expelled from society when collected in the unfortunate individual who would die from their toxic genetic make up before they had a chance to pass it on to offspring.
And despite the long touted idea that women don’t need men to procreate – philosophical ponderings have suggested asexuality may be a route forward for humans – it’s the fact we are sexual that keeps the human race so robust. Research from the University of Auckland discovered that sexual organisms are hardier to stressful conditions that their asexual counterparts. We’re more likely to survive when we’re sexual.
But the pervading power of evolution is beginning to rear its head in less obvious ways. “The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes,” says Last. “It’s a kind of reverse Darwinism where the traditional markers of success [like a good career] make one less likely to reproduce.” Look around you; your friends and your colleagues all enjoy a good quality of life and how many of them are dedicating their most active years to raising children? In fact, it’s been shown that the richer a society gets, the less children are born. But while having aspirations that go beyond having a family is great, it has an impact long term.
Diminishing birth rates are also partly down to the fact that in industrialised nations, infant mortality is at an all-time low. In the Victorian era, when a third of children died before the age of five, and parents needed them to provide for them in old age, there was a strong argument for producing many children. Today, that’s not a worry; our children will very likely outlive us, so there’s no financial – or indeed emotional – reason to have more than one. Research by the University of Pennsylvania in 2006 also found that parents gained no greater happiness by having more than one child. Indeed research from Robin Simon, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, says parents are more depressed than non-parents in general. And if something doesn’t make us happy, we’re less likely to do it.
AN ANTI-SEX SOCIETY
The fact we’re having less sex and less children, despite living in a more sexualised world than ever before is ironic. Just take a quick stroll on your lunchbreak and you’ll pass more than a handful of sexualised images just walking to the end of the road – from book covers to billboards. There is evidence, though, that this over-sexualisation of society is actually turning us off sex.
In 2012, a Japanese study unearthed that the country’s teenage population were simply not having sex. But this wave of celibacy was nothing to do with morals, or an ultra-orthodox sex education curriculum. Instead, it showed that 59% of girls aged 16-19 were simply ‘uninterested’ or ‘averse’ to sex. The reason offered for this was that youths, male and female, were so entrenched in their online worlds, so indoctrinated by gaming and film and hyper-sexualised images on screen, that they found the warts-and-all authenticity of real people largely abhorrent.
This is a problem that’s being felt closer to home, too, with increasing numbers of people claiming that viewing pornography is actually de-sensitising them to arousal in the flesh. Feminist Naomi Wolf summed it up recently by saying: “The effect [of increased exposure to porn] is not making men into raving beasts. On the contrary: the onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy.’ Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.” A whole generation of men are less able to connect erotically to women – and are ultimately less sexual. Some academics, including Professor Anthony Bogaert, author of Understanding Asexuality also believe that this immense sexualisation of society is causing a rise in the number of people who identify themselves as ‘asexual’. According to research, 1% of the UK population (around 620,000 people), despite the abundance of sexualised material that is thrown at them daily, have no feelings of sexual attraction whatsoever. Interestingly, 70% of those who do identify themselves as asexual are women.
THE AGEING PROBLEM
The bottom line is that we now live in an ageing population – for the first time, the number of people aged over 65 living in the UK has passed 10 million – and this is something both the state and its scientists need to address. “The truth is,” says Robert Wright, professor of economics at the University of Strathclyde, “this top heavy population isn’t a problem if countries are willing for the standard of living for elderly people to drop.” But in the UK, we like to think we’re willing to look after our older generations rather handsomely; the state currently spends significantly more on pensions that it does on child benefit (£74.2bn compared to £12.4bn). But soon, there are going to be even fewer younger people to speed up economic growth and things are likely to stagnate. Then, when we reach old age, there won’t be enough government money or enough young people to look after us.
Some countries have tried to implement measures to ensure birth rates increase. Last August, Singapore created a website to warn women of the dangers of leaving it too late to do their duty to their country and procreate. And in December, Vladimir Putin essentially offered Russia’s women money to produce at least three children to help with population decline.
While some economists, like Last, argue that the way to solve the problem is to have more sex and produce more children to help shoulder this financial burden, others believe in alternative ways of bucking the trend. Embracing the power of technology is one. “Technological changes mean our current generation is more productive than all previous generations,” says Caselli. “New innovations will make each worker more productive, which translates into higher income, higher wages and our capacity to support older generations becomes improved.”
He also sees immigration as a solution. “We need to change the opinion that immigration is a problem,” Caselli says. “Migrants are typically of working age. They will contribute in taxes much more than they take away,” he says. “Anyway, when we’re older, we’ll be significantly healthier than generations before us and will live for longer, so spending a few more years in work won’t be a problem.”
Meanwhile, perhaps it’s time we made sex more of a priority, rather than something we squeeze in between watching Mad Men on catch-up and bed. After all, the world’s depending on us...