Stress, the dog or too busy watching porn – what’s your excuse for not having sex? | Hephzibah Anderson

Ah, Valentine’s Day, that annual orgy of uncomfortable lingerie, scentless roses and meal deal pairings as questionable as any Tinder match. If its imminence has you either bewailing your singleness or wondering where on earth you’re going to find the time and energy to fit both romance and sex into one midweek evening, you can take solace from findings that last week sent our Gallic cousins reeling.

As it turns out, all is far from well in the land of l’amour, where the response to “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” is increasingly likely to be “non!” – and that’s when the question is asked at all.

French sexuality at half-mast, cried the front page of newspaper Libération, breaking the news that almost a quarter of its countryfolk between the ages of 18 and 69 had had zero sex in the past year. The figures come from a survey conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP), and make for cliche-smashing, possibly GDP-denting reading. Across regions, the French are consistently having less sex than at any time since the 1970s. Across age groups, too. In fact, 28% of 18- to 24-year-olds said they’d never had sex, a whopping rise on data gathered in 2006, when it was just 5%.

It’s a similar story among les anglos on both sides of the Atlantic, as the sex positivity that’s increasingly shaped our culture since the 60s contends with nascent sex negativity. Indeed, gen Zers are so turned off by the act, they don’t even want to see it in TV shows, preferring plotlines that channel reality-reflecting “nomance”.

Little wonder, then, that when Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan recently opened up about her sex life, revealing that she and her partner have sex “exactly twice a month” and schedule it, she was greeted with as much envy as pity. At 40, she is after all teetering on the edge of “couplepause” territory, that sexless desert into which couples in their forties and fifties find themselves straying thanks to the combined forces of the menopause and the andropause.

Whether you call it the “sexodus”, the “sex recession” or simply reality, it’s a trend that has been sneaking up on western societies for decades, and the pandemic did nothing to stem it – either for those on whom it foisted unplanned celibacy or for their partnered peers. That projected post-Covid baby boom? It never materialised. There was, however, a large increase in pet ownership. Could that be hastening the demise of physical intimacy? Asked to account for the dearth of action in her own otherwise fulfilling relationship, journalist Hannah Betts last week blamed Pimlico, the whippet that nightly sleeps between her and her partner.

Start looking and you’ll find a positively promiscuous range of competing reasons for the decline in sexual activity, from the overturning of Roe v Wade, cited by respondents to the annual Match dating site survey, to – ahem – dating app burnout. Modern life is sometimes mood killer enough. Just take the rise of working from home or “family beds” – both contribute to the erasure of private time and space. Anxieties about careers and money, not to mention the antidepressants prescribed to allay them, are also a factor.

An interesting reason cited in the French survey was that women no longer feel obliged to have sex when they don’t want to. Better access to education and properly paid work has enabled them to be more discerning – as has a receding of social stigma about single women, together with medical advances enabling solo conception.

With sex drive linked to an image of masculinity that’s become tainted with toxicity, the recent discovery that Viagra can help protect against Alzheimer’s sounded a bit like tactical brand repositioning. And let’s face it, there’s been a lot of bad press attached to sex in recent years, from the #MeToo movement’s revelations to the unstinting use of rape as a weapon of war.

I wonder, too, if wellness culture isn’t playing a part, promoting a masochistic relationship with our own physicality by linking a glowy complexion and moral radiance to self-discipline. All that fasting and cleansing and cold water swimming… Has it alienated us from the idea that our bodies might also be a source of pleasure? What’s intriguing is that the world around us seems more bluntly sexualised than ever. Seismic shifts in sexual mores have made us supposedly more open about sex, stripping away taboos so that virtually anything goes (a freedom that can be experienced as oppressive in its own way). Which brings us to porn. Millennials and gen Z came of age with easier access to porn – and more hardcore porn at that – than any generation before them. Its largely male viewpoint and inherently vicarious nature seem a recipe for a supremely disordered relationship to actual sex, and higher consumption of porn is indeed negatively associated with enjoyment of the act itself. Porn has also hastened the mainstreaming of formerly fringe tastes, such as rough sex and eroticised degradation. Much is made of consent, but that assumes everyone feels able to say no at vulnerable moments. All in all, it isn’t hard to understand why some single people might simply be deciding that sex isn’t for them.

And what, you might wonder, of love? It was effectively uncoupled from sex decades ago. Even in the context of marriage, sex is seen as something functional, the oil that keeps a partnership running smoothly. It’s interesting, therefore, to hear elective celibacy increasingly characterised as an act of “self-love”. Celibacy is something I know a little about. Shortly after turning 30, I chose to go a year without, motivated by a widening gap between what I wanted from sex – connection, emotional intimacy, heck, maybe even a dash of commitment – and what was on offer. In the 15-odd years since, the dating scene seems to have become only more hostile to the romantically inclined, with rising levels of STIs suggesting that any sex still being enacted is occurring between hedonistic desperados.

Should we be worried about a population that’s less sexually active? While there are indisputable downsides, from a declining birthrate to negatively affected wellbeing, there is plenty to be said for going without for a while. Consider this, too: most surveys such as IFOP’s are predicated on the idea that more sex is better sex. What if our willingness to admit to going without shows we’re becoming grownup enough to appreciate that quality trumps quantity?

Really good sex is connective – unusual in a world that feels ever more atomised, more virtual. It also requires a vulnerability that might seem disconcerting to a generation raised with trigger warnings and safe spaces. To that end, while the tacky commercialisation of Valentine’s Day makes it easy to discount, just maybe, in its unflagging insistence that frilly knickers and hearts belong together, for ever, it has a worthwhile message for the partnered and the single alike.

Hephzibah Anderson is a freelance journalist and critic

The Guardian