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5 May 2021

The sex recession: How our love lives are stunted by hyper-sexualisation

It is wrong to assume that publicly talking about sex will necessarily lead to people having better sex lives.

By Louise Perry

Death grip syndrome is a quasi-medical term used to describe the impotence that can result from excessive masturbation, sometimes as a result of heavy porn use. It’s partly a physical problem that leads to genital desensitisation, but it’s also a psychological problem caused by an overload of sexual stimuli. Sufferers of death grip syndrome become incapable of having satisfying sex with another person because their responses have been gradually deadened.

I propose that we are living in a time of cultural death grip syndrome. Westerners are in the midst of what some sociologists describe as “the sex recession”, with young adults having less sex than in previous eras. And yet, at the same time, public life is more hyper-sexualised than ever. We are simultaneously oversexed in fantasy, and undersexed in reality.

When Wonderbra released its “Hello Boys” ad campaign, featuring Eva Herzi-gová admiring her own boosted cleavage, the posters were so distracting to motorists that they reportedly caused car crashes. That was in 1994. Now, try walking down any British high street in 2021 and keep a tally of how many lingerie-clad boobs and bums you see within a ten-minute interval, in shop windows, on the sides of buses, and on the covers of newspapers and magazines.

My local Westfield shopping centre in west London currently has on display a six-foot tall photo of a model in a swimsuit licking the inside of another model’s open mouth. This is far raunchier than the “Hello Boys” campaign, but I would never usually have noticed it, since such images are so common now that they are little more than wallpaper. The “sex sells” principle has led to a steady increase in explicitness across all areas of public life.

A new poster campaign called “Let’s Talk the Joy of Later Life Sex”, produced by the charity Relate, aims to take streetscape sexualisation even further, albeit with a twist. The campaign features photos of several elderly couples and one elderly lady, all nearly naked, and all – as Relate phrases it – “in their most intimate settings”. Relate justifies the project by citing a survey which found that two-thirds of over-65s only “rarely” saw “sex and intimacy for their age group” represented in the media. The survey didn’t ask whether these respondents actually wanted more of this kind of representation; it was simply assumed that they would.

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Similarly, it is often assumed that publicly talking about sex will necessarily lead to people having better sex lives. This is difficult to prove either way, since by definition people raised in more repressed cultures are reluctant to talk openly about their intimate experiences. But the existence of the 21st-century “sex recession” should, at the very least, disrupt any simplistic assumptions about the connection between sexual openness and sexual fulfilment.

[see also:  Why England’s inhumane sex ban must now end]

A recent survey of UK students, for instance, presents a paradoxical picture. Lots of young people seem to be having sexual experiences mediated through a screen, with more than half of respondents reporting that they watch porn, and four in ten saying they have sent naked photos to a partner. But only a third of male students report having had sex during their time at university, despite only 11 per cent describing themselves as celibate by choice.

Those young people who are having sex are not necessarily having good sex, since they are increasingly likely to be foregoing long-term relationships and instead having casual encounters, which tend to be worse, at least for women. One survey of American students, for example, found that, in first time hook-ups, only 10 per cent of women reported orgasming, compared with 68 per cent of women in long-term relationships.

Meanwhile, magazines aimed at a young readership are offering guides with titles such as “How to bio-hack your brain to have sex without getting emotionally attached”, “Here’s what to do if you start ‘catching feelings’”, and “How to have casual sex without getting emotionally attached”, which advise readers to, for instance, avoid making eye contact with their partners during sex, in an effort to avoid “making an intimate connection”. Far from offering a cornucopia of delights, it seems that our new sexual culture is more likely to encourage an emotionally stunting experience: retaining the mechanical act, but with all the meaning removed.

That’s why the Relate poster campaign is so strange: it seems to be attempting to persuade elderly Britons to imitate the sexual openness of the young, when it’s not at all clear that this is something worth imitating. What exactly is so enviable about cultural death grip syndrome? And why should we assume, when 64 per cent of elderly survey respondents report that they are uncomfortable discussing sex because “it just wasn’t talked about when I was younger”, that this is a problem that needs remedying? Isn’t it at least possible that the generation that popularised the “dick pic” is not the generation best placed to judge what is and is not the right way to a good sex life?

There is an important difference between sexual ignorance – about, say, contraception or anatomy – and a healthy preference for privacy. And while ignorance might be a good reason to launch a public health campaign, that is not what Relate’s new poster campaign is about.

Rather, it is operating on the flawed principle that removing restraint and mystery is the best route to sexual excitement, and moreover that this process ought to be engineered via huge billboards that blare out the message of sex positivity to passers-by. But there is no good reason to presume that more and more sexualisation is the answer to sexual dysfunction. In fact, there is good reason to believe the precise opposite.

[see also: How dating apps are reshaping our desires for the worse]

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This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?