When I spoke with Wade recently, she told me that she found the sex decline among teens and 20-somethings completely unsurprising—young people, she said, have always been most likely to have sex in the context of a relationship. “Go back to the point in history where premarital sex became more of a thing, and the conditions that led to it,” she said, referring to how post–World War II anxiety about a man shortage led teen girls in the late 1940s and ’50s to pursue more serious romantic relationships than had been customary before the war. “Young women, at that point, innovate ‘going steady,’ ” Wade said, adding that parents were not entirely happy about the shift away from prewar courtship, which had favored casual, nonexclusive dating. “If you [go out with someone for] one night you might get up to a little bit of necking and petting, but what happens when you spend months with them? It turns out 1957 has the highest rate of teen births in American history.”
Sex helps the spread of advantageous traits through recombination. The diagrams compare evolution of allele frequency in a sexual population (top) and an asexual population (bottom). The vertical axis shows frequency and the horizontal axis shows time. The alleles a/A and b/B occur at random. The advantageous alleles A and B, arising independently, can be rapidly combined by sexual reproduction into the most advantageous combination AB. Asexual reproduction takes longer to achieve this combination, because it can only produce AB if A arises in an individual which already has B, or vice versa.
When I began working on this story, I expected that these big-picture issues might figure prominently within it. I was pretty sure I’d hear lots of worry about economic insecurity and other contributors to a generally precarious future. I also imagined, more hopefully, a fairly lengthy inquiry into the benefits of loosening social conventions, and of less couple-centric pathways to a happy life. But these expectations have mostly fallen to the side, and my concerns have become more basic.
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Organisms of many species are specialized into male and female varieties, each known as a sex. Sexual reproduction involves the combining and mixing of genetic traits: specialized cells known as gametes combine to form offspring that inherit traits from each parent. The gametes produced by an organism define its sex: males produce small gametes (e.g. spermatozoa, or sperm, in animals; pollen in seed plants) while females produce large gametes (ova, or egg cells). Individual organisms which produce both male and female gametes are termed hermaphroditic. Gametes can be identical in form and function (known as isogamy), but, in many cases, an asymmetry has evolved such that two different types of gametes (heterogametes) exist (known as anisogamy).
Morse notes that missionary is so great because there are plenty of ways to spice it up. “For example, instead of laying chest to chest, try holding your partner's legs against your chest, crossed at the ankles with her thigh muscles clenched,” she suggests. “Women will still love this variation because the clenched thighs provide the same amount of clitoral stimulation (if not more), and allow for a little more hip movement to help your partner hit that sweet spot. Men will definitely enjoy the tighter feel, the ability for deeper thrusts, and the increased visibility won’t hurt either.”
Certain species of animals also have sex for other purposes than to bear offspring. These include Humans, bonobos, chimpanzees and dolphins. These species also are among those known to engage in homosexual behaviors. In both humans and bonobos, the female has a relatively concealed ovulation. Neither male or female partners commonly know whether she is fertile at any given moment. One reason for this may be that sex partners of these species form strong emotional bonds. The partners come together for more than just sexual intercourse. In the case of humans, long-term partnership is more important than immediate sexual reproduction.
Most couples aren't very adventurous in the bedroom. When it comes time to get down in between the sheets, few are bold enough to venture away from traditional standbys like missionary, cowgirl, spooning, doggy style. It doesn't have to be this way. There are plenty of inventive sex positions that can result in better orgasms for you and your partner, and they don't (all) involve contorting your body into a pretzel. We have a few suggestions—45 of them, to be exact.
Gen Xers and Baby Boomers may also be having less sex today than previous generations did at the same age. From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex. Twenge recently took a look at the latest General Social Survey data, from 2016, and told me that in the two years following her study, sexual frequency fell even further.
Many religious conservatives, especially those of Abrahamic religions and Christianity in particular, tend to view sexuality in terms of behavior (i.e. homosexuality or heterosexuality is what someone does) and certain sexualities such as bisexuality tend to be ignored as a result of this. These conservatives tend to promote celibacy for gay people, and may also tend to believe that sexuality can be changed through conversion therapy or prayer to become an ex-gay. They may also see homosexuality as a form of mental illness, something that ought to be criminalised, an immoral abomination, caused by ineffective parenting, and view same-sex marriage as a threat to society.
Early on, most Western accounts of all this had a heavy subtext of “Isn’t Japan wacky?” This tone has slowly given way to a realization that the country’s experience might be less a curiosity than a cautionary tale. Dismal employment prospects played an initial role in driving many men to solitary pursuits—but the culture has since moved to accommodate and even encourage those pursuits. Roland Kelts, a Japanese American writer and longtime Tokyo resident, has described “a generation that found the imperfect or just unexpected demands of real-world relationships with women less enticing than the lure of the virtual libido.”
At least for humans, this most basic of acts is anything but basic. As the pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey put it, the only universal in human sexuality is variability itself. From attraction to action, sexual behavior takes many forms. Human interest in sex is not a matter left to chance but more a built-in imperative; survival of the species depends on it. The decks are stacked in sex's favor, as a passport to bonding, to intimacy, to pleasure, and even to human growth and healing. Bodies and interests change over the course of time, and the complexities of physiology and psychology mean that most people experience a sexual problem at some point in their lives. Although sex can be one of the most difficult topics for partners to discuss, it's one that also stands to draw couples closer together. The moral and political implications of sex vary greatly from culture to culture, and even within cultures and over time; still, there is agreement on one certainty: It's why we're alive today and what future generations depend on.