People are having less sex. Even before the pandemic, social distancing, and masturbatory Zoom-bombing, far less sex. We’ve long imagined a sexually sterile future, from the dystopian visions of Brave New World, 1984, and The Handmaid’s Tale to the more recent, controversial novel by Michel Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island (La Possibilité d’une île), in which humans have engineered sexuality out of their reproduction, enabling them to exist in individual compounds with no physical, and virtually no social, interaction. Now a version of this future seems almost here: the numbers of people engaging in consensual sexual relations is falling while slavery, driven by sexual exploitation, continues to rise. This is why, along with the many ongoing political and ecological crises that we’re already losing sleep over—climate change and the rising consumption of resources, institutional racism and state sanctioned violence, the rise in global fascism and misogyny—we should be alarmed that people are having less sex. Desexualization expresses an underlying breakdown of social feeling, one that may signal the beginning of the end of our lives as social animals.

We may not have been keeping score for very long, but scientists are reporting that people are scoring less than ever before in the United States, Japan, Britain, Europe, and elsewhere. In 2013, The Guardian ran an article about what the Japanese media call “sekkusu shinai shokogun, or ‘celibacy syndrome;’ Japan’s under-forties appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex.” That same year the BBC headlined this finding of British researchers: “Modern life ‘turning people off sex.” And in the United States, too, fewer people are having sex, only a small number of whom are “incels,” or involuntary celibates, kicking fate around their parents’ basements; certainly, far fewer people of any age couple coitally (heterosexually, homosexually, or pansexually), outside of the vast influence of the legal commodification of sex. More recently, The Atlantic featured this splashy cover article, “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” which made the argument that, “Despite the easing of taboos and the rise of hookup apps, Americans are in the midst of a sex recession.” In it, Kate Julian cites a range of disturbing statistics from scholars and surveys around the world, and this year, just a month before the pandemic hit the US, The Atlantic ran this tech-focused piece whose title says it all: “The ‘Dating Market’ Is Getting Worse: The old but newly popular notion that one’s love life can be analyzed like an economy is flawed—and it’s ruining romance.”

Back in 2008, historian Dagmar Herzog argued in her book Sex in Crisis: the New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics that our sexual crisis, arising from the “impact of Internet porn, sexual pharmacology, and the hypersexualization of popular culture,” and “the war on sex” waged by the Religious Right, is also a symptom of “the systematic exacerbation of fears about the potential death of love.” Even worse, fears about the death of love follow the logic of love itself: the feeling is its own reality. If you feel you are in love, you’re in love, but if you feel love is dead, it might be time for an Irish wake. If you feel you’re happy, you’re happy, but we, the products of advanced capitalism, aren’t pursuing sexual liberation or happiness or advancing the ‘70s goal of sex-positivity. While no one in her right mind would want to bind sex to reproduction—I would argue their disentanglement may be one of the greatest adaptations of our species—we should ask, is our sexuality becoming maladaptive? All our climates are changing: the planet is warming, but boy it’s cold inside.

Humans are deeply social animals. When we see people eating we often feel an urge to eat. Seeing someone else yawn makes us yawn too. Even reading the word yawn might make you stretch and open wide. Biologists think we’re susceptible to this emotional, physical “contagion” because it once benefitted us to engage in many activities together. And, yes, watching or listening to people have sex tends to make us want to as well. But for some, and just how many is not clear, virtual technologies could be turning this adaptation backwards, inhibiting instead of promoting actual sexual intercourse (as recent public discourse in America suggests, social media affects empathy, the core of our pro-social tendencies). 

Pornography, as we know, has been around a very long time, as literature and visual representation: drawings, paintings, etchings, sculpture, photographs, films, etc. But the world-wide-web has made it a thousand (or a google) times more available, as well as offering various other virtual, interactive substitutes. While propaganda about birth rates is misplaced (at best and, at worst, racist and classist, a fear of the ethnic Other and the poor), we should be worried that many people are having less sex. And even more worried that people report feeling that it’s just too much work, too anxiety-provoking, or too much of a distraction from advancing their careers. New information and virtual technologies, in the context of the dehumanization endemic in global capitalism and the complex feedback loops between cultural and economic systems, express and create a disembodiment plaguing “modern life.” In this Gordian knot of reciprocal causalities, technology seems to exacerbate and initiate a diminishment in empathy and sex. 

And so it shouldn’t be surprising that the humanities are in crisis in America and Britain. Literature, in any language, is often the story of sex or death or both, an expression and reflection of the forces of nature we cannot control, those that remind us we are social animals. And while teens and young adults are exposed to more pornography online than ever before, college students will blush with embarrassment at hearing the word “cunt” read aloud from a novel, or, worse, they respond blankly or robotically (turning red with anger, on the other hand, seems a positive response in many contexts). “Net gens ” or “iGens” and Millennials, who long before the pandemic spent more and more time online, often in place of or during face-to-face interactions, seem less present in their bodies or attuned to feeling in literature, while their parents are less and less likely to read or listen to books, even if one counts 50 Shades of Grey

Like Anastasia Grey, Lady Chatterley also married “well.” That is, above class expectations. Almost as soon as the Chatterleys’ married life began, Clifford was off to the First World War, from which he returned paralyzed from the waist down, a fitting platform for Lawrence’s critique of the upper classes’ penchant for breeding and bombing themselves into emotional and sexual sterility. It takes an “earthy” gamekeeper to remind the sexually curious and socially progressive Lady that she “shits” and “pisses” (and “fucks”). Aside from the awful gender politics, which kept Lawrence off college syllabi for decades, the novel’s overall and profound concern is with embodiment, of which sexuality may be the most crucial part. Fast-forward from Lawrence’s 1928 novel, past its obscenity trial in 1960, to our current sexual crisis: while it isn’t a surprise that people don’t want to think about dying, or be reminded that they shit, it is a surprise to many that they don’t want to fuck as much. 

And yet, we’ve seen this coming for some time. Take, for example, a late twentieth-century revision of the novel, the ‘80s sci-fi flick Cherry 2000, which takes on both the mechanization of sex and the fear of feminism through the story of a man rescued from a desire to reanimate his Stepford wifebot by a tough, flesh-and-blood guide through the anarchic wastelands of the future (imagine Lady Chatterley’s Lover meets Mad Max meets its 2015 quasi-feminist reboot). The Orwellian horror of “free love” in the opening scene of Cherry 2000 (in which people negotiate legal contracts for one-night stands) is an interesting contrast to the ‘70s depiction of futuristic sex in Logan’s Run. Like the merry-go-round of polite dating sites or the get-lucky-now lottery of Tinder or Grindr, one can imagine the teleport sex-circuit of Logan’s Run giving rise to something like the Guardian’s dystopian “Swipe Right” series. 

Desexualization quintessentially reveals—as Judith Butler recently said of the pandemic—“the death drive at the heart of the capitalist machine.” Because, as in other spheres of life, the problems of the technologically “developed” world tend to envelop the entire world, it may just be the proverbial dark horse of the four riding toward apocalypse. To return to the novel of Houellebecq’s I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Alan Davis’s review of Possibility sharpens the contradiction: “in a world of environmental distress that surpasses Al Gore’s direst apocalyptic warnings,” individual cloned Neohumans spend their lives attempting “to understand what the world was like when human beings were in it and when there existed a thing called love.” These two poles of apocalypse, the end of love and the end of ecology, are inextricably interconnected; as the poet Gary Snyder has said, ecology is itself a matter of love, “a love that extends to the animals, rocks, dirt, all of it. Without this love we can end…with an uninhabitable place.” We do not love this world nearly enough. As cause and consequence, many of us are very lonely in it. This “new plague,” as Adrian S. Franklin calls loneliness, isn’t a symptom of a future dystopia but a disturbing present: “we may be heading towards a civilization which, as Michel Houellebecq darkly hints in the recent novel The Possibility of an Island, may have little further need for ‘the social.’” But, of course, grand abstractions like civilization do not have “needs” and corporations aren’t individuals—and that’s just the point. It is a strange and beautiful entanglement, the individual and the social. It is the social that makes us human and it is the intimacy of sex, from playful fucking to the sublime terror of love, whether we’re having it right now or hope to in the near future, that grounds our unique, individual social lives.

Helena Feder

Helena Feder is the author of Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture (Routledge, 2014), You Are the River (forthcoming, North Carolina Museum of Art 2021) and Close Reading the Anthropocene (forthcoming, Routledge, 2021). She is Associate Professor of Literature and Environment and Director of Great Books at East Carolina University, and was a Mellon American Council of Learned Societies Scholars & Society Fellow-in-Residence at the North Carolina Museum of Art from 2019-2020.

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