W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone of the Institute for Family Studies posit in this Atlantic article that adults 18 to 34 are less happy than their predecessors. They link the erosion of happiness to a waning sex drive. This generation couples less frequently, abjures church going, and values friendship above all else. The result? A “sex recession.”
Nowhere has this sex recession proved more consequential than among young adults, especially young men. Some academics and journalists have now begun grumbling about what they are calling a “moral panic” about the decline in young-adult sex. Before the 2018 data came out, the Daily suggested that the decline in sex was modest, and the sociologist Daniel Carlson claimed that the amount of sex one has “is a weak predictor of how satisfied you are with your sex life.” More important than frequency, the argument went, is the quality of your sexual relationship.
In other words, Wilcox and Stone conclude that frequency of sex is a key indicator of happiness. This inspired David French, considered a reasonable conservative, to write a response to “The Happiness Recession,” to which I won’t link. The article delighted him. At last – proof that falling birth rates and secularism are anathema to a healthy society.
But French and social media commentators mistake cause for effect. To imagine that happier people are likelier to find solid spouses requires no cogitative strain. Sad people may not go to church if they believe God has it in for them. More importantly, how do these articles define the happy/sad binary? Chronically sad people may suffer from depression, and while God and church and spouses have palliating effects it’s a chronic disease.
Finally, the emphasis on relationships and sex reflects our continued obsession with the home, the product of our labor and the stage where we play the roles for which our parents and teachers trained us. Evidence suggests that for many adults the Great Recession affected, in ways that we’re beginning to understand, the age at which they leave home, marry, and have children – if they choose to have children. Besides my reading habits, bachelorhood constitutes my essential queerness. I prefer to sleep alone in my bed. Developing friendships – for their own sweet sake – and tending to existing ones gives me a resounding pleasure. A couple times a quarter I’ll arrange a tryst. A Stephen Dedalus type until my junior year of high school, I cheerfully bade farewell to God while understanding the communal ties that bind even doubters to church; the shrewder among them recognize that church going exists to remind them of the sublimity against which friendship often brushes.
Aloneness defies the expectations of a culture that despite expanding the membership of who belongs still disdains the cultivation of interiority.