Study: Religiously devout Americans living sexless lives

Young adult Americans 35 years and under are having much less sex than previous generations, and the biggest increase in sexlessness is among the dwindling population of the religiously devout, a new research brief from the Institute for Family Studies suggests.

The data highlighted in the brief from IFS research fellow Lyman Stone suggests that from 2008 to 2021, the share of young adults forgoing sex more than doubled from 8% to 21%.

The data was fielded from the 2021 General Social Survey from NORC at the University of Chicago. 

Since 2010, “there has been a sharp rise in the share of males and females ages 18 to 35 who report not having sex in the prior year,” Stone reported. 

While married young adults are less likely to be leading sexless lives, there has been a growing trend of delayed marriage among young adults, contributing to a worsening of the problem, Stone wrote.

“Married people are more likely to be sexually active than unmarried people: in 2021, only about 5% of ever-married people under 35 reported no sex in the past year, versus about 29% of the never-married. As a result, declining marriage tends to reduce sexual activity as married people make up a shrinking share of the population of people under 35,” Stone offered, pointing to data from the General Social Survey showing how the never-married share of under-35s jumped from just over 50% in the early 1990s to between 60% and 75% in the last 10 years.

Multiple studies have previously shown how factors like high unemployment among men have contributed to declining marriage rates. It was reported last year that a record 35% of American adults ages 25 to 50 had never been married. The economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic could lead to a further decline.

The report “Mismatches in the Marriage Market,” headed by a scholar from Cornell University and published in 2019, also noted that America faces a significant shortage of highly educated “economically attractive” unmarried men who earn at least $53,000 per year and have a college degree.

Experts argued the situation could result in unmarried women remaining unmarried or marrying not as well-suited partners.

However, in his brief, Stone contends that while delayed marriage is a significant factor in the rising trend of sexlessness among young adults, it isn’t the complete picture.

The analysis found opinions of premarital sex among young adults, which skews 70% in support of the practice and 30% against, according to recent studies, have also played a role.

Young adults who say premarital sex is wrong, explains Stone, have consistently been about two to three times as likely to be sexually abstinent for several decades.

“It seems like most of the increase in sexlessness among never-married under-35s has been among those who say premarital sex is at least sometimes wrong,” Stone found.

“Though it is true they are a minority of never-married individuals in this age group, their distinctive behaviors are driving the trend. In other words, much of the rise in sexlessness has been driven by people who have moral concerns about premarital sex. It might be better to call it abstinence than sexlessness, since it’s consistent with expressed values.”

And Stone argues that most young adults who choose not to have sex because they believe premarital sex is wrong are primarily from the religiously devout demographic.

“While there has perhaps been a modest increase in sexual abstinence among religious non-attenders or occasional attenders, the lion’s share of the increase in sexlessness has been among the relatively religiously devout,” he wrote. “Since 2008, among never-married individuals under age 35 who attend religious services more than monthly, the rate of sexlessness has risen from about 20% to nearly 60% in 2021. Among their less religious peers, sexlessness has risen from around 10% in 2008 to 20% in 2021.”

He argued that since there is little evidence suggesting this group of single young adults was choosing pornography over sex, it is likely that younger generations of Christians may likely be choosing to honor their religious vows more closely than previous generations.

“Since at the very least, most religious communities in America view premarital sex as a less preferred sexual arrangement than marriage, the increase in sexual abstinence among religious young adults could speak to an important change among religious communities,” Stone wrote.

“Perhaps religious young adults are simply complying with the norms of their communities more determinedly than previous generations. In this scenario, we aren’t seeing religious young people change their metaphysics to validate sexual liaisons, but rather, we’re seeing religious young adults adopt more intense behavioral norms than prior generations.”

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