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14 Feb, 2020 06:58

Men don’t look at sex as an achievement anymore – psychologist

Social networks have transformed the way we see communication, even the most intimate forms. Are they pushing us towards another sexual revolution? We talked about this with social psychologist Justin Lehmiller.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Justin Lehmiller, welcome to the show. Great to have you with us. I’m very excited to have this chat with you. So, Justin, all over the board, there is data that people are having less sex these days than three or five decades ago. And I've heard that American teenagers are having less sex, Japanese aren't having any, the Brits are giving it a pass. I mean, you name it. Can we say with confidence that having sex is in decline?

Justin Lehmiller: So that's a really great question. This is something that a lot of people have referred to as a sex recession if you will. And when you look at the data, it seems that people are reporting having less sex than they were a few generations ago. But it's not completely clear what that means, because, in these studies, people are being asked how often they're having sex, but they're not defining what sex is. And the reality is that people can define sex in different ways. And we suspect that perhaps people are having less of the sort of traditional forms of sex, less penile-vaginal intercourse. So if you look at very strict definitions of sex, people may be having less sex by that metric. However, we know that people are expanding their definitions of sex and engaging in more diverse forms of sexual expression. So it may be that we have other forms of sex that are replacing some of the more traditional forms of sex. And we're just not capturing that in some of the data that's out there.

SS: Let's take it further because the Internet has made sex accessible to all. Pornography can be watched anywhere pretty much and sexting with pictures is like a thing, right? Yet resisting all temptations, American teen pregnancy rate is going down and young people are having less sex and are having it later. Why doesn't technology-enabled access to sex translate into more sex?

JL: That's also a good question. So technology has made it much easier for us to connect with other people in some ways. It's easier to, for example, arrange hookups to meet potential romantic partners through a lot of these apps and websites that are out there. However, in addition to these technological changes that have happened, there are also broader changes in the culture that have happened as well. And so it might be a story that's bigger than just access to technology that's impacting sexuality. It might be related to changes that have happened in sex education, in the broader culture about how we feel about sex, what our sexual attitudes are. And so it's kind of hard to isolate out specific factors and say the way that they're impacting sex and sexuality because so many things have changed in the last two decades. It's not just the introduction of these various technologies. A lot of other things have happened as well. 

SS: So when a sexual urge is so easily satisfied with pornography and maybe coupled with a sex toy, does it blunt your desire to go out and try to meet people and hook up with them?

JL: So technology, a lot of people tend to look at it as a replacement for human sexual interaction. However, the way that I and many other sex researchers look at it is that it's a complement to an active sex life rather than a replacement for human sexual interaction. So people are increasingly incorporating toys and technology into their sex lives, but that doesn't mean that they no longer want human, social and sexual interactions. So I think we're adding these into our sex lives, but we're not necessarily counting them as sex. Right. So if you look at some of the questions, when you ask people how often they have sex, they might not be counting some of these interactions that incorporate technology just because they don't meet the traditional definitions of sex.

SS: Right. So with sex robots being like this thing already, no doubt getting better with time, with a VR technology, what would happen to virtual sex in the coming decades? I mean, why would we need to try or do anything in real life if the virtual experience will be completely immersive and maybe even better?

JL: So that's one of the things where we really need data and research to be able to answer how that's going to impact our sex lives. We know that the technology, as you mentioned, is getting better. The virtual reality is getting better and more realistic. However, we don't know if people are actually going to perceive that is superior to a human sexual interaction. There are certain things that you get out of a human interaction that you might not be able to get out of an interaction with a robot or with virtual reality technology. I think where these technologies are useful for our sex lives is that they might allow us to engage in different ways with our sexual fantasies, and so they can allow us to try things out, test things out that we might not otherwise be able to try or might not otherwise feel comfortable trying in the real world. So it's something that I think provides avenues for sexual exploration, but I don't think it's actually going to replace human sexual interactions because that human connection is something that people crave and long for and want, and you can't really get that with a robot or with these other technologies. 

SS: So sex can be more fun when there is excitement about it, like, when there's obstacles to overcome and the attraction is strong enough to overcome them. Is availability of sex making it boring?

JL: So it's true that when there are obstacles or if there is some perceived scarcity, that that does seem to make something more sexually exciting or attractive. So, for example, people who are perceived as less available, we tend to be more attracted to them because that illusion of scarcity makes them more arousing or exciting or exotic to us in some way. And so that actually kind of goes back to your previous question about the virtual reality and the robots. Once those things become more widespread, everything becomes very easy. Right. There are no longer any obstacles. And so that could be one of the reasons why they might not ever be quite as appealing as the human sexual interaction, it’s because it just makes it too easy and people tend to be attracted to situations, to people where there are those obstacles, where there is that illusion of scarcity. They want to work a little bit for it because it seems to enhance the arousal factor.

SS: Sex for the longest time has been a mark of success, a reward for a great achievement. And now with new generations, the paradigm has shifted and sex is not as important of a status symbol as it used to be.Am I right? 

JL: That sex is less of a status symbol than it used to be? That's an interesting question. I haven't seen any research that can sort of directly speak to that, but I understand what you're saying in the sense that people may view it as less of an achievement than they did in the past. However, I can't think of any specific studies off the top of my head that really speak to that or in terms of what the impact of that might actually be right now.

SS: Well, I mean, the whole MeToo movement really just speaks for itself to start with. But then we can go on and on about how that paradigm has changed, the perception of sex in general.

JL: Yes. And the MeToo movement has had this very big impact on the way that people approach and think about sex and dating. And I think it's had an impact in the sense that men, in particular, are more hesitant to look at sex as a conquest or as an achievement because it's related to these power differentials that exist, that are linked to sexual harassment, sexual assault and abuse and so forth. And so I think people are much more careful and cognizant to approach sex on more equal terms where there's a level playing field to ensure that everything is consensual and that sex is mutually enjoyable. We also see that there is much more emphasis being placed on mutual pleasure and mutual orgasm in sex. Much has been said in Britain about the orgasm gap or the idea that heterosexual men are much more likely to reach orgasm during sex than heterosexual women are. And a lot of attention is being paid to closing that gap to ensure that everyone is experiencing mutual pleasure in these encounters. We still have our ways to go in terms of getting there, but people are taking it more seriously than they did in the past.

SS: So sex once again used to come as a result of courtship, right? Be it falling in love genuinely or playing a clever game at a bar. Has the aspect of sex changed with MeToo and redefined what is acceptable behaviour for men? I mean, if I go to America, can I expect men to hit on me in a bar still?

JL: Yes, but men are more hesitant in some degrees about the way that they approach sex and the way that they approach women. So some men are more cautious about this than they used to be to ensure that people that they might be approaching in, say, a bar setting are comfortable with their approach or with their interaction. Now, the complicating factor is that a lot of these interactions take place in bars and other settings where alcohol is being consumed. And we know that alcohol changes the way that people think and process information and process risks. And so in these situations where alcohol is being consumed, you might not have as much care and concern for the way that things are approached. Just because when people are drunk or inebriated, that changes their ability to process risks and to think carefully about things.

SS: I mean, I don’t know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but like just on top of my head, like I can count at least half of my friends, and there are a lot of them who have become couples after having met in a bar pretty much tipsy. And I know a lot of families who have started. It's not like a healthy thing, but their relationship has started after being tipsy, you know. So I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but I don't know that that should completely be taken away from that equation of, you know, attraction and making things easy. Because when people think logically and assess all the risks, probably there would be much fewer couples and families. Well, that's what I think personally. What do you think?

JL: Sure. And I think it's important to recognize that alcohol is an aphrodisiac when it's consumed in small quantities. It enhances sexual desire, it reduces sexual inhibitions. It can give people some degree of confidence that they might not otherwise feel to approach someone that they wouldn't otherwise approach. And so what you're saying is right in that it's a social lubricant of sorts that can help to facilitate relationships and sexual interactions. And so there is a potential positive upside there of alcohol consumption when it's consumed in small quantities. The concern and problem is when people start to become very inebriated because then that can start to blur the lines of consent and at what point do people lose the ability to consent when they're consuming alcohol or other substances? So this is where we need to talk about alcohol in terms of the dosage effect. When it's consumed in small quantities it can be this aphrodisiac, but when it starts to be consumed in large quantities and people are binge drinking, then there are lots of potential negative consequences there for our sex lives.

SS: You have written a book on sexual fantasies of real Americans “Tell Me What You Want”. And based on what you have found out is that there is some common thread binding all the different fantasies together, some kind of a universal thing that we all crave in sex. Is that right?

JL: Yes. So for this book, I surveyed more than 4000 Americans from all 50 states about their favourite sexual fantasies of all time, as well as hundreds of people, places and things that they might have ever fantasized about. And what I found was that there is a lot of commonality in the things that people are fantasizing about. So, for example, some of the common threads involve themes of novelty so doing something that is new and different for you. Human beings are titillated by novelties when it comes to sex because we grow bored of sexual routines very easily. And so our fantasies are often about breaking free of those routines and, for example, having sex in new positions or in different places and settings. Another big theme in our fantasies is breaking sexual taboos. So doing something that you're not supposed to do. We all have restrictions that are placed on our sex lives in certain ways. Things that we're told we can't or shouldn't do. And we know in psychology that the more people are told that they can't or shouldn't do something, whether it's sexual or otherwise the more it makes them want to do it. So trying new things, violating taboos are some of the most common and pervasive elements in our sexual fantasies. 

SS: So fantasies and porn, they go hand-in-hand. But I just wonder, are our sexual fantasies shaped by porn or just porn only enact what we already have in our minds reflecting what we actually want?

JL: That's something that I explored in this research, was to look at what is the connection between pornography and sexual fantasy. And one of the questions I asked people was where they think their favourite fantasy of all time comes from. And it was about one in 10 participants who said that their favourite fantasy stemmed directly from something they saw in pornography, which tells us that porn can influence our fantasies to a degree. If you're seeing new things in pornography that can shape what it is that turns you on when it comes to sex. However, our fantasies are very complex and they're not just about the porn that we're exposed to. They're also shaped by our previous sexual experiences and histories. They're shaped by our culture. They are shaped by other media exposure. There are lots of different factors that play a role there, also our personalities are important, too, in terms of what turns us on. Now, in terms of looking at the other direction between pornography and sexual fantasy we see that the vast majority of people say that they go to porn as a way of vicariously living out their sexual fantasies. So more often than not, people are going to porn to sort of live out or express their fantasies in a way. But there is also that bi-directional relationship where we might see something in porn that comes back and influences our fantasy content.

SS: You know, an age-old story is losing the flame. And you had it, you got together, it burned for a while and 20 years later you don't want to have sex with your spouse anymore. And that is why people cheat, right? So is the growing trends of open relationship or polyamory if you want to sort of replace cheating in coming decades or is it a passing thing?

JL: So cheating is something that is very common. And it has been common when you look historically, a lot of people find monogamy to be very difficult to sustain over long periods of time. And we know that as humans are living longer. If you are in a long term relationship, you're potentially with that person for several decades and so maintaining an active and exciting sex life with that same person for such a long period of time can be very challenging because people have that strong need for novelty and newness and excitement when it comes to sex. And so that is why a lot of people go out and cheat. It's a way of sort of adding in that novelty and excitement to their sex life. However, we have seen this growing acceptance of what we call consensual non-monogamy, where people are having sexually open relationships or they're trying things like swinging, where they're swapping partners with other married couples or they're engaging in polyamory, where they have multiple loving and romantic relationships at the same time. There are different forms this can take. And what we see is that there is this growing openness to having some type of consensually non-monogamous relationship. And so going forward, I suspect that we're going to see increases in the number of people who are practising consensual non-monogamy. However, I don't know that that's eventually going to become the norm. And if it does, I don't think it would be for a very long time. Because when you ask people what they want in a relationship, the majority of people still say that what they want is a monogamous relationship. They want that one person to be with to spend and build their life with. So I think we're going to see increases in open relationships, but I don't think it's going to replace monogamy, given the strong desire that people are expressing for monogamous relationships.

SS: Well, then, I mean, even if you are with someone for a long time and your sex life has gotten boring, oftentimes you still don't want to share your partner with someone else. I mean, just the thought of it makes you go crazy. I don't think I could ever do it. Could you ever share your significant other with someone else?

JL: So a lot of people feel jealous at the prospect of their partner even expressing interest in someone else or when somebody else expresses interest in their partner. So this is something that I think for a lot of people is a very foreign concept to consider the idea of an open relationship. Because jealousy would come in and create a lot of turmoil and conflict. However, what I've seen in some of my research on polyamorous relationships is that some people don't seem to experience the emotion of jealousy for whatever reason. And instead, they experience an emotion that has been termed compersion, which is sometimes described as the opposite of jealousy. And so when they see their partner being intimate with someone else, instead of feeling threatened by that, they feel joy or pleasure or excitement. So not everybody seems to experience jealousy. It seems to be this individual difference. And so I think whether people are well-suited for monogamy or consensual non-monogamy really depends on just how jealous of a person they tend to be.

SS: The time when we all started talking about sex freely was the 60s, really, right? The counterculture and the sexual revolution, which was like a reaction to a very conservative time that came before that. Could it be now that people are just tired of living inside a sexual revolution all the time and they want to chill out a bit? So like the pendulum is sort of swinging back from permissiveness to restrain?

JL: You know, I get what you're saying there. But if you look at the trajectory of sexual attitudes in the United States, we see that they actually continue to become more liberal. And so, for example, if you look at the Gallup organization and their polls that they conduct every year on sexual attitudes, we see that they are the most liberal on record right now in terms of acceptance of things like sex outside of marriage or acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex relationships. And so there is this trend toward more liberal sexual attitudes, and that also extends to acceptance of sexually open relationships. The question of whether we'll reach a peak at some point and switch back toward more conservative attitudes is an empirical question. You know, I think we need to track this for longer to see what eventually happens. We know that in the United States, in particular, it is a very diverse country in terms of sexual attitudes and it's very regional in terms of how sexually liberal it is. So, you know, when you look at the overall trend, that doesn't necessarily reflect the trends from state to state, an area to area. There's a lot of diversity and variability there. 

SS: But there's still like a general trend and that can be sort of observed. And it's funny how just around the time when we're finally starting to have calm conversations about sex or sensible conversations about sex, we're starting to sort of lose interest in it. Should we make it like the forbidden fruit again and then, you know, everyone will want a piece one more time?

JL: Yeah. What you're saying, there is some evidence that there is, you know, a growing conservative movement in terms of the way that people are thinking about and approaching sex. For example, there is the anti-porn movement and the anti-masturbation movement where people are being told that masturbating is unhealthy, that watching porn is unhealthy. And they're encouraging people to not engage in those sorts of behaviors. In fact, there are some states in the US that have declared pornography to be a public health crisis. And you have some people who are talking about the way that this is damaging relationships and all of these other sorts of things. So, you know, on the one hand, you have people who are espousing a return to more traditional sexual values. But on the other hand, if you look at the broader cultural trend, people are becoming more sexually liberal. And so there is this tension that does exist there. And we don't know exactly where that's going to go in the future.

SS: All right. Justin, thanks so much for this wonderful insight. It's been really a pleasure talking to you. We're talking to social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, discussing how our perception of sex and romantic relations have changed over the past decades.