Looking for ways to attract customers under the age of 30, the Treasure Club in Greensboro, N.C. landed on a brilliant combination: naked girls and video games. The legendary strip club remodeled one of their champagne rooms, adding four gaming consoles and comfy chairs where men can play Call of Duty while being cheered on by one of the club’s scantily clad entertainers. The business model has been a huge success, giving young men the opportunity to interact with flirtatious women, hired by the hour, while engaged in the activity they love, gaming.
It is hard to imagine any other image–a young man, beautiful woman draped across his lap, distracted by killing zombies–as being more emblematic of the way society sees young men today.
Young men, it seems, have other things to do than have sex. And people are losing their shit.
According to data collected by the General Social Survey, the number of men aged 18 to 30 who did not have sex in the previous 12 months had almost tripled between 2008 and 2018–from 10 percent to 28 percent.
Before joining the chorus of wailing over this stat, it is worth pointing out that the 18 percentage-point spike amounts to 31 guys answering “not at all” to the survey question ‘How many times did you have sex during the last year?’ The technical term for the quality of this empirical result is “not great,” and many people who are knowledgeable about data are suggesting that the jury is still out on this one.
But the commentary on this data is itself remarkable.
We have gone in one easy step from the kids are having too much sex! to the kids are not having enough sex! From the kids are arranging hook-ups online! to the kids spend too much time online to hook up!
And who doesn’t remember the good old days (i.e. 2018) when it was access to easy sex that was stopping men from getting jobs and moving out of their parent’s basements? When women were told that we should form a sex-free cartel to force men to get their act together and give us a ring already?
Maybe women took this advice and are now withholding sex. Except that according to this same data, women are still having sex (see note above on not great data).
There has been no point in history in which society showed this much consternation over women not having enough sex. So why this much concern about the men?
It comes down to what we think it means to be a man, or more specifically what it means to be winning and losing this perpetual contest of who’s “the man.”
Compliments of #MeToo, there has been a great deal of attention lately on the topic of unhealthy workplace cultures and, relatedly, the concept of masculinity contests at work. Masculinity contests are competitions between men over whose behavior best exemplifies that of a “real man”: who is the strongest; who is the most confident; who dominates others; who shows no emotion; and who relies on no one for help.
Masculinity contests are not helpful in the workplace because men compete over characteristics that do nothing to improve worker productivity. In fact, they are counterproductive because they reduce co-operation and increase the risk of injury and work-related stress.
Construction sites are not the only place were masculinity contests play out, we see them in men’s sexual and romantic relationships as well: who dates the youngest women; who dates the hottest women; who dates the most women; and who has the most sex.
Like in workplaces, masculinity contests are not helpful for dating. They encourage men to make intimate partner decisions based on which women will make them appear to be the manliest of all the men, instead of which women will make them the happiest.
Even more destructive, given the zero-sum nature of this game, the men who do not score these women are being made to feel like losers.
There is good evidence that the next generation of men are not competing in these masculinity contests the same way as previous generations. Take for example increases in the share of young people who now admit to having same-sex attraction and relationships. Between 2012 and 2017, the share of millennials who responded to a Gallup poll identifying as LGBT increased from 5.8 percent to 8.2 percent. Or the increases in the number of men under 30 who are OK with their partners having sex with other men.
Much of the commentary around this new evidence that men are having less sex rings of a dread fear that men are not playing this game right—that they not even trying to win at being men, where winning at being a man means convincing women to be naked.
I would be the last person to argue that we shouldn’t care about social trends around sexuality, relationships, and marriage, like the widening gap between men and women on the importance of marriage–where only 42 percent of single women age 18 to 45 agree with the statement “It is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single” compared to 61 percent of men who agree with the same statement.
We care about this marriage gap because it impacts on people’s happiness, and we care because unhappy men can sometimes be dangerous.
Caring because of some ingrained notions of masculinity norms, however, is caring for all the wrong reasons. Maybe this sharp increase in the number of men who say they did not have sex in the past year only reflects an increased willingness among men to admit to not having sex—either because men are not shamed by this fact or because of a greater awareness that they are not alone in their celibacy. Either way, these are not social problems that demand our attention.
If we are worrying that it is sex that motivates men to be better, and that a decline in sex is taking away men’s motivation to succeed, then maybe what we really need to be talking about is how we define success as a society. Because imposing these outdated ideas about masculinity on the new generation is helping no one.