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Sex and The Commons II: Uncommon Sex

In this three-part series, I wanted to reflect on the relationship between the erosion of our discourse on the Common Good and our most intimate personal interactions. As I indicated in the previous blog-post, while many factors may have played a role, identity politics has come to trump any wider motivation for seeking a common good. Over and above the “me, first” language of groups separately vying for their piece of the pie, attention to broader common goods have eroded. Our discourse is full of a language of justice, of discrimination, of separate and unequal treatment of different groups. One of the advantages of our form of government over the tyranny of the masses is the protection of minorities or discriminated groups and the encouragement of diversity. However, the language of rights is rarely counterbalanced by the language of responsibility, and of the common good that does not exist without everyone’s contributions. Increasing levels of anxiety, social fragmentation, and loneliness are certainly part of the puzzle, as are fearful and angry responses to perceived unfairness or injustice. Language of violence and extremity has been shared and magnified by the echo-chamber of the “Incels,” the Involuntarily Celibate, which, while initially meant to be gender-inclusive, has come to include primarily powerless and lonely young white males. What I am exploring here is a connection between the erosion of a common good and the likelihood that the personal autonomy necessary to step beyond oneself into an increasingly diverse social world may be crippled by difficulties in learning how to negotiate intimate bodily relations with others.

In my previous blog-post Sex and The Commons I: The Erosion of the Common Good, I tried to illustrate some historical examples, such as the moon landing of 1969, and the struggle for civil rights of the 1960s, to provide some examples of common goods. These included both standard ones like national defense, energy conservation, and public education, as well as contemporary discussions like that of disease control and public immunization, as well as discussions of public health care more generally. I tried to suggest that the social changes which have led to the difficulties of sustaining attention to the common good has been a political discourse of competing group identities, which is too often divisive, fueled not only by those who would use discord and disagreement to their political advantage, but by the tribalism that group differences, unleavened by attention to shared projects and shared goals, all too frequently produce. Our inability to address climate change is probably one of the clearest examples of a common human good for which identity politics provide no purchase and from which they may distract. There is also an ongoing magnification of the safety-ism and identity politics increasingly inescapable in our system of higher education, explored in greater detail in my “Living on Tulsa Time” blog-posts.

Having tried to illustrate the tragedy of the commons and the erosion of our attention to the common good, the next step is to draw clear attention to the sexual recession. The sexual recession is likely to directly reflect our increasing difficulty with negotiating, and for younger generations learning to negotiate, the intimacies of bodily relationships with others. Negotiating bodily intimacy is the primary ground for not only establishing sustaining healthy relationships, but for developing the personal autonomy without which attention to greater goods is difficult to either establish or to expand.

The General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center showed that 23% of American adults went without sex during the entirety of 2018. This is a record high, not just for my aging baby boomers (average adult annual frequency having dropped from 62 to 54 during the early millennium), but for 18% of women and 28% of men between the ages of 19 to 29, double the number in 2008. The 10% gender difference not entirely accounted for by the fact that 35% of men and 29% of women aged 18-34 are living with their parents. This is, as always, likely to be multiply determined. Poorer health is certainly partf the picture, given the increasing prevalence of obesity and diabetes. But the more immediate causes are certainly linked to the lack of face-to-face interactions with potential partners. Research shows that sexual satisfaction and contentment within relationships is strongly associated with the quality of communication between partners, the embodied and emotional components of which are simply absent in communication restricted to social media and smartphones.

In Kate Julia’s article “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” in the December 2018 issue of the Atlantic, she points out that this is all despite our culture being more tolerant of sex in almost every form. This includes moral approval, the availability of birth control, porn, and even casual sex (“sexting” having become statistically normal), down to the re-framing of “perversion” as “kink,” and anal sex to a “fifth base” for which even Teen Vogue ran a guide. Still, in the course of a generation (1991-2017) the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of the Center for Disease Control reports that the percentage of high school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent, “from something most high-school students had experienced to something most haven’t.” As Jean Twenge reports in iGen, people in their early 20s are more than twice as likely to be abstinent than Gen Xers were at the same age. The anthropologist Helen Fischer attributes the sex recession to a decline in couplehood, with fewer young people marrying, and marrying later. Sixty percent of those under 35 live without a spouse or partner, which means less sex. Kate Julia suggests that the recession may be symptomatic of “a broader withdrawal from physical intimacy that extends well into adulthood.”

I’ll return to the causes and consequences of this withdrawal in part III of Sex and The Commons, where I will focus on the role of embodiment, and sexuality, in the development of social autonomy. As legal scholar Stephen Winter pointed out at a conference I co-organized on “The Mythic Reality of the Autonomous Individual,” the legal discourse of the last 50 years, e.g. defending contraception in terms of the constitutional right to privacy, “takes in a surreal quality; after all, when one is alone,