Home Health Why are young men having less sex than they have for generations? – Evening Standard

Why are young men having less sex than they have for generations? – Evening Standard

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While online, graphic porn and misogyny is flourishing. What’s going on, asks Edwin Smith
consider myself to be a very average guy,’ says Jake. ‘I have a job, a steady life. I’m not particularly hideous.’ But, admits the 30-year-old tech worker from Stoke Newington, there is something a little unusual about him. He has abandoned all hope of having sex or romantic relationships — ever again.
Following a string of romantic misadventures Jake found himself looking for answers in the so-called ‘manosphere’ — an amorphous group of websites and online communities that shares a right-wing political bent and opposition to mainstream feminism, but which also purports to offer self-help and advice. ‘I was trying to understand what had happened,’ says Jake. Then, six months ago, he found his way into a Reddit thread for ‘incels’ — or ‘involuntary celibates’ — posting and venting online about the hopelessness of relationships, modern masculinity and the perceived ills of wider society.
Incels hit the headlines in April when Alek Minassian, a 25-year-old loner, was charged with murder following the Toronto van attack that saw a rental van mount the pavement and kill 10 people, including eight women. Before the attack was carried out, Minassian wrote on Facebook that the ‘incel rebellion’ was under way.
It cast a spotlight on a shadowy, deeply misogynistic, corner of the internet. Some posts by self-identified ‘incels’ were toxic enough to prompt moderators at Reddit to shut down a 40,000-strong online ‘support group’ hosted on the site. ‘Reminder: women will leave you as soon as they find someone better,’ reads one of the less nasty posts that survives. But it gets worse. ‘That ultra-feminist SJW [social justice warrior]? She adores being dominated, humiliated and degraded… in bed.’ ‘Rape, in any form,’ writes another, ‘validates women.’ One user asks if anyone in the UK is able to provide him with a gun.
Something strange is going on when it comes to young men and sex. On the one hand, millennials are comparatively sex-starved. On average, today’s twenty-somethings have had two fewer sexual partners than the two previous generations, and, according to research carried out by UCL, one in eight 26-year-olds is still a virgin. That’s a sharp increase from Generation X and Baby Boomers, for whom just one in 20 people was still a virgin at the same age. You have to go as far back as the 1920s to find a time when young people were as buttoned-up as we are now.
Yet sex has never been a bigger part of our culture. Social media makes celebrities out of people who post risqué images. Dating apps mean no-strings hook-ups are as easy as ordering a taxi. And pornography is more readily available than ever. More than three quarters of all men admitted to watching online porn in a recent survey while psychotherapist Dr Rob Watt has seen a 100 per cent increase in referrals for porn addiction to his Harley Street clinic, Innisfree, in the past six years.
At the same time a strand of misogyny has entered popular culture. For example, the four Irish rugby players who stood trial for rape earlier this year were acquitted, but the Whatsapp messages that were revealed in the process, in which they spoke about ‘sluts’ and ‘spit roasting’, revealed a troubling attitude towards women.
What on earth is going on?
Part of the explanation, of course, lies in tech. Dating apps may actually mean that people are dating less in real life, explains professor Steve McKay, an academic specialising in social research. ‘Social media allows people to be more involved in the virtual world, at the expense of real-world interactions,’ he says. This in it itself might not be problematic — only all the evidence suggests sex is as important to young men today as it ever was. Another survey by UCL found the thing that correlated most strongly with men having good mental health was being in a stable relationship. ‘You might think single guys would be the happiest people,’ says Dr John Barry, the psychologist who led the research. ‘But, if anything, they were the least happy.’
Certainly, loneliness appears to have been what drove Jake to join the incel community. He claims that the ‘extremists’ and ‘murderers’ aren’t typical. ‘They don’t represent the community. They may use the same ideas or reference them in some way, but they’re obviously sick individuals.’ He even defends the ‘offensive material’ in the groups, but adds: ‘A lot of incels are angry and they need somewhere to vent.’ This, clearly, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, since there’s no excuse for much of what the incels say. But it’s interesting that Jake views the online community as an outlet, something men more broadly seem to lack when it comes to talking about problems.
Whereas women tend to process things by talking about them, ‘men are more prone to self-medication’, argues Barry. This manifests itself in substance abuse (rates are twice as high among men) and, increasingly, with pornography. ‘The neuroscience of porn centres on dopamine,’ says Dr Watt. ‘It’s like cocaine: once you’ve had one line, it’s very difficult to stop.’ The fallout can be severe. Dan, 37, from north London, is now being treated at Innisfree, having developed a porn addiction as a way of ‘self-medicating’ for depression. ‘It was a snatched 10 or 15 minutes here and there — almost every time there was nothing better to do.’ When he forgot to clear his laptop’s history one day, Dan’s wife discovered his habit. It cost him his marriage — and job.
It’s not just adults who are at risk. Researchers at Middlesex University, who found 53 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds had seen explicit material online, warned that children are already in danger of being ‘desensitised’.
The digitisation of relationships has other consequences, too, says therapist Dr Juliana Morris. ‘[Young men] are behind in knowing how to communicate, how to approach somebody.’ Sticky situations are compounded by changing expectations. ‘With the #MeToo movement happening, the young men I work with often ask: “What does it mean to be a man?”’
‘A lot of young women have had this great awakening through their experience of feminism,’ adds Helen Lewis, deputy editor of New Statesman, who writes extensively about tech and feminism. ‘But there hasn’t been a similar re-definition of what it means to be a man and I think that’s quite tough for a lot of young men. As feminism has become much more visible, the backlash has become much more intense.’
The forces that seem to have galvanised support for political shifts such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump — both of which are also more popular among men with right-wing views — may have contributed, too. ‘These young men are also the product of hyper-competitive, individualised, atomised societies,’ says Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. ‘Trust between men and women is low… add to that the economic downward mobility of this generation and the general loss of masculine purpose and it’s a pretty toxic mixture.’
This could explain the rise of the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson, who claims ‘the idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory’, and who has surged to the top of the book charts and packed out venues for his lecture tours.
The men I spoke to for this piece seemed to focus on experiences that made them feel humiliated or undervalued. These were often things that others would shrug off, yet they loomed large in their consciousness. One incel, a recent graduate, remembers being excluded from a game of spin the bottle and, at uni, felt ‘let down by hook-up culture’. A member of the MGTOW group (Men Going Their Own Way), he came to resent women who had been disinterested in him but then changed his tune when his fortunes improved. A common trope is that women are only interested in ‘LMS’ — or, ‘looks, money and status’.
While that may be mistaken, Dr Morris points out that society’s emphasis on looks can reinforce their misconceptions: ‘For men who aren’t good-looking, don’t have much money, don’t have status — or even if they’re just short — everything seems stacked against them.’
Of course, it’s worth noting that many men are more progressive and open-minded about the nature of relationships than ever. One of my good friends, a successful chef, said to me recently that his greatest ambition in life was not to win a Michelin star but to be a dad. I feel the same. Among our wider social group being a feminist is a given.
Can the problems be fixed? Dr Morris is optimistic about the role tech can play in future, and is using augmented reality to coach men to pick up on non-verbal cues in dating situations. ‘You have to bear in mind how new all this is,’ adds psychotherapist Dr Hilda Burke. ‘Online dating is 20 years old, apps are just 10 years old. In the evolution of relationships, that’s a tiny amount of time.’
On an individual level there is clearly hope. Dan, whose porn addiction cost him so much, now describes himself as being ‘in a much better place’ and is hoping, one day, to be in ‘a proper, meaningful adult relationship’ again. And while Jake remains unrepentant, another former incel tells me via email that he had turned his back on that way of thinking. ‘Incels need to let out the pain they have for themselves — it comes out as hate for others.’


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