Dr. Ruth has been talking about sex for decades. When she started her career as a sex therapist in the 1970s, abortion was illegal, there was no online dating, and talking frankly about body parts was taboo. By speaking with thousands of people about their sex lives over the years, the 90-year-old has seen the changing cultural landscape through the lens of the bedroom.
“People are more willing to say orgasm and erection now,” Dr. Ruth Westheimer told me during a recent phone call. When she started her work, she explained, people spoke in euphemisms, calling women who were pregnant, “with child,” for example. “If I was a part of that movement—I wish I was—then I’m really very pleased,” she said.
But as taboos have eased, a surprising thing has happened. Young people are actually having less sex today, according to a recent feature in The Atlantic, which cites research on the topic. From the piece:
From 1991 to 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey finds, the percentage of high-school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent. In other words, in the space of a generation, sex has gone from something most high-school students have experienced to something most haven’t. (And no, they aren’t having oral sex instead—that rate hasn’t changed much.)
Gen Xers and Baby Boomers may also be having less sex today than previous generations did at the same age. From the late 1990s to 2014, [psychology professor Jean M.] Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex. Twenge recently took a look at the latest General Social Survey data, from 2016, and told me that in the two years following her study, sexual frequency fell even further.
When I asked Dr. Ruth, who studied at Weill Cornell Medical College, about the findings, she said she’s heard about the studies and was curious to see the research herself.
“I would really have to see the report. I would have to see if there’s a scientifically valid data. Then I would say to people, if it is so, how terrible,” she said. “Here is an activity that is free, here it is an activity that makes people happy, and what’s the matter with all of you not to engage in it?”
The author of the The Atlantic story points to dozens of modern phenomena as the cause of the so-called sex recession:
I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity.
For her part, Dr. Ruth said she’s seen the effect of ubiquitous smart phones and worries they distract people from making real-life connections that turn into relationships.
“I am very worried about the adult conversation getting old,” she said. “If they can’t shut off the phone for at least half an hour to have some sex, then there’s a problem. They’re going to lose ability to make contact with another human being. Unless you have an emergency that somebody is sick, shut the phone off.”
Dr. Ruth is, however, a proponent of online dating and hookup apps.
“I’m all for it, because I am very concerned about loneliness,” she said. “I’m very much for them. I know lots of people now whose relationships started online.”
A healthy sex life all comes back to conversations and connections, she said. The therapist is opening up about her own life too, showing the world her relationships and path to becoming a pop culture icon in a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, which premiered on Hulu Saturday.
She told me, “I am very pleased with the documentary, because it did bring people a conversation.” And there are many more conversations about sex to be had.