How Everyone Got So Lonely


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At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some people predicted that lockdowns and work-at-home rules would produce great surges in sexual activity, just as citywide blackouts have been said to do in the past. No such luck. In November, a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that the pandemic had caused a small but significant diminution in Americans’ sexual desire, pleasure, and frequency. It’s easy enough to see how the threat of a lethal virus might have had a generally anaphrodisiac effect. Quite aside from the difficulty of meeting new partners and the chilling consequences of being cooped up with the same old ones, evolutionary psychologists speculate that we have a “behavioral immune system” that protects us in times of plague by making us less attracted to and less motivated to affiliate with others.

Not so obvious is why, for several years before the virus appeared on our shores, we had already been showing distinct signs of sluggishness in the attraction and affiliation departments. In 2018, nearly a quarter of Americans—the highest number ever recorded—reported having no sex at all in the previous twelve months. Only thirty-nine per cent reported having intercourse once or more a week, a drop of twelve percentage points since 1996. The chief driver of this so-called “sex drought” is not, as one might expect, the aging of the American population but the ever more abstemious habits of the young. Since the nineteen-nineties, the proportion of American high-school students who are virgins has risen from forty-five per cent to sixty per cent. People who are in their early twenties are estimated to be two and half times more likely to be sexually inactive than members of Gen X were at the same age.

One partial explanation for this trend—versions of which have been observed across the industrialized world—is that today’s young adults are less likely to be married and more likely to be living at home with their parents than previous cohorts. In the U.S., living with parents is now the most common domestic circumstance for people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. Even after accounting for these less than favorable conditions, however, the suspicion remains that young people are not as delighted by sex as they once were. Speculation about why this might be so tends to reflect the hobbyhorse of the speculator. Some believe that poisons in our environment are playing havoc with hormones. Others blame high rates of depression and the drugs used to treat it. Still others contend that people are either sublimating their sexual desires in video games or exhausting them with pornography. (The dubious term “sexual anorexia” has been coined to describe the jadedness and dysfunction that afflict particularly avid male consumers of Internet porn.)

For the British economist Noreena Hertz, the decline in sex is best understood as both a symptom and a cause of a much wider “loneliness epidemic.” In her book “The Lonely Century” (Currency), she describes “a world that’s pulling apart,” in which soaring rates of social isolation threaten not only our physical and mental health but the health of our democracies. She cites many factors that have contributed to this dystopian moment—among them, smartphones, the gig economy, the contactless economy, the growth of cities, the rise in single-person households, the advent of the open-plan office, the replacement of mom-and-pop stores with anonymous hyper-chains, and “hostile” civic architecture—but she believes that the deepest roots of our current crisis lie in the neoliberal revolution of the nineteen-eighties and the ruthless free-market principles championed by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, et al. In giving license to greed and selfishness, she writes, neoliberalism fundamentally reshaped not just economic relationships “but also our relationships with each other.”

In illustrating its thesis, this book draws a wide array of cultural and socioeconomic phenomena into its thematic centrifuge. Hertz’s examples of global loneliness include elderly women in Japan who get themselves convicted of petty crimes so that they can find community in prison; South Korean devotees of mukbang, the craze for watching people eat meals on the Internet; and a man in Los Angeles whose use of expensive professional “cuddler” services is so prolific that he has ended up living out of his car. But is loneliness what chiefly ails these people? And, if so, does their loneliness bespeak an unprecedented emergency? Old women get fed up with their charmless husbands, kids watch the darnedest things on YouTube, and men, as they have done since time immemorial, pay for the company of women. Yet still the world turns.

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Many books about the atrophy of our associational ties and the perils of social isolation have been published in recent years, but we continue to underestimate the problem of loneliness, according to Hertz, because we define loneliness too narrowly. Properly understood, loneliness is a “personal, societal, economic, and political” condition—not just “feeling bereft of love, company, or intimacy” but also “feeling unsupported and uncared for by our fellow citizens, our employers, our community, our government.” This suspiciously baggy definition makes it easier to claim loneliness as the signature feeling of our time, but whether it’s useful to conflate sexlessness and political alienation—or accurate to trace their contemporary manifestations to the same dastardly neoliberal source—is questionable.

Disagreements about definition are at the root of many disputes about loneliness data. Spikes in loneliness were recorded after the J.F.K. assassination and 9/11, raising the possibility that what people were really reporting to survey takers was depression. And even the most soberly worded research is liable to become a bit warped in its journey from social-science lab to newspaper factoid. The figure that Hertz quotes in her first chapter, for example—“Three in five U.S. adults considered themselves lonely”—comes from a Cigna health survey published in 2020, which found that three in five U.S. adults scored more than forty-three points on the U.C.L.A. Loneliness Scale. Scoring high on this twenty-question survey is easier than you might think. In fact, if you answer “Sometimes” to enough questions like “How often do you feel that your interests and ideas are not shared by those around you?,” you have a pretty good chance of being deemed part of America’s loneliness problem. Given such caveats, three out of five seems encouragingly low.

Sociologists who are skeptical about whether loneliness is a growing problem argue that much modern aloneness is a happy, chosen condition. In this view, the vast increase in the number of single-person households in the U.S. over the past fifty years has been driven, more than anything, by affluence, and in particular by the greater economic independence of women. A similarly rosy story of female advancement can be told about the sex-decline data: far from indicating young people’s worrisome retreat from intimacy, the findings are a testament to women’s growing agency in sexual matters. In a recent interview, Stephanie Coontz, a veteran historian of family, said, “The decline in sexual frequency probably reflects women’s increased ability to say no and men’s increased consideration for them.”

This is certainly a jollier view of things than Hertz’s hell-in-a-handbasket account, but, as several women writers have pointed out, reports of modern women’s self-determination in sexual and romantic matters tend toward exaggeration. In “The Lonely Hunter” (Dial), Aimée Lutkin, a writer in her thirties, wrestles with the question of how “chosen” her single life has been. The book describes a year in which she set out to break a six-year spell of near-celibacy by taking up exercise, losing weight, joining a dating site, and so on. The inspiration for this experiment was an evening with friends that left her feeling unfairly blamed for her loneliness.

By the end of the year, she hadn’t found a lasting relationship, but she had gone on many dates, had some sex, and even fallen (unrequitedly) in love for a time, so one might reasonably conclude that the cure for her loneliness had in fact been in her gift all along. She largely rejects this notion, however. To insist that any determined individual can overcome loneliness if she tries hard enough is to ignore the social conditions that make loneliness so common, Lutkin writes. In her case, there were strong economic reasons that she focussed on work rather than on love for many years; she also pursued people who didn’t return her affections. And some significant part of her loneliness came not from being single but from living in a world that regards a romantic partner as the sine qua non of happy adulthood. Ironically, she suggests, celebrating single women as avatars of modern female empowerment has made things harder, not easier, for lonely women, by encouraging the view that their unhappiness is of their own making—the price they pay for putting their careers first, or being too choosy. She notes that the plight of lonely, sexless men tends to inspire more public concern and compassion than that of women. The term “incel” was invented by a woman hoping to commiserate with other unhappily celibate women, but it didn’t get much traction until it was appropriated by men and became a byword for sexual rage. This, Lutkin believes, reflects a conservative conviction that men have a right to sex.

Is this true? A less contentious explanation for the greater attention paid to male sexual inactivity might be that it has risen more dramatically among young men than among young women in recent years. In a study released in 2020, nearly one in three men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four reported no sexual activity in the past year. What’s more, young male sexlessness, unlike the female variety, correlates with unemployment and low income. Men’s greater tendency to violence also probably creates greater public awareness. (Female incels, however grumpy they get, do not generally express their dissatisfaction by shooting up malls.) Nevertheless, Lutkin is surely right that women’s authority over their sexual and romantic fates is not as complete as the popular imagination would have it. Asked to explain why one out of four single American women hasn’t had a sex partner for two or more years (and more than one in ten haven’t had a sex partner for five or more years), researchers have cited women’s aversion to the “roughness” that has become a standard feature of contemporary, porn-inflected sex. In one recent study, around twenty-one per cent of female respondents reported that they had been choked during sex with men; around thirty-two per cent had experienced a man ejaculating on their faces; and thirty-four per cent had experienced “aggressive fellatio.” If, as Stephanie Coontz suggests, women feel freer these days to decline such encounters, that is of course a welcome development, but it’s hard to construe the liberty of choosing between celibacy and sexual strangulation as a feminist triumph.

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