The casual engagement — why we’re getting turned off by sex

More and more people are turning away from sex. (Image courtesy of

Just before 12 am on a weeknight, my whole apartment rattles with the urgent buzzing of the intercom.

What happens next is a frenetic flurry: my housemate rushing to the door to let in his latest hook-up, and quickly shuffling them back out between twenty to forty minutes later, all followed by the steady hiss of the shower. (A little water will clear us of this deed?)

It’s a predictable rhythm that I’ve grown accustomed to: sometimes it happens every night of the week, on other occasions once or twice a month; but each late-night caller still brings with it the same reminder.

A long time ago, I decided not to have sex anymore. By that I mean I will not have sex until I am in a committed relationship; and I have been single my whole life.

Well before celibacy even occurred to me, I was blind to how sexualised modern existence has become. People I thought were simply texting or checking emails were in fact swiping left and right on a plethora of dating apps; different friends I assumed to be platonic were actually sleeping with one another and weaving a tangled sexual web that could rival The Bold and the Beautiful.

For a long time, I wondered what was wrong with me that my life in no way resembled this. After all, the people who visit my housemate are nothing if not committed. They happily brave the elements for the most fleeting moments of transcendence, whereas I stay at home and cancel all my plans if there’s so much as a stray cloud roaming the sky.

But, as it turns out, I’m not actually alone in my reluctance.

No study is ever definitive, but recent (2017) research from Archives of Sexual Behaviour found that Americans who fell into the Millenials and iGen generations were less likely to be having sex than those born in the 60s and 70s.

In this study, sexual inactivity was higher amongst young women, while research conducted by the National Survey of Family Growth, and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey pointed to a decline in sex amongst men aged 22–35, (my age bracket) which was far greater over a decade ago.

The rise of the incel — short for involuntary celibate — is even further proof that young people have a lot more on their minds than jumping into bed with strangers.

According to Jacqueline Hellyer, sex therapist from LoveLife, there’s been a seismic shift away from “raunch culture” as more and more people desire something other than a Sex and the City-style life.

“The pendulum has swung and it’s easier to have hook-ups, so a lot of people are finding that they [casual sexual relationships] aren’t actually all that satisfying,” she explains.

“That’s because good sex comes from two people who know each other well. With a stranger, people can feel a bit of a letdown later. It’s kind of like a triple-choc ice-cream — it looks great, but after you’ve eaten it, you feel sick and wish you’d had a piece of fruit instead.”

Jacqueline also points out that women are less likely to orgasm with a stranger.

So why do we do it? “Sexual liberation is still relatively recent in our society,” she adds. “The easy access of apps means we’re like kids in a candy store.”

Despite these liberal attitudes, celibates are still looked upon with disdain and any criticism of sex is generally always met with the most vituperative outbursts. Almost no one even tries to understand asexuals, who are all too often considered aberrations.

Someone who definitely did make an effort to understand everyone is Rachel Hills, journalist and author of The Sex Myth, who spent the better part of 10 years talking to young people around the world about sex. She discovered that, for many of them, sex was over-rated and that the idea that everyone is ‘doing it’ is in fact far from the truth.

Rachel is cognisant of the ostracism faced by those who stop sex. “Because our culture treats sex as a major source of intimacy, pleasure, health, and self-worth it can be confusing to some people when a person voluntarily gives it up,” she tells me.

“That goes double, I think, when the person abstaining is a man — we’re so enculturated to the idea that men ‘always’ want sex that the idea that a man would choose not to have sex is treated as somehow suspect, like he must be hiding something. That said, there is also a kind of power in being the person who chooses to abstain. Under the Sex Myth, it’s better to not have sex because you choose not to than to not have sex because no one chooses to have it with you. Even though, of course, in reality there are plenty of people in both positions.”

When I asked one friend who uses apps for casual sex why they did it, I was told: “I tried dating and it didn’t work. Nobody wants me that way, so I might as well take what I can get.”

As an ugly person with limited sexual currency, I understand their despondency. I might have taken the same route once. Maybe. This friend didn’t seem particularly sad, but their outlook certainly saddened me. Nothing springs to my mind more than the lyrics of Courtney Love, who sang on Live Through This: “Every time I sell myself to you, I feel a little bit cheaper than I need to.” That sort of negotiation isn’t something I’m willing to do.

While I understand the diversion from loneliness which sex can offer, it’s worth asking: is a life without sex really that bad? To my mind, it makes things a whole lot calmer. If it weren’t for sex, Shakespeare might never have penned any of his dramas. You don’t need to be an historian to realise that since time immemorial sexual relationships have been the death of human kind, not to mention the increase of sexually transmitted infections. Sex blurs the boundaries between reality and illusion; it makes us unhinged and crazy (and yes, sometimes, that’s a good thing too). Personally, I like negotiating a world unguided by capricious lust. It’s not that I don’t have a heart; I just like it to beat for different reasons.

I’m happy to consider having sex someday but if — and only if — it’s with someone I truly love. Of course this is old-fashioned, but the idea of meeting someone in the library or a museum and falling in love excites me far more than signing up to something with a name like Bumble, Grindr, Squirt, Down or the like, and hoping that might deliver something.

Ultimately, nobody should have to explain their life, but if anyone did ask me, I’d quote Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, who once wrote that: “In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous.”

I want to be dangerous.

A semi-colon in the shape of a human.