Photo by Tom Magliery, Flickr CC

According to a recent survey, Americans are having less sex — about nine fewer times per year in the early 2010s compared to the 1990s. In fact, millennials are one of the groups who have sex the least often. If you’re wondering, those born in the 1930s were having sex the most. For anyone who has heard about young people engaging in “hookup culture,” this probably comes as a surprise. But, so what? Why should we care how often people are having sex or who their sexual partners are?

Studying sexual practice can reveal underlying norms and expectations, especially related to gender. For instance, a 2016 study linked egalitarian heterosexual relationships, where the couples share gendered household chores, to greater sexual frequency. In another study, researchers found that the number of women who report ever having had sex with both men and women or just women (and identifying as bisexual or gay) has increased; however, the same study reported same-sex encounters have not increased for men. The researchers speculate that this could be a result of differing norms for men and women where it is more acceptable for women to deviate from heterosexual gender norms.
Studying sexual behavior can reveal how identities are formed, as well. In recent years, research has explored why some people engage in same gender sex but still identify as straight. For some white men, sex with other men does not threaten their heterosexuality, but rather bolsters their masculinity and serves to reaffirm their identities as straight men. On the other hand, some women who had children with men felt that fact foreclosed their possibilities of claiming LGBTQ identities.
Inequalities also appear in sexual relationships. A sexual standard still exists for women in hookups, where men’s pleasure is central. While both men and women agree that women should be entitled to sexual pleasure in relationships, they do not agree that this is the case for casual hookups. Racial stereotypes also follow individuals into the bedroom. For instance, racially ambiguous individuals are often considered “exotic” by romantic interests. For some, women especially, this means they are viewed as more sexually exciting or only considered as hook ups. For some men, this means they are excluded from hook ups because they are considered “babymakers.”