The economic recession of 2008 was bad enough. But we’re in a hidden recession dating from the mid-1990s. It’s also a hidden opportunity for the faith community.
We’re seeing a slew of articles describing the decline of sex. A recent one is Kate Julian’s December cover story in the Atlantic: Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex? Julian says Western societies are in a “sexual recession.”
That describes American high-school students. From 1991 to 2017, the percentage having intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent. “In the space of a generation,” Julian writes, “sex has gone from something most high-school students have experienced to something most haven’t.” Much of this is attributed to the increasing time that young people spend online viewing porn. Julian says its “pleasures” might be acting “as a kind of sexual tranquilizer.” U2 saw this coming long ago, in 1993. We’re numb.
And it’s not just young people. Across the board, those living in Western societies are losing interest in sex. Masturbation and long-term celibacy are on the rise. The more time individuals spend in online sex and self-pleasure, the less they’re drawn to real life sex. They’re losing interest in relationships, marriage, and childbearing.
That’s because porn and masturbation are a powerful mix. Masturbating to porn—and climaxing—releases oxytocin, a bonding chemical. People become bonded to pixelated partners over real life ones, which is why we’ve seen a 100 percent growth since 1992 in the share of men who masturbate at least weekly. Women? A 275 percent increase. The trend is most pronounced among the young.
And it’s worldwide. A 2001 British national survey reported that people ages 16 to 44 had sex more than six times a month on average. By 2012, the rate had dropped to fewer than five times. In Australia, in roughly the same period, they went from having sex about 1.8 times a week to 1.4 times. A study of Finland found declines in intercourse frequency, along with rising rates of masturbation. An entire generation of young Japanese men is described as finding “the imperfect or just unexpected demands of real-world relationships with women less enticing than the lure of the virtual libido.”
This hidden recession has public effects. The US birth rate fell to a record low in 2017. America’s fertility rate is now almost exactly the same as England’s rate, and well below that of France. A smaller working-age population makes Social Security less affordable. The national debt is carried on fewer shoulders.
And this recession is likely to accelerate as artificial intelligence (AI) increases. The April 2018 edition of the Smithsonian touches on this. Tech experts describe some of the unanticipated results, such as how businesses operating in “full-AI zones” will win economically. Those operating on the fringe won’t. They’ll be marginalized.
But Joseph Henrich says “the most unanticipated result is a population imbalance driven by low birth rates in the full-AI zones and higher birth rates elsewhere.” Immersion in AI will offer ever more extraordinarily lifelike erotic experiences. Interest in real sex will likely wane. The result will be increasingly lower birth rates in full-AI zones.
And where will birth rates be higher? In religious communities, writes Henrich. He assumes many faith communities will be judicious, or careful, in their use of social technologies. As a result, they will desire real sex and keep reproducing. As those in full-AI zones “forgo reproduction entirely, the religious people will win.”
Maybe. A 2016 Barna study reveals religious people aren’t very judicious in their use of social technologies like Facebook, Instagram and so on. Immersed in their iPhones as much as everyone else, they’re tempted as much as everyone else to be online all the time, increasing their risk of being pulled into online porn. As a result, 57 percent percent of evangelical pastors and 64 percent of youth pastors struggle with porn addiction. These rates are roughly equivalent to those in the wider world.
There is a solution. It comes from the early church, which was immersed in the Roman Empire, a full-porn zone. Roman men had lost interest in sex. Birth rates fell in the Empire. Early Christians weren’t immersed in porn. They made babies, taking advantage of a hidden opportunity—their superior reproductive rate. Over the course of 300 years, this contributed to the church growing to 50 percent of the Roman Empire.
It’s our opportunity as well. Sex is a signal of transcendence. It best pictures the gospel. If you’re unfamiliar with this, I recommend the work of Christopher West. You’ll see why the gospel, best told in our sexuality as male and female, is an opportunity for the faith community to be savvy about social media and address our hidden recession.
 Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (HarperOne, 2011)