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Why do people in France say they're having less sex?

By RFI
France  Getty ImagesiStockphoto - SeventyFour
FEB 11, 2024 LISTEN
© Getty Images/iStockphoto - SeventyFour

Adults in France, like in many western countries, are having sex less frequently – with the decline particularly noticeable in young people, a new survey shows. While the reasons are complex, the data indicates that generational shifts, new technologies and greater acceptance of different desires all play a part.

Among "sexually initiated" 18-69 year olds – people who have had sex at least once in their lives – nearly a quarter said they hadn't slept with anyone in the past 12 months: 22 percent among men and 26 percent among women.

The results are from a survey commissioned by sex toy maker Lelo and published this week by French polling institute Ifop.

That's 15 percent more than in 2006, when a larger study found that only 11 percent of women and 7 percent of men said they hadn't been sexually active during the previous year. 

The figure is up across all age groups, but especially among young adults between 18 and 24 – 28 percent of whom reported being sexually inactive in the latest survey, compared to just 5 percent in 2006. 

Among people in their 50s, the proportion of people not having sex rose steeply from 10 to 35 percent.

Shifting norms

Across the whole population – including people who've never had sex – fewer than half (43 percent) say they do it at least once a week. In 2009, another study put that figure at 58 percent.

In total, Ifop calculates that 41 percent of adults in France are not having sex at all.

"It's clear the phenomenon of declining sexual activity that we've seen in the United States, the UK, Germany and other western countries is also affecting France," says François Kraus, who directs Ifop's work on gender, sexuality and sexual health.

He puts this down to various reasons, notably to do with changes in technology, society and culture as well as other influences from mental health to hormones and pollution.

Some of the explanations could even be considered positive, Kraus told RFI.

While 52 percent of women told Ifop they had had sex without really wanting to, in one 1981 survey, the figure was as high as 76 percent. 

"There's a revolution underway when it comes to consent, and the idea of conjugal duty has been deconstructed to a certain extent," says Kraus.

"All that means that women, especially, no longer force themselves as much to have sex just for their partner's sake."

Ideas about what's normal or acceptable are changing in all sorts of ways, including becoming more tolerant of people who aren't interested in sex with others at all.

Twelve percent of respondents described themselves as asexual – permanently feeling low or no sexual attraction – including 15 percent of women and 9 percent of men. 

Among women over 70, the proportion was as high as 23 percent.

It's hard to judge whether the numbers have increased over time, since previous surveys didn't ask the question – telling in itself.

Frustrations, distractions

Not everyone is having less sex by choice.
The biggest single reason Ifop's respondents gave for not having sex was not having found the right partner, which was the case for 67 of men and 61 percent of women. 

More than 60 percent of men also said they hadn't met someone who wanted to have sex with them and/or that they felt no one was attracted to them.

Men who described themselves as not feminist were least satisfied with the amount of sex they were having: 59 percent of such men said they didn't think they did it enough, compared to 34 percent of men who identified as "very feminist". 

According to Kraus, technological distractions such as smartphones may also be playing a role.

"They pose a problem because they eat up what precious time we have to spend with another person, as a couple for instance, which instead goes on watching Netflix or scrolling on social media," he said.

"And all that changes, of course, our opportunities to have sex."

Nearly a third of people surveyed said they had turned down a chance to have sex in order to watch something, go on social media, play video games or read.

Among 18-34 year olds living with a partner, that rose to as many as 43 percent of women and 57 percent of men.

Generational gap

The problem with this and other surveys, of course, is that we have no way of knowing how honest participants are being about their sex lives. 

This latest poll, which was carried out on online at the beginning of the year on a sample of around 1,900 people, may not be evidence that people in France are having less sex today than in the past; it could just be that previous survey-takers were exaggerating. 

Either way, Kraus believes the data indicates that French society's values are shifting. 

He sees the drop in the amount of sex people claim to have as a reaction against the "hypersexualisation" of the 1980s and 90s, when sex was omnipresent in popular culture and it was assumed a healthy sex life meant the most active one possible. 

"Like every new generation, this one is distancing itself from the previous one" by rejecting those assumptions, Kraus says.

"Now they have alternatives like porn and sex toys to satisfy their needs, and other ways of gratifying their ego on social media and through social interaction more broadly, we're seeing that sex itself is prized a lot less highly."

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