Is modern life hampering young people’s ability, or even desire, to get into relationships or have sex?
Social media, easy access to pornography and young people becoming more career-oriented, appear to have created a climate where they either lack the desire to pursue a partner or have replaced human relationships with online ones.
International research suggests Millennials — those aged between 22 and 37 — are having noticeably less sex than generations past, and experts are still struggling to get to grips with social changes which are emerging as a result of modern life.
Since younger people today are essentially growing up using technology to communicate with people, the chance to be social in their free time is to an extent replaced with the computer screen.
And this is all happening in arguably the most sexually free period in history, where sex is seemingly no longer a taboo subject.
Differences in gender identification and sexual preferences are part of mainstream dialogue, magazines marketed to teenagers are swapping cartoon characters for more mature articles on sex and dating.
There are even apps for people to form relationships or have casual sex.
And while research on this front may be scarce in South Africa, experts have agreed that the same phenomenon is seen to be growing among young people in the country.
“Just because there is more access to forming sexual relationships and more tolerance for sexual and gender differences doesn’t mean there’s more sex, interestingly enough,” said Dr Anthony Smith, the president elect of the Southern African Sexual Health Association.
“Many think there’s a hook-up culture happening, but that’s just a percentage of the total number of young people. There have been big societal changes which have occurred in the past 20 years or so, and that has changed the way people relate to each other.”
Smith said some contributing factors for this could be social media and Internet use leading to the “devaluing” of face-to-face relationships.
“There is also a greater insecurity about jobs, so people dedicate time to careers or studies and there’s a greater discouragement about falling in love and forming relationships earlier.
“There is also the rise of the use of porn and the rise of young people relating [to each other] through technology, and this leads to them giving real relationships less importance.”
He added that constant social-media usage could lead to anxiety. “It brings in the comparative issue of seeing other people ‘doing better’. It just totally magnifies this in a way that my generation certainly didn’t.”
Culture expert Professor Jean-Philippe Wade echoed Smith. “People project a certain self-image online and this can detach people from real life.
“Even if we look at porn, it detaches sex from emotion and depicts a skewed representation of sex.”
Wade said: “Most interactions for young people these days are mediated online and people hop from one app to another. This certainly affects people’s competence in real social circumstances.
“The Internet offers near-endless distractions and there’s only a finite amount of time in a day and it seems as if [young people are] choosing to ‘live online’ instead.”
Wade said there has somehow been a “claw back” from the sexual liberation seen in the sixties.
Social movements like #MeToo, where women describe their unwanted sexual encounters and sometimes name the perpetrator, have likely empowered women to respond to sexual advances in ways previous generations did not.
“Maybe they feel more independence in choosing for themselves and not accepting bad sex or being coerced,” Smith said.
He added that the breaking down of traditional gender roles adds to the challenge of people relating to each other. “Lots of old relationships were quite polarising in terms of male and female roles … [but there was an] amount of certainty about what each person should do.
“But now relationships have to be negotiated one step at a time and that takes a lot of energy in itself.”
The same principle applies with porn
A person seeing sexual videos or photos fires off the same response in the brain, but has the exact same consequence.
Soon, after consuming a lot of porn, there becomes a need to seek out more unconventional or extreme types to satisfy the impulse.
Soon enough, a normal human partner may not suffice.
This is what’s known as Porn-Induced Erectile Dysfunction — or PIED — where a young person, who should be in their sexual prime, is unable to become aroused by a normal sexual experience.
Once again, the ease and availability of porn makes it more attractive than pursuing a real intimate relationship.
Porn use is very popular in South Africa, with famous website Pornhub ranking the country as the top porn-watching country in Africa.
Consequences of online relationships
Psychologist Clive Willows says social media makes a person detached, more self-centred and causes their bonds with people to be less intimate.
He told Weekend Witness that establishing relationships on social media to a large extent negates the chance for a deep connection with a person.
“People on social media are much more careful about what they disclose regarding themselves, and things like facial expressions and tone of voice are not there. It is a less intimate relationship.
“Also, people don’t get as emotionally involved and so people find it easier to end relationships and move onto others.”
Willows continued: “Relationships will be unstable and less permanent, and people don’t have to work through issues. They will even break up using an SMS so they don’t have to face the person.”
He said this may be preferred by anxious people who are afraid of getting hurt, but added that a proper face-to-face relationship had long-term benefits.
“In a relationship which is working well there are huge benefits, but people who keep a distance to avoid being hurt don’t experience the benefits.”
He added that he is seeing more people with this kind of behaviour in his practice.
Why is social media addictive?
Social media’s ability to facilitate people’s desire to build networks with other people has huge benefits for humanity, whether it involves helping a person find their “tribe” online, helping create strong bonds among people united in a cause, or for creating new business opportunities.
So how is it that such an important advancement can have such a devastating effect when it comes to real human relationships?
Apart from the enjoyment factor, the reason why it becomes an addiction could be to do with the reward and motivation system in the brain.
In its simplest form, when a person sees food or a potential partner, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released and that motivates them to go after that thing.
When it comes to social media, “likes” and other interactions cause dopamine to be released, which makes a person want to chase that feeling again. The trouble is that because the “reward” in this case is relatively easy to achieve, there can be a dopamine overload, and the receptors then become dull.
At this point, a person’s threshold to feel the pleasure is heightened and will therefore need more “likes” or more followers or more interactions to get the sense of reward.
There is a school of thought that says attracting “likes” on social media fulfils the “self-actualisation” human need on the hierarchy of human needs popularised by U.S. psychologist Abraham Maslow.
The hierarchy of needs was derived to understand human motivations, so this would make being popular on social media as most important to a person after food, security, relationships and self-esteem are met. The brain usually favours the path of least resistance, and because the route to achieving the reward is easier, going for “likes” on social media is favoured over pursuing relationships with real people, which has complications.
New social phenomena changing the way we view sex and relationships
The mostly-online movement Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) is cautioning men about relationships with women.
The movement’s philosophy lies in part with questioning “double standards” regarding gender which seem to favour women, such as in domestic disputes and divorce matters.
Critics of the movement, however, believe that MGTOW is preferred by those who are frustrated to the point where they have given up on dating, and MGTOW offers them a home.
Other examples of behaviour or lifestyle choices that are not considered “traditional” include:
* Herbivore men — Herbivore men, or grass-eater men, is a term which originated in Japan to describe men who have no interest in romantic relationships.
By the same token, another phenomenon in Japan, called parasite singles, is when women live with their parents beyond well into adulthood to enjoy a more carefree and comfortable life, avoiding some of responsibilities associated with the adult world.
* Sex dolls — There has been a rise of sex dolls over the past few years, with the dolls having become sophisticated to the point where the latex casing on them feeling like real flesh.
These dolls sometimes even have robotic parts to simulate the experience more realistically.
So, what do we do about it?
Dr Anthony Smith, of the Southern African Sexual Health Association, said it was important to not simply condemn the younger generations merely because their actions were different to previous ones.
“Society may change as a whole and the impact of a lack of face-to-face relationships may change depending on that.”
He goes on to add: “Eventually a person will want to have an intimate relationship with someone, but the concern is that they won’t be well equipped to make that happen.
“We may find completely new problems emerging because previous generations weren’t like this and we would have to learn from scratch how to deal with them.”
Smith said helping someone who isn’t socially competent enough to get into a relationship begins with taking an audit of their life.
“We would need to make a diagnosis first; what is the nature of the problem? Is there a mental problem or are their social skills just like a muscle that is weak?
“From then on it really is just about exposure and going out into the world and escaping their comfort zone.”
The benefits of a healthy sex life
Sex is a central part of emotional and physical health. Regular sex helps increase intimacy and the ability to express your feelings toward your partner. Physically it is also good for your health by reducing stress and making you feel good about yourself.
Having sex is also known to make people happy, and at an emotionally unsettling time in life, regular sex with your partner can ease anxiety and even depression.
Sexual activity can increase your levels of oxytocin, which has been shown to decrease anxiety and stress levels. This can also have an effect on how the blood vessels respond to stress, and decrease blood pressure and stroke risks caused by high blood pressure.
Sex has also been shown to release endorphins, which act as natural painkillers.
Being sexually satisfied has also been linked to enjoying a better quality of life.
Sex with your partner can lead to better communication within the relationship, strengthening your bond and increasing overall intimacy.