Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Why we’re all too chilled to have sex
A new survey reveals that sex is everywhere except the bedroom.

With wall-to-wall sex in the media, it may come as a surprise that we are not always 'at it'. According to a global survey of sexual behaviour published in the Lancet, almost one in five British men under 70 reported having no sexual partners in the past year and more than a third of men and women aged 16-24 said that they had abstained from sex during the previous year.

One-night stands may be the stuff of reality TV, but in real-reality we have sex with far fewer partners than we suspect. According to the survey, only seven per cent of women and 12 per cent of men had more than one partner in the previous year.

Such surveys are notoriously unreliable because people tend to exaggerate. On this occasion, the response is strangely subdued, suggesting it is no longer fashionable to boast of having several partners.

As an academic who has seen generations of undergraduates come and go, I can confirm that the everyday manifestation of lust on campus is at an all-time low. So what's going on? It appears that in recent decades intimate relationships have become more complicated. The expectation of failure and disappointment surrounds passionate intimacy.

Numerous experts and self-help books advise people to lower their expectations and not to get carried away by love. Passion comes with a health warning and is castigated for causing emotional pain. "Be careful, you may get hurt" is a message that reflects the temper of our time.

One way that people are encouraged to manage the risks attached to hot passion is through what some sociologists call "cultural cooling". Of course, most unattached young people continue to aspire to have passionate relationships, but some are too chilled-out to go the distance.

Published on The First Post, 2 November 2006