The Celibacy Syndrome
Back half a century ago, the problem of explosive population growth was at the top of the political agenda. Everyone, it seemed, worried about overpopulation and anticipated unmanageable stress on global resources if family size wasn’t limited. Somehow, though, in the intervening years, the topic seemed to slip under the radar. Couples kept having babies without restraint and the world got increasingly cramped.
But nature has a way of correcting itself, and now there’s a phenomenon occurring that might inadvertently put the lid on uncontrolled population growth. In some parts of the world, people are losing interest in sex. This is particularly true in Japan, where nearly half of all young people between ages 18 and 34 are still virgins.1 A recent survey indicates that 64-percent of Japanese people in that same age group have never had a relationship.2 An earlier study found that 30 percent of Japanese men under age 30 had never dated at all.3 And it’s not like they want a relationship. A survey by the Japan Family Planning Association found that 45 percent of women and 26 percent of men aged 16-24 " were not interested in or despised sexual contact."4
There’s even a word to describe the disinterest in sex: “Mendokusai." It means, “I can’t be bothered,” or “too troublesome.” And there’s a term to describe the larger-scale phenomenon: sekkusu shinai shokogun, which means “celibacy syndrome.” It affects not only single people but married folks as well. In the Japan Family Planning Association survey, 21.3% of married men and 17.8% of married women said they didn’t want sex because of fatigue from work, while 23% of married women said sex was "bothersome" and 17.9% of male respondents said they had little interest in (or a strong dislike of) sex. Fewer babies are being born while the population ages, to the point where adult diaper sales exceed baby diaper sales.5
The result is that Japan’s population is shrinking—a lot. In the one year between 2016 and 2017, the country lost a headcount of 300,000. Projections cited by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research show that number set to fall 900,000 a year by 2045, which will reduce the nation’s population by one-third. Between that fact and the country’s aversion to allowing in immigrants, there’s an acute labor shortage. The country is addressing it by using an abundance of robots, even in face-to-face customer service roles, while considering raising the retirement age to 75.6
Before dismissing sekkusu shinai shokogun as a uniquely Japanese trend, consider that Russia, too, is experiencing steep population declines; it’s expected to be down to 111 million citizens by 2050, a drop from 143 million today, although that might have as much to do with high mortality rates as with low birth rates.7 The birth rate in countries like Italy, Portugal, Monaco is identical to the birth rate in Japan, in other words, low. The number of babies per woman in Japan is the same as in Germany, Switzerland, and Croatia.8
In the US, the birth rate in the US has been on a steady decline since 2008, with a three percent drop in the last year alone.9 In fact, the birth rate hit a record low in 2017 for the second consecutive year. Although there are seven percent more women of childbearing age now than ten years ago in the US, half a million fewer babies were born. While expanded use of birth control may explain the trend, there’s also evidence that sexual activity in the US is on the decline. A 2016 study published in The Archives of Sexual Behavior found a dramatic drop since the 1990s in the number of young adults between age 20-24 who were having sex. A study the next year found that Americans in all demographic groups were having sex 15 percent less often in the 2010s compared to the 1990s.10 Surveys in Australia and Great Britain found similar declines.
These figures do not necessarily indicate that the celibacy syndrome has caught on in the West, though some believe that young people are turning to pornography and internet activities in lieu of real-life intimacy. As we’ve written before, “A UK study found a 40 percent increase in men who no longer want to have sex with their partners -- and the study authors point to internet porn as a major factor. In a separate study, French researcher Serge Stoleru found that young men who overindulged in viewing porn had considerably diminished sexual responsiveness.” In that same blog, we noted that internet porn is triggering an "impotence pandemic," with an incredible 50 percent of men now unable to perform with their partners.”
And then, a study just out this week shows that television viewing also undermines sex lives. The study tracked four million people in 80 countries and found those who owned TVs had at least a six-percent reduced chance of having had sex the previous week.11 Experts also blame smart phones and mobile devices, especially when people bring them to bed. A UK study found that electricity use peaks between 10 pm and 11 pm, when couples stream Netflix or cruise the internet instead of being intimate. According to David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from Cambridge University, “People are having less sex. Sexually active couples between 16 and 64 were asked, and the median was five times in the last month in 1990, then four times in 2000 and three times in 2010.”
In Japan, the celibacy epidemic seems to have a lot to do with work. Women in Japan are expected to quit their jobs when they marry, and many don’t want to be locked into a stifling gender role or to hamper their budding careers. And then, huge numbers of Japanese workers do not have steady careers but instead do contract work, which demands very long hours and offers low pay.12 Both men and women end up working so hard for so many hours that they just don’t have energy left for sex. In fact, there’s a Japanese term for death by overwork: “karoshi.”
In spite of the celibacy syndrome, there’s little worry that we’ll run out of people on the planet anytime soon. Still, the trend does raise concern that less-than-optimal mental health, overwork, and media are undermining a basic human drive.
Note: In Japan, the low birth rate has finally begun to inch upwards and is now rivaling what it was in the mid-90s, hovering around 1.44. Childcare may be a big reason why. In 2017, Prime Minister Abe was re-elected on a platform which included free daycare and kindergarten for all Japanese kids from three to five, regardless of their income. Slowly but surely, as more women have joined the Japanese workforce, the birth rate in the country has steadily climbed.
- 1. Brook, Benedict. “Japan’s population is shrinking because no one is having sex.” 10 July 2017. New York Post. 8 August 2018. https://nypost.com/2017/07/10/japans-population-is-shrinking-because-no-one-is-having-sex/
- 2. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-40511655/japanese-young-people-not-having-sex
- 3. Beth.”30% of Single Japanese Men Have Never Dated a Woman.” 3 April 2013. Japan Crush. 8 August 2018. https://www.japancrush.com//2013/stories/30-of-single-japanese-men-have-never-dated-a-woman.html
- 4. “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” The Guardian. 8 August 2018]. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex
- 5. Berke, Jeremy. “Japan’s demographic time bomb is getting more dire, and it’s a bad omen for the country.” 5 June 2018. Business Insider. 8 August 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/japans-population-is-shrinking-demographic-time-bomb-2018-6
- 6. “Robots Tested in Japan Companies.” 19 October 1016. CNN. 8 August 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2015/04/24/asia/japan-robots-work/index.html
- 7. Rosenberg, Matt. “Population Declines in Russia.” 6 March 2018. Thoughtco. 8 August 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/population-decline-in-russia-1435266
- 8. Turner, Donna. “Celibacy Syndrome: What is It, And Should We Be Concerned?” Volonte. 8 August 2018. https://www.lelo.com/blog/celibacy-syndrome-what-is-it-and-should-we-be-concerned/
- 9. Tavernise, Sabrina. “US Fertility Rate Fell to a Record Low, For the Second Straight Year.” 16 May 2018. New York Times. 8 August 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/17/us/fertility-rate-decline-united-states.html
- 10. Copland, Simon. “The many reasons that people are having less sex.” 9 May 2017. BBC. 8 August 2018. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170508-the-many-reasons-that-people-are-having-less-sex
- 11. Fottrell, Quentin. “A conservative estimate of how television damages your sex life (and it doesn’t even include Netflix). 7 August 2018. Marketwatch.com. 8 August 2017. https://secure.marketwatch.com/story/this-is-what-television-does-to-your-sex-life-its-not-pretty-2018-08-06?link=mw_latest_news
- 12. Semuels, Alana. “The Mystery of Why Japanese People are Having So Few Babies.” 20 July 2017. The Atlantic. 8 August 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/07/japan-mystery-low-birth-rate/534291/