Much solid research has shown that sexual activity among teen and young adult singles, among others, has declined significantly in recent years (1). However, little has been done to learn to what extent these declines meaningfully extend to religiously-affiliated people. That is a glaring omission. Moreover, understanding if there has been a decline among their ranks and, if so, how much and in what ages particularly, is an important question for church leaders and parents responsible for effectively communicating Christian sexual ethics to their charges.
In this brief article I address this gap, focusing on young single Catholics particularly. As you will see, the story of declining sexual activity among young singles is reflected in statistics for Catholics but only partially and not to a degree that should give us much comfort (2).
The first four figures below show the percentages who have ever engaged in sexual intercourse, by age group and overall, for never-married Catholics 15 through 27. Figure 1—ages 15 through 27 combined—shows a statistically significant decline between 2002 and the 2018/2019 years overall and for active parishioners who attend Mass at least weekly. But the specific age graphs show that the only age group that really declined significantly—both overall and weekly Mass attenders—were those 18 through 22 (3). This is different than the overall decline among teens shown in analyses of NSFG data that did not take religion into account.
What about the complete lack of decline shown among those 23 through 27 in Figure 4? I think this is because Catholics who are more committed to chastity, whether or not they have been completely successful or attend Mass faithfully, are more likely to marry at younger ages. In my position as a Christian college professor who teaches on marriage and family—and so interacts with them on such issues—this is certainly something I see among young religious people generally. There are probably less Catholic singles committed to chastity among those in their later 20s.
The next three figures focus only on never-married Catholics who have had sexual intercourse at least one time. The focus here is upon what percentages have been unusually promiscuous, measured here as three or more sex partners in their lifetime. Because those 15 through 17 have not had much time to build up a large number of partners, and most have not had sex at all yet, these figures are restricted to those 18 through 27.
For those 18 through 27 combined, shown in Figure 5, there is a statistically significant decline only between 2012/13 and 2018/19 for all Catholics as opposed to only those who attended Mass at least once a week. The same holds true for those 23 through 27, as shown in Figure 7. For those 18 through 22, shown in Figure 6, for all Catholics and not just those who attend Mass weekly or more, there was a significant decline between 2012/13 and 2014/15, but then it climbed again. Overall, there were no significant declines for those 18 through 22 (4).
The bottom line is that the percentages having three or more sex partners in their lifetime, for those who have ever had sex, show no decline over the entire period from 2002 forward, though we have seen some declines since 2012/13.
It is worth focusing on the 18 through 22 group, comparing Figures 2 and 6. For these young adult Catholic singles, the main issue is whether they commence having sexual intercourse at all. Since 2002, we have seen a marked decline in the percentages ever having sex. But among those who do begin having sex, most go on to have three or more sex partners. And that is not declining. Pastors and parents, take note: focus on preventing that first slip. When young Catholic singles have sex, they usually go on to multiple partners.
Finally, I examined trends for whether respondents had sex within the past year, or past three months, among those who had ever had sexual intercourse. I looked only at those 18 through 27, since the numbers of those 15 through 17 who had commenced sex were so small.
On the first of these, there were no meaningful long-term changes. For example, by group and total, in 2002 overall, percentages ranged between 10 percent and 12 percent having sex within the past year, while among weekly Mass attenders, percentages ranged from 16 to 19 percent. In 2018/19, they ranged from 8 percent to 14 percent overall, versus 12 percent to 13 percent among weekly church attenders. That is, there were no meaningful changes.
As for sex within the past three months, in 2002 overall, percentages ranged between 24 percent and 25 percent, while for weekly church attenders they ranged from 73 percent to 64 percent. In 2018/19, they ranged from 71 percent to 73 percent, versus 69 percent to 68 percent among weekly church attenders. For single Catholics 23 through 27 overall, the percentage who had sex within the past three months increased from 75 percent to 79 percent between 2002 and 2010, remaining level from two cycles before dropping to 74 percent in 2016/17 and 71 percent in 2018/19. This is not meaningful change.
Overall, it is fair to say that most of the decline among young single Catholics in sexual activity in this analysis has been in two limited areas. First, there are those 18 through 22, both overall and weekly Mass attenders, ever having sex at all. Second, there are those 23 through 27 who have had sex with three or more partners in their lifetimes. For them, overall, there has been significant and steady decline since 2012/13.
But sadly, for weekly Mass attenders of that age group, the percentages having three or more partners actually increased, if anything, over that period, with a drop in 2014/15 before recommencing its climb. This analysis does not show major declines in sexual partners and activity, across the board, among young single Catholics.
Research on causes for decline in sexual activity among young singles overall suggests the influence of factors that have little to do with religious commitment. In fact, some are actually things which Catholic leaders would find morally problematic. Influencing factors include: being caught up in computer gaming, female fears of sexual practices they find degrading and even frightening, fewer young people exaggerating how much sex they have, sex devoid of human partners—such as porn and virtual reality, less involvement in romantic relationships, fears about the negative consequences of sex such as pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections, fewer young people drinking heavily, and the so-called “MeToo” movement pushing cumbersome demands that young people obtain consent prior to sexual activity (5).
In those limited areas where there has been decline in sexual activity among young Catholic singles, could this be because they are becoming more committed to their Faith? That appears unlikely. Among never-married Catholics in the age groups we have looked at, in 2002 the percentages attending Mass at least weekly were 39 percent, 23 percent, and 19 percent for ages 15 through 17, 18 through 22, and 23 through 27, respectively.
By 2018/19, those percentages were 34 percent, 24 percent, 18 percent, similar with that for younger Catholics, actually having declined 5 percent. And asked how important religion is in their daily lives, 35 percent of single Catholics ages 15 through 27 said “very” in both 2002 and 2018/19. There is no evidence that the religious commitment of young single Catholics is improving, and therefore declines in their sexual activity cannot be traced to it.
As we social scientists find repeatedly and is evident here, however, commitment does matter. The first goal of Catholic clergy and parents who are concerned with chastity among single Catholics should be getting them involved in regular attendance and other aspects of the life of the Church. Only then can they be effectively encouraged and instructed in the Faith. One cannot give Church instruction and encouragement to people who are rarely in church.
But as we know, and is also obvious here, church attendance itself does not produce automatic results. Through the pulpit and other teaching ministries of the Church, Catholic young people need those in authority to provide them with sound instruction and example, rooted in the whole counsel of the Scriptures and historic Church teaching. We must not avoid tackling the tough issues, feelings, desires, and attraction young people are wrestling with in an extremely difficult cultural landscape hostile to Christian sexual teaching.
There must also be efforts to strengthen their parents’ marriages and parenting skills and discourage unsound practices in dating, peer relations, and the use of media—especially the Internet. Then perhaps we will see much more significant decline in sexual activity among young Catholic singles, and for the right reasons.
(1) Here are some major recent examples: Herbenick, Debby, Molly Rosenberg, Lilian Golzarri-Arroyo, J. Dennis Fortenberry, and Tsung-chieh Fu,” Changes in Penile-Vaginal Intercourse Frequency and Sexual Repertoire from 2009 to 2018: Findings from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior,” Archives of Sexual Behavior Vol. 51 (April 2022): 1419-1433; Williamson, Emily, “People Have Been Having Less Sex—Whether They’re Teenagers or 40-Somethings,” Scientific American, January 3, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/people-have-been-having-less-sex-whether-theyre-teenagers-or-40-somethings/. And from 2015, then 2018: Leonard, Kimberly, “Teens Today Have Less Sex Than Their Parents Did,” U.S News & World Report, July 22, 2015, https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/07/22/cdc-report-shows-declines-in-teen-sexual-activity-pregnancies; New, Michael J., “CDC Report Shows Reductions in Teen Sexual Activity,” National Review, January 8, 2018, https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/teen-sexual-activity-decline/.
(2) I use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Survey for Family Growth (NSFG). I go back to when they first began surveying both male and female respondents in 2002, then the next release cycle which covered years 2006 through 2010 combined. From there, I combined the last four cycles, separating the data into four two-year periods from 2012/13 through 2018/19. This allowed me to keep samples large enough to enable me to pull out young, single Catholics separately and still have meaningful data. Throughout, I combined male and female respondents separately and weighted the data to 50/50 male versus female to correct for the fact that females are consistently overrepresented in the NSFG.
(3) Differences between 2002 and 2018/2019 are significant at the probability of error < .01 level for ages 15 through 27 inclusive, and for 18 through 22. But there are no statistically significant differences at all between these two time periods for ages 15 through 17, or 23 through 27.
(4) Between 2012/13 and 2018/19 for all single Catholics ages 18 through 27 combined, there was a significant decline, probability of error <.05. For all single Catholics 18 through 22, the percentages significantly dropped between 2013/14 and 2014/15—probability of error <.05. But then those percentages climbed, and the drop from 2013/14 through 2018/19 was not significant, wiping out the temporary one-year improvement. For all single Catholics between 23 and 27, there was a significant decline between 2014/15 and 2018/19, probability of error <.05. For those 23 through 27 who were weekly Mass attenders, however, there was a significant rise between 2002 and 2012/13—probability or error <.05—and after that the decline was not statistically significant.
(5) Herbenick, Debby, Molly Rosenberg, Lilian Golzarri-Arroyo, J. Dennis Fortenberry, and Tsung-chieh Fu,” Changes in Penile-Vaginal Intercourse Frequency and Sexual Repertoire from 2009 to 2018,” 1426-27.
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