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books How Everyone Got So Lonely

The recent decline in rates of sexual activity has been attributed variously to sexism, neoliberalism, and women’s increased economic independence. How fair are those claims—and will we be saved by the advent of the sex robot?

Intimina - Sexual Wellness,

At the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, some people predicted that lockdowns and work-at-home rules would produce great surges in sexual activity, just as citywide blackouts have been said to do in the past. No such luck. In November, a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that the pandemic had caused a small but significant diminution in Americans’ sexual desire, pleasure, and frequency. It’s easy enough to see how the threat of a lethal virus might have had a generally anaphrodisiac effect. Quite aside from the difficulty of meeting new partners and the chilling consequences of being cooped up with the same old ones, evolutionary psychologists speculate that we have a “behavioral immune system” that protects us in times of plague by making us less attracted to and less motivated to affiliate with others.

Not so obvious is why, for several years before the virus appeared on our shores, we had already been showing distinct signs of sluggishness in the attraction and affiliation departments. In 2018, nearly a quarter of Americans—the highest number ever recorded—reported having no sex at all in the previous twelve months. Only thirty-nine per cent reported having intercourse once or more a week, a drop of twelve percentage points since 1996. The chief driver of this so-called “sex drought” is not, as one might expect, the aging of the American population but the ever more abstemious habits of the young. Since the nineteen-nineties, the proportion of American high-school students who are virgins has risen from forty-five per cent to sixty per cent. People who are in their early twenties are estimated to be two and half times more likely to be sexually inactive than members of Gen X were at the same age.

One partial explanation for this trend—versions of which have been observed across the industrialized world—is that today’s young adults are less likely to be married and more likely to be living at home with their parents than previous cohorts. In the U.S., living with parents is now the most common domestic circumstance for people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. Even after accounting for these less than favorable conditions, however, the suspicion remains that young people are not as delighted by sex as they once were. Speculation about why this might be so tends to reflect the hobbyhorse of the speculator. Some believe that poisons in our environment are playing havoc with hormones. Others blame high rates of depression and the drugs used to treat it. Still others contend that people are either sublimating their sexual desires in video games or exhausting them with pornography. (The dubious term “sexual anorexia” has been coined to describe the jadedness and dysfunction that afflict particularly avid male consumers of Internet porn.)

Books reviewed in this essay:

The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That's Pulling Apart
By Noreena Hertz
Penguin Random House; 347 pages
February 2, 2021
Hardcover:  $28.00
ISBN 9780593135839

The Lonely Hunter - How Our Search for Love is Broken: A Memoir
By Aimée Lutkin
The Dial Press / Penguin Random House; 353 pages
February 8, 2022
Paperback:  $18.00
ISBN 9781984855886

Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis
By Laura Kipnis
Pantheon / Penguin Random House; 224 pages
February 8, 2022
Hardcover:  $26.00
ISBN 9780593316283

Relationships 5.0: How AI, VR, and Robots Will Reshape Our Emotional Lives
By Elyakim Kislev
Oxford University Press; 298 pages
March 15, 2022
Hardcover:  $24.95
ISBN-13: 9780197588253

For the British economist Noreena Hertz, the decline in sex is best understood as both a symptom and a cause of a much wider “loneliness epidemic.” In her book “The Lonely Century” (Currency), she describes “a world that’s pulling apart,” in which soaring rates of social isolation threaten not only our physical and mental health but the health of our democracies. She cites many factors that have contributed to this dystopian moment—among them, smartphones, the gig economy, the contactless economy, the growth of cities, the rise in single-person households, the advent of the open-plan office, the replacement of mom-and-pop stores with anonymous hyper-chains, and “hostile” civic architecture—but she believes that the deepest roots of our current crisis lie in the neoliberal revolution of the nineteen-eighties and the ruthless free-market principles championed by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, et al. In giving license to greed and selfishness, she writes, neoliberalism fundamentally reshaped not just economic relationships “but also our relationships with each other.”

In illustrating its thesis, this book draws a wide array of cultural and socioeconomic phenomena into its thematic centrifuge. Hertz’s examples of global loneliness include elderly women in Japan who get themselves convicted of petty crimes so that they can find community in prison; South Korean devotees of mukbang, the craze for watching people eat meals on the Internet; and a man in Los Angeles whose use of expensive professional “cuddler” services is so prolific that he has ended up living out of his car. But is loneliness what chiefly ails these people? And, if so, does their loneliness bespeak an unprecedented emergency? Old women get fed up with their charmless husbands, kids watch the darnedest things on YouTube, and men, as they have done since time immemorial, pay for the company of women. Yet still the world turns.

Many books about the atrophy of our associational ties and the perils of social isolation have been published in recent years, but we continue to underestimate the problem of loneliness, according to Hertz, because we define loneliness too narrowly. Properly understood, loneliness is a “personal, societal, economic, and political” condition—not just “feeling bereft of love, company, or intimacy” but also “feeling unsupported and uncared for by our fellow citizens, our employers, our community, our government.” This suspiciously baggy definition makes it easier to claim loneliness as the signature feeling of our time, but whether it’s useful to conflate sexlessness and political alienation—or accurate to trace their contemporary manifestations to the same dastardly neoliberal source—is questionable.

Disagreements about definition are at the root of many disputes about loneliness data. Spikes in loneliness were recorded after the J.F.K. assassination and 9/11, raising the possibility that what people were really reporting to survey takers was depression. And even the most soberly worded research is liable to become a bit warped in its journey from social-science lab to newspaper factoid. The figure that Hertz quotes in her first chapter, for example—“Three in five U.S. adults considered themselves lonely”—comes from a Cigna health survey published in 2020, which found that three in five U.S. adults scored more than forty-three points on the U.C.L.A. Loneliness Scale. Scoring high on this twenty-question survey is easier than you might think. In fact, if you answer “Sometimes” to enough questions like “How often do you feel that your interests and ideas are not shared by those around you?,” you have a pretty good chance of being deemed part of America’s loneliness problem. Given such caveats, three out of five seems encouragingly low.

Sociologists who are skeptical about whether loneliness is a growing problem argue that much modern aloneness is a happy, chosen condition. In this view, the vast increase in the number of single-person households in the U.S. over the past fifty years has been driven, more than anything, by affluence, and in particular by the greater economic independence of women. A similarly rosy story of female advancement can be told about the sex-decline data: far from indicating young people’s worrisome retreat from intimacy, the findings are a testament to women’s growing agency in sexual matters. In a recent interview, Stephanie Coontz, a veteran historian of family, said, “The decline in sexual frequency probably reflects women’s increased ability to say no and men’s increased consideration for them.”

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This is certainly a jollier view of things than Hertz’s hell-in-a-handbasket account, but, as several women writers have pointed out, reports of modern women’s self-determination in sexual and romantic matters tend toward exaggeration. In “The Lonely Hunter” (Dial), Aimée Lutkin, a writer in her thirties, wrestles with the question of how “chosen” her single life has been. The book describes a year in which she set out to break a six-year spell of near-celibacy by taking up exercise, losing weight, joining a dating site, and so on. The inspiration for this experiment was an evening with friends that left her feeling unfairly blamed for her loneliness.

By the end of the year, she hadn’t found a lasting relationship, but she had gone on many dates, had some sex, and even fallen (unrequitedly) in love for a time, so one might reasonably conclude that the cure for her loneliness had in fact been in her gift all along. She largely rejects this notion, however. To insist that any determined individual can overcome loneliness if she tries hard enough is to ignore the social conditions that make loneliness so common, Lutkin writes. In her case, there were strong economic reasons that she focussed on work rather than on love for many years; she also pursued people who didn’t return her affections. And some significant part of her loneliness came not from being single but from living in a world that regards a romantic partner as the sine qua non of happy adulthood. Ironically, she suggests, celebrating single women as avatars of modern female empowerment has made things harder, not easier, for lonely women, by encouraging the view that their unhappiness is of their own making—the price they pay for putting their careers first, or being too choosy. She notes that the plight of lonely, sexless men tends to inspire more public concern and compassion than that of women. The term “incel” was invented by a woman hoping to commiserate with other unhappily celibate women, but it didn’t get much traction until it was appropriated by men and became a byword for sexual rage. This, Lutkin believes, reflects a conservative conviction that men have a right to sex.

Is this true? A less contentious explanation for the greater attention paid to male sexual inactivity might be that it has risen more dramatically among young men than among young women in recent years. In a study released in 2020, nearly one in three men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four reported no sexual activity in the past year. What’s more, young male sexlessness, unlike the female variety, correlates with unemployment and low income. Men’s greater tendency to violence also probably creates greater public awareness. (Female incels, however grumpy they get, do not generally express their dissatisfaction by shooting up malls.) Nevertheless, Lutkin is surely right that women’s authority over their sexual and romantic fates is not as complete as the popular imagination would have it. Asked to explain why one out of four single American women hasn’t had a sex partner for two or more years (and more than one in ten haven’t had a sex partner for five or more years), researchers have cited women’s aversion to the “roughness” that has become a standard feature of contemporary, porn-inflected sex. In one recent study, around twenty-one per cent of female respondents reported that they had been choked during sex with men; around thirty-two per cent had experienced a man ejaculating on their faces; and thirty-four per cent had experienced “aggressive fellatio.” If, as Stephanie Coontz suggests, women feel freer these days to decline such encounters, that is of course a welcome development, but it’s hard to construe the liberty of choosing between celibacy and sexual strangulation as a feminist triumph.

In a new collection of essays, “Love in the Time of Contagion” (Pantheon), the film-studies professor and cultural critic Laura Kipnis argues that women are still far from exercising enough agency in their sexual dealings with men. For her, the decline in sex is one of several signs that relations between men and women have reached an impasse. “Just as the death rate from covid in the U.S. unmasked the enduring inequalities of the American political system,” she observes, “#MeToo exposed that heterosexuality as traditionally practiced had long been on a collision course with the imperatives of gender parity.” Kipnis credits #MeToo with unleashing “a lot of hatreds,” some of which were warranted and overdue for an airing, and some of which, she believes, were overstated or misplaced.

Her exhilaration during the early stages of #MeToo curdled, she reports, when “conservative elements” hijacked whatever was “grassroots and profound” in the movement, and what had seemed to her a laudable effort to overturn the old feudal order degenerated into a punitive hunt for men who told ill-considered jokes or accompanied women on what became uncomfortable lunch dates.

Kipnis sees a tension between the puritanism of the rhetoric surrounding the movement and what she suspects is a continuing attraction on the part of many young feminists to old-school masculinity. “There’s something difficult to talk about when it comes to heterosexuality and its abjections . . . and #MeToo has in no way made talking about it any more honest,” she writes. “I suspect that the most politically awkward libidinal position for a young woman at the moment would be a sexual attraction to male power.” One sign of the “neurotic self-contradiction” lurking within the culture, she contends, is that, in 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary’s shortlist for Word of the Year included both “toxic”—as in toxic masculinity—and “Big Dick Energy.”

Kipnis is less interested in banishing such contradictions than in having her fellow-feminists acknowledge and embrace the transgressive nature of desire. If the heterosexual compact is ever to be repaired, she suggests, not only will men have to relinquish some of their brutish tendencies but women will have to become a little more honest and assertive about what they do and don’t want. It seems unlikely that this eminently reasonable prescription will find favor with young feminists, but Kipnis remains optimistic. She was encouraged during the pandemic to read the accounts of several women expressing nostalgia for the touch of strangers in bars. If, in the short term, the pandemic has made sex seem even more dangerous and grim, her hope is that it will turn out to be a salutary reset—“a chance to wipe the bogeyman and -woman from the social imagination, invent wilder, more magnanimous ways of living and loving.”

Should the business of making heterosexuality compatible with gender parity prove too onerous or intractable, we can always consider resorting to the less demanding companionship of machines. A forthcoming book by the sociologist Elyakim Kislev, “Relationships 5.0” (Oxford), describes a rapidly approaching future in which we will all have the option of assuaging our loneliness with robot friends and robot lovers. To date, technology’s chief role in our love lives has been that of a shadchan, or matchmaker, bringing humans together with other humans, but in the next couple of decades, Kislev asserts, technology will graduate from this “facilitator” role and become a full-fledged “relationship partner,” capable of fulfilling “our social, emotional, and physical needs” all by itself. Artificial intelligence has already come close to passing the Turing test—being able, that is, to convincingly imitate human intelligence in conversation. In 2014, scientists attending a Royal Society convention in London were invited to converse via computer with a special guest, Eugene Goostman, and then to decide if he was powered by A.I., or if he was human. A third of them mistook him for a human. Robot conversationalists even more plausible than Eugene are said to have emerged since then, and the C.E.O. of a computing company tells Kislev that the task of developers has actually been made easier of late, by a decline in the linguistic complexity of human conversation. In the era of WhatsApp, it seems, our written exchanges are becoming easier for machines to master.

Lest any of us doubt our capacity to suspend disbelief and feel things for robots, however beautifully they replicate the patterns of our degraded twenty-first century speech, Kislev refers us to Replika, a customizable chatbot app produced by a company in San Francisco which is already providing romantic companionship for hundreds of thousands of users. (In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that one Replika customer, Ayax Martinez, a twenty-four-year-old mechanical engineer living in Mexico City, flew to Tampico to show his chatbot Anette the ocean.) In fact, Kislev points out, machines don’t need to attain the sophistication of Replika to be capable of inspiring our devotion. Think of the Tamagotchi craze of the nineties, in which adults as well as children became intensely attached to digital toy “pets” on handheld pixelated screens. Think of the warm relationships that many people already enjoy with their Roombas.

Robots may not be “ideal” companions for everyone, Kislev writes, but they do offer a radical solution to the world’s “loneliness epidemic.” For the elderly, the socially isolated, the chronically single, robots can provide what humans have manifestly failed to. Given that technology is credited with having helped to foster the world’s loneliness, it may strike some as perverse to look to more technology for a salve, but Kislev rejects any attempt to blame our tools for our societal dissatisfactions. Advanced technology, he coolly assures us, “only allows us to acknowledge our wishes and accept our nature.” Investing meaning and emotion in a machine is essentially no different, he argues, from being moved by a piece of art: “Many fictional plays, films, and books are created intentionally to fill us with awe, bring us to tears, or surprise us. These are true emotions with very real meanings for us. Emotions-by-design, if you will.” Among the establishment figures whom he quotes discussing robo-relationships with equanimity and approval is a British doctor who, in a recent letter to The British Medical Journal, described prejudice against sex robots as no more reasonable or morally defensible than homophobia or transphobia.

For those who persist in finding the prospect of the robot future a little bleak, Kislev adopts the reassuring tone of an adult explaining reproduction to a squeamish child: it may all seem a bit yucky now, he tells us, but you’ll think differently later on. He may well be right about this. In surveys, young people—young men in particular—seem sanguine about robot relationships. And even among the older, analog set resistance to the idea has been found to erode with “continuous exposure.” Whether this erosion is to be wished for, however, is another question.

All technological innovations inspire fear. Socrates worried about writing replacing oral culture. The hunter-gatherers probably moaned about the advent of agriculture. But who’s to say they weren’t right to moan? The past fifty years would seem to have provided persuasive evidence contradicting Kislev’s assertion that technology only ever “discovers” or “answers” human wants. The Internet didn’t disinter a long-buried human need for constant content; it created it. And, as for our enduring ability to be engaged by the lie of art, it’s not at all clear that this is a convincing analogy for robot romance. One crucial distinction between fiction and robots is that novels and plays, the good ones at least, are not designed with the sole intention of keeping their “users” happy. In this respect, they are less like robots and more like real-life romantic partners. What makes life with humans both intensely difficult and (theoretically) rewarding is precisely that they aren’t programmed to satisfy our desires, aren’t bound to tell us that we did great and look fabulous. They are liable to leave us if we misbehave, and sometimes even when we don’t.

Tellingly, one of the most recent A.I. sex-companion prototypes, a Spanish-made bot named Samantha, has been endowed with the ability to say no to sexual advances and to shut down if she feels “disrespected” or “bored.” Presumably, her creator is hoping to simulate some of the conditionality and unpredictability of human affection. It remains to be seen whether consumers will actually prefer a less accommodating Samantha. Given the option, humans have a marked tendency to choose convenience over challenge.

Published in the print edition of the April 11, 2022, issue, with the headline “Down With Love?.”

[Zoë Heller has written the novels “Notes on a Scandal,” “The Believers,” and “Everything You Know.”]