Sex wars – and sex is losing.

Posted By on Nov 7, 2013 in Columns | 2 comments

Japan sex article splits observers into two predictable camps – ‘bashers’ and ‘lovers’.


A spate of newspaper articles last week discussed Japan’s sex drive, or lack of it. The best one was in the Guardian by Abigail Haworth, followed by others in the Washington Post and Bloomberg.


As often happens in Japan, two ideologies immediately swung into position: ‘Japan lovers’ and ‘Japan bashers’. The ‘lovers’ accused the media of sensationalizing. The ‘bashers’ used the low/no-sex drive story to ridicule Japan’s ‘weirdness’ and lack of fitness for a 21st century global economy. The Washington Post even accused Japan of failing in its economic duty to the rest of the world. Pretty bizarre. We quickly got to hear about virtual dating, Japanese pornography, and the ever-popular Otaku-geeks. But we heard about these perfectly valid issues in distorted ways.


While it’s easy to criticize the media for being sensationalist, it’s surely inevitable that technology does change behaviour. For men growing up even as late as the 1980s, sex was difficult. It was a status-based, expensive business. The rule, as I unhappily discovered at Oxford University in the late 1980s, was the 90:10 rule – 10% of the men had the pick of 90% of the women. If you were not bisexual, from one of the former colonies of the British Empire, from a state school (far more fashionable than attending a private school), nor a Student Union official or aspiring, far-left politico, it was very difficult to have sex. Sex was a reward for success at university, made worse at Oxford by the under-representation of women. This was simply a reflection of society. Sex served to discipline men to strive for achievement. If you deviated, you were on your own. Literally.


But all this changed with the Internet, starting in Britain in the mid-1990s. Whereas meeting women had to be done face to face in my time (which involved expensive night clubs, dinner and coffee dates, and exhausting amounts of nerve and will-power) the Internet enabled young men to contact women on a huge scale at zero cost. When I was in China, one of my interns used to run an Excel spread sheet to keep up with his collection of ‘prospects’. I was astonished at how successful this numbers-based approach was, and made me realize MBA programmes can (contrary to my perception) provide some quite useful skills… But the crucial ‘first contact’ with women was also far easier because the Internet was anonymous and above all, safe for women.


But meeting women did not just get much easier and much cheaper. Pornography also become suddenly ubiquitous. Again, this in itself was a sexual revolution compared to the 1980s.


Given these two transformations it’s easy to argue that the sheer ubiquity of pornography on the Internet, as well as the ease of meeting ‘real’ women, actually makes sex less important. The more sex there is, the more it loses its value. As every economist knows, when supply outstrips demand, its value falls. Sex has lost its relationship to status and a sense of self-worth. Even more crucially, it has lost its centrality as the defining physical experience of the love a man experiences for a woman. This was never as strong in Japan, in any case. Japan does not share the obsession with the ideal of romantic love which has characterized Western culture for thousands of years.


Never in human history has it been as easy for the average person in developed economies to have sex. All s/he needs is an internet connection and some free time. For men, it’s a profound reversal of how we have been socialized in the past. I don’t think the consequences have even begun to be explored.


The BBC documentary ‘No sex please, we’re Japanese’ and the Guardian article are surely right in the sense that people are indeed having less physical sex in Japan (and indeed every survey says the same thing, whether Durex, the Japan Family Planning Association, Sagami Rubber Industries or Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance). Sex is no longer a sign of status. It has become more a pure form of entertainment, a bit like all the other feel-good substances we consume: sugar, tobacco, drugs or booze – sometimes consumed individually and sometimes socially, or sometimes not at all. And something which is subject to the same whims and fashion changes as the clothing range at H&M or Uniqlo.


In Western countries, you can add an extra twist to some people’s disdain for ubiquitous sex – our contemporary passion for puritanism. We live in an age which reacts against pleasures in a way that would mystify our ancestors. Even bread – the biblical ‘staff of life’ has become a symbol of a misguided lifestyle. Sex is increasingly viewed with the same suspicion as one of the many opiates which we are surrounded by and who’s power to numb and destroy when taken excessively is increasingly recognized. Sex has been downgraded to a chemical experience, and a slightly dangerous one at that.


People still eat lots of bread, and they still have lots of old-fashioned sex. But it’s not at all surprising that many people no longer view sex as a symbol of sophistication or of success or of self-realization. It’s just not that important anymore. In that sense, the Japanese men and women who have transformed sex into a pure and clever form of entertainment are surely the precursors of the rest of the world. Of course, it will take a longer in the West as we are far more hung-up about the subject. And it has to be said, the Japanese have got quite a lead. Thus, the UK has outdoor car-park encounters known as ‘dogging’ while Japan has Love +, the rather fun and ingenious virtual girl you can befriend on your Nintendo DS console. Some Western people are clearly still going through the slightly primitive ‘gluttony phase’ of sudden sexual availability. But gluttony is of course followed by satiation and disgust. I would not be at all surprised if the evolution of sexual mores in Western countries follows the Japanese model.



  1. Very interesting article!
    Look forward to the next one.

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