We recently binge-watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale of a future in which the world’s few remaining fertile women are enslaved by a tyrannical government to bear children for its male leaders. It’s a grim vision, and one that, for the time being, fortunately resides firmly in the realm of dark imagination.
Still, we couldn’t help but be reminded of Atwood’s book when we read this article about the sexual habits of young Japanese men and women. According to a recent study reported in the article, nearly half of Japanese citizens under 30 are virgins, which has led to a severe decline in Japanese birth rates. The study offers two explanations for this state of affairs: less social pressure to marry and financial worries. But at least one survey respondent postulated a different explanation: young Japanese men are content to surf porn instead of risking an interaction with a live, human partner.
Now, that’s just one person’s theory. We suspect there are numerous interconnected factors influencing Japan’s declining rates of partnered sexual relationships and reproduction. In addition to declining social pressure and financial insecurity, perhaps Japanese culture heightens the perceived risk of rejection of sexual advances. Perhaps Japanese public health initiatives have been particularly effective in stoking fears of sexually transmitted diseases. Perhaps the listless Japanese economy creates conditions in which having children feels less desirable, or where it’s difficult to find the time and space for sustained personal intimacy. Who knows. Still, we can’t help but wonder if the woman quoted in the article is on to something when she says “I think a lot of men just cannot be bothered. They can watch porn on the internet and get sexual satisfaction that way.”
In the spirit of Margaret Atwood, consider this dystopian thought experiment. Imagine the invention of a technology that delivered sexual satisfaction and intimacy so perfectly, so in tune with our deepest sexual desires, that it rendered moot the idea of partnered sex for pleasure. Imagine this technology was available in unlimited quantity, on demand. Imagine, in other words, a technology that made it pointless to have sex with another live human being except for the purpose of procreation. What then?
Or consider a converse scenario: a society in which the porn that exists today is sufficient to satisfy all sexual desires. A society so steeped in isolation, fear of physical intimacy, nihilism and despair that today’s porn seems far preferable to the uncertainties of interpersonal connection. What then?
We suspect that in either scenario, people would remain virgins longer. We suspect people’s sexual habits would evolve away from human-to-human physical contact toward pleasure-delivering technology. We suspect birth rates would decline. We suspect, in other words, that either scenario would foster conditions similar to those reported in the Japan study.
Could it be that porn consumption in Japan has reached this sort of tipping point? Could it be that a demographically significant number of young Japanese citizens have, due to some unique cocktail of societal and technological factors, come to prefer sexual stimulation from porn over sexual stimulation from partnered intimacy?
We doubt it. Conditioned as The Handmaid’s Tale has made us in this moment to ominous prognostication, we doubt porn is the driving factor in Japan’s declining rates of sexual activity and reproduction. But, we wouldn’t be at all surprised if porn plays a measurable role in that decline. And we’re downright certain that the porn industry is hard at work at delivering the maximum amount of pleasure possible with each new video and VR experience, and that it would love to develop an all-consuming technology to meet our every desire. So, while the the dystopian future might not be here already, it’s not fantasy to feel it creeping our way.