No pints, no pulling: does the death of the pub spell the end of sex?

The decline of the British boozer is coinciding with another downturn: young people are having less sex. But is the loss of the local really calling time on romance?

A 2016 YouGov survey found that nearly a fifth of those in relationships had met their partner at the pub. Illustration: Guardian Design

The decline of the British boozer is coinciding with another downturn: young people are having less sex. But is the loss of the local really calling time on romance?

The writer Emily Hill is reminiscing about happy times at The Rose pub near Snowsfields in south London 10 years ago. The smoking ban came into force in July 2007, and this ushered in an era of under-the-radar revelry, when late nights were alight with the glimmer of romantic opportunity.

“You’d get to the end of the night and, instead of going home, they’d lock the doors and everybody would get their cigarettes out,” says Hill, 35. “That was when the romance really happened.”

It is hard to picture this scene playing out at a giant Wetherspoons, and for future generations it may never exist again: new figures show that more than 25% of British pubs have closed since 2001. The Office for National Statistics report published on Monday found that it was, in particular, small, independent pubs of 10 staff or fewer that were disappearing in droves, making up the majority of the fall from 52,500 pubs in 2001 to 38,815 today.

Pubs situated close to major urban areas but far from city centres – such as Bolton and Rochdale near Manchester – have been shutting at the fastest rate.

The steady decline of the pub industry in the UK coincides with another much-documented downturn: that in sex. In a much-discussed recent cover story, the Atlantic magazine identified the so-called “sex recession” as a global trend, flagging falls in countries including Australia, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and Japan. Britain was not exempt. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles – “one of the most respected sex studies in the world”, according to the Atlantic – reported in 2001 that people aged 16 to 44 were having sex more than six times a month on average; by 2012, the rate had dropped to less than five times.

Given the well-established British culture of “get-drunk-go-home-with-someone-then-either-never-speak-to-them-again-or-else-move-in-with-them”, as it was described in these pages at the advent of dating apps in 2012, it doesn’t seem so ludicrous to ask of the dual declines in sex and pubs in Britain: could there be a connection?

Hill believes so. She has written extensively about the experience of being a single woman, and says the culture of dating strangers that is facilitated by apps – now very much a necessary evil for people with hopes of one day finding love – is a US concept at odds with the traditional British approach to love and romance.

“The way the British used to meet, we all used to go into a pub randomly with friends, everybody would get way too drunk, and three years later you’d wake up one morning and realise you had a boyfriend,” she says. “Alcohol is kind of the antidote to the stiff upper lip – it starts to wobble, feelings start to come out and sexual frisson starts to happen.”

The nation’s living room: a night down the pub. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

The endless stream of strangers being served straight to your phone means it has never been easier to have no-strings-attached sex, if that’s what you’re looking for; the real problem is finding connection, which – for all the talk of sexual liberation – is still a personal prerequisite to the physical stuff for many. “The thing is, what the decline in sex is to do with is, we’re just really scared to get hurt,” says Hill. “I say this all the time, but dating apps have done to love and romance what machines did to humanity in Terminator 2.”

Hence the historic fondness for the pub, the nation’s living room: a shared safe space with the optimal – some might say, necessary – combination of low lighting and limitless booze for you to make a move.

Tom Stainer, a spokesman for the Campaign for Real Ale, which is urging reform of industry regulations to prevent further closures, says a YouGov survey of 2,120 adults in 2016 found that nearly a fifth (18%) of those in relationships had met their partner at the pub – more than those who had met at work (17%), online (12%), in a nightclub (7%), or on holiday (2%). Nearly a third of all respondents (29%) put their local as the ideal venue for a first date.

Stainer says he was not surprised by the findings; it seems obvious that pubs are a great place to meet people. “We know how valuable pubs can be both socially and to communities,” he says. “You do get to meet a broader range of people than just the people you work with, or people in your social circles.”

Plus, after the Dutch courage of a pint, people are more open to striking up a conversation than they are in cafes or on the tube. “Those barriers are already down – not just about romance, it’s about any social interaction.”

Today, Hill says, people are less likely to spend their Fridays mingling with friends of friends down at their local, fostering, in weekly increments, the kind of attraction that might only come with time and familiarity. It is notable that the areas where the ONS figures show pub numbers to have held up – or even increased – are popular tourist hotspots and seaside towns, which suggests that business isn’t booming as a result of regulars.

“The pub theory really holds up when you’re at university, when everyone is there all the time, or the years after, when you’re flatsharing and it’s too miserable to be at home,” says Hill. “These days, pubs are closing, which doesn’t help, but we also don’t necessarily go to the same place twice, and meeting someone is kind of reliant on people going to the same place every night.

“Maybe the first Friday, you’re too scared to go near them, but by the third, you’re pretty sure you’re looking at each other, and something can happen.”

A YouGov survey found that a fifth of respondents had met their partner at the pub. Photograph: Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty Images/Caiaimage

The ONS’s Economies of Ale report contrasted the rapid decline in independent pubs with the rise of commercial chains. A trend towards larger venues – and the established principle of forming relationships on the basis of proximity doesn’t apply to, say, your typical Wetherspoons, which is more like a mess hall than somewhere you would go to find a meaningful connection. (Little known fact: the “hopeless place” in Rihanna’s We Found Love was one of those branches that plays music.)

But the problems with the pub industry are not a straightforward case of big chains with large venues steamrollering over your local. You might not even consider yourself to have a local – because it might have shut down (where Hill lives, for instance, in Southwark, there are now around 45 fewer pubs than there were in 2001), but also because you might have better things to do than stake out a stranger over a pint.

All pubs, even Wetherspoons, are wrestling with shifting consumer habits, with the proportion of adults in Great Britain who drink alcohol at its lowest level since 2005, according to a 2017 ONS study. According to Chrissie Giles, writing in Mosaic in October 2015, 2004 was Peak Booze: “The year when Brits drank more than they had done for a century, and more than they have done in the decade since.”

In 2004, Britons consumed an average 9.5l of pure alcohol per person, up from 3.9l in 1950. And those born around 1980 led the way.

Though alcohol-industry advertising and the popularisation of wine were both factors, it is hard to pinpoint exactly the reason for the rapid increase when, as Giles wrote: “Everything from recessions to marketing to sexism has shaped the way Brits drink.” The same applies, now, to the way Britons don’t drink.

Cost is likely to be a factor; pub-industry advocates often single out the way pint prices have been forced up by the beer tax as a reason for many small businesses’ closure. In particular, alcohol prices at supermarkets and off-licences have risen much more slowly than those at pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants, with the gap widening significantly since the early 1990s.

But the NHS’s measure of alcohol affordability – calculated by dividing real household disposable income by the price of alcohol, relative to other goods – shows that alcohol was in fact 60% more affordable in 2015 than in 1980, and that affordability rose by 36% between 2005 and 2015.

It is possible, therefore, that our plummeting rates of alcohol consumption have less to do with the price, and more to do with something much harder to quantify. Could it be that drinking is just not cool any more?

The abstinence practiced by Generation Z – today’s post-millennial youth, born after 1996 – suggests so. The 2017 ONS study showed that more than a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds are teetotal, a four-fold increase on the rest of the population, with just one in 10 seeing drinking as “cool”.

The Greyhound pub in Bromley, Kent, 1960. Photograph: Bert Hardy Advertising Archive/Getty Images

Drinking among young people has been declining for a decade, with many citing cost and concern for their mental and/or physical health (the cultural turn towards “wellness”, both as an awareness and a hobby, certainly plays a part). Many simply say that they are more interested in other things – though sex, it seems, is not necessarily among them. (The Atlantic story did point to an increase in masturbation.)

In this regard, the sex recession is not dissimilar to the decrease in drinking. It seems glib to say that the current Elena Ferrante TV adaptation is better than sex, but it might well be better than a bad date. (That’s my example of a preferable evening in; Hill’s, unprompted, was a bath.) With the search for love outsourced to apps and increasing demands on our time, the result has been a kind of compartmentalising of love and life.

Dating – as with work, hobbies, friends, family, exercise and any other responsibility or interest – has to be factored into our diminishing spare time. Given the option between another nice but unmoving evening with a stranger, and going to a screening of Widows with your friends, you might be inclined to go for the safe bet.

As Edith Zimmerman wrote in response to the Atlantic article, apparently only semi-facetiously: “I’d argue that while old people might’ve had more sex, young people are making better jokes online.”

Historically, pubs have not always been welcoming spaces for women. Photograph: Bert Hardy Advertising Archive/Getty Images

It’s significantly different from Stainer’s teenager years, he says, when he and his peers spent almost every night at the pub. “Pubs and nightclubs … I suspect the only reason anybody ever went to a nightclub was to meet anyone. Why else would you put up with the sticky carpets?”

It is possible, too, that we are regarding the pub interactions of the past with rose-tinted glasses. Historically, pubs have not always been welcoming spaces for women. A 1970 Brewers’ Society survey found that nearly half of women said, given the choice, they would rather not frequent pubs at all.

And the time when you would go to the pub to meet new people is almost certainly exaggerated through nostalgia – if not entirely imagined. In the early 1980s, the heyday of British pub culture, the sociologist Michael A Smith found that establishments at either end of the class ladder were regarded as “a public situation of private interaction”: a place for people to spend time with friends they already had.

At the “rough” working-class pubs Smith studied, strangers were unwelcome or unnoticed; at the middle-class “posh” establishments, regulars saw them as “an extension of their existing social relations and time frameworks”.

But they do provide opportunity, says Stainer. “There’s something about the way people interact in pubs, you’re getting more of those signals that people give out – about whether they’re interested, whether they’re trustworthy. On apps and social media, it’s very hard for people to give those cues.”

On the possibility of a link between the definite decline in pubs and the reported decline in sex, he says: “Certainly, if you accept the premise that pubs maybe do help get people together, then look at the evidence that pubs are closing – you can see that there might be a link going on there, that people aren’t having the opportunity to interact face-to-face in the same way.”

‘People aren’t having the opportunity to interact face-to-face in the same way.’ Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In Hill’s experience, it really is the case that there are fewer organic opportunities to meet singles of the opposite sex – and for straight women, at least, one of the key qualities of a pub is that men like them. So do women, of course (“I do like to sit in a pub and drink. That is my social life, basically,” says Hill) – “but men really, really, really like them”.

“When you’re single, people have all sorts of advice like join a cycling club, join a running club, start a book group, and that’s great,” she adds, “but women tend to gravitate to women’s pursuits and men tend to gravitate to men’s pursuits.”

Hill’s dream, her “Dragon’s Den idea”, is to invent a dating app that brings together all the single people in one area at their local pub. “Then you’d get so drunk you don’t even remember you have an app on your phone, and let the pheromones do their work, as they’re supposed to.”

But even that throws up questions. Could any contrived meet up, arranged through an app, ever replicate the thrill of meeting eyes with a stranger over a pint? And will there be pubs left to host it?

By / This article was originally published at

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