When it comes to millennials and sex, there are two narratives going on at the moment, and they clash pretty severely. One, expressed in the form of panicky think pieces about Kids These Days, argues that because of the rise of dating apps, a reduced emphasis on commitment, and various other factors, young people are having casual sex at a higher rate than ever before, and this may be causing psychological problems, particularly for young women, who — so the story usually goes — don’t get as much out of casual sex as the guys they are hooking up with.
The other narrative is that, well, the kids are all right. Even assuming there is something wrong with safe, consensual casual sex (and the proper answer to that question is it’s complicated), some researchers who track generational differences in behavior have found something that might surprise the panickers: if anything, today’s young people are hooking up less than members of past recent generations did when they were the same age. In an article published last year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, for example, Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Ryne Sherman of Florida Atlantic University wrote that, among adults, the “[n]umber of sexual partners increased steadily between the G.I.s and 1960s-born Gen X’ers [with Boomers in the middle] and then dipped among Millennials to return to Boomer levels.” That is, millennials, on average, appear to be having sex with fewer people than Gen-Xers did when they were at the same age, and about the same amount of sex as the boomers did when they were in their younger years.
Now, Twenge, who is the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before, has teamed up with Sherman and with Brooke Wells of Widener University to release a new paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior that adds solid new support to the don’t-panic theory. This paper looks specifically at the question of what percentage of millennials reported having had no sex partners since age 18, and it found that a surprising number are, willingly or not, living a life of chastity.
The researchers looked at responses to the General Social Survey, a survey that has been administered most years since 1972, in which a nationally representative sample of Americans are asked a wide range of questions about their behaviors and beliefs (some of the questions change over time). Specifically, Twenge and her colleagues honed in on two questions that have been asked since 1989: ‘‘Now thinking about the time since your 18th birthday (including the past 12 months), how many female partners have you had sex with?” and the same question with “male” swapped in instead. (Note that someone who responses “0” to both isn’t necessarily a virgin, because they could have had sex before they turned 18.)
Here are the key findings (note that I’m snipping off a few columns worth of statistical information that are in the paper itself):
“Millennials,” write the authors, “especially those born in the 1990s, were significantly more likely to have no sexual partners as adults compared to Gen X’ers born in the 1960s.” In some cases, percentage-wise, the difference is stark: 15 percent of those born 1990–1994 reported having no sex partners, for example, as compared to just 6 percent of those born 1965–1969.” And when the researchers conducted some statistical analysis to try to disaggregate the various forces that could give rise to a change like this, they found that “[m]ost of the rise in sexual inactivity was due to cohort rather than time period” — a fancy way of saying something is going on among that age group in particular, rather than in society at large.
So what is going on with millennials that is causing a relatively high percentage of them to not have sex? Twenge and her colleagues present a few different partial theories. One has to do with the fact that, as Sherman put it in an email to me, “A lot of Millennials and all of IGen [those born 1995–2012, per the researchers’ definition] got sex after AIDS awareness.” I’m sure I’m not the only millennial who remembers that the concept of sex and fear of AIDS were tightly intertwined from the first time we really learned what the former was. Many of us grew up in the shadow of the peak of the AIDS epidemic, and can vividly remember how monumental a national story it was when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. So, the theory goes, people born in the 1980s or later might be a little less enthusiastic about jumping into sex, since the potential negative consequences seem a lot more dire than they did to past generations.
Another factor has to do with the changing lifestyle of young people. “With more living with their parents even postrecession (Pew Research Center, 2015), young adults may have fewer opportunities to have sex. In addition, marriage is the traditional outlet for sexuality, and only 26% of Millennials aged 18–32 were married as of 2014, compared to 36% of GenX’ers (born 1965–1979) in 1997 and 48% of Boomers.” So the odds that a young person is unmarried and living with his or her parents today is significantly higher than it was in the past, and that on its own reduces the odds that they will have had sex since turning 18.
So there’s a lot going on. But the one unifying story line, according to Twenge, is that “Adulthood is being postponed across the board,” as she put it in an email. “People are marrying, having children, and settling into careers later. For GenX, that didn’t change when they started having sex. But for late Millennials and iGen, sex is now joining the later to adulthood party. Sex has caught up to other adult milestones and is being delayed. This is also consistent with data from teens: In data from the CDC, 41% of high school students had sex in 2015, down from 54% in 1991.” (This is something Twenge and her colleagues note in their paper as well: All the same major trends also show up when you look at what various generations were doing as teenagers — this paper just completes the picture, in a sense.)
While Twenge isn’t a fan of many of the popular horror stories about hookup apps and out-of-control promiscuity among kids, simply because she doesn’t think they’re true — “There are some teens and young adults who are using hookup apps and are very promiscuous; it’s just they are the exception,” she said — she does think technology could be playing a role here, too. “They’re on their phones,” she said. “If young adults have moved their social lives online, they will be with their peers less in person and may have fewer opportunities to have sex. And overall, there’s just so much other entertainment out there.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that young people are making a conscious decision to, say, play video games instead of have sex, but it could mean that video games, and other not-in-person activities, are a bigger part of the fabric of being young today than they were in the past, and that those activities are less likely to lead to the interactions that in turn lead to sex — especially when you mix them with all the other, aforementioned factors that make it less likely today’s young adults have had sex, or had sex recently.
It’s unlikely this research, or the other studies that have found similar things, will do much to puncture the annoyingly loud myth that young people are all running around, hooking up constantly and heedlessly. But it’s a useful reminder that every generation is the victim of “kids these days” stories from adults, and that those stories shouldn’t be taken at face value. The truth is always more complicated, and, for those willing to look, can reveal some interesting things about how America is changing.