The Unsexy Millennials

August 10, 2016

A new study on Sexual Inactivity During Young Adulthood by Jean Twenge et al builds on previous research showing that Millennials are less sexually active than prior generations. The latest response has been somewhat hysterical, with many articles assuming that delayed sexual activity is a bad thing. It’s also been erroneously focusing almost entirely on (elite) college kids, who were not found to have decreased sexual activity:

“The shift toward higher rates of sexual inactivity among Millennials and iGen’ers was more pronounced among women and absent among Black Americans and those with a college education.

Contrary to popular media conceptions of a “hookup generation” more likely to engage in frequent casual sex, a higher percentage of Americans in recent cohorts, particularly Millennials and iGen’ers born in the 1990s, had no sexual partners after age 18.”

Key Findings

Here are the relevant stats:

high schoolers less sexually active number of sexual partners per generationThe percentage of 20-24 year olds who have not had sex after age 18 went from 6% in 1991 to 15% today.

Similarly, the percentage of college virgins has gone from 6% in ’91 to 19% today.

Most Media Coverage Laments Sexual Downturn

A lot of the media coverage of these findings has featured a different kind of hand-wringing than we’re used to when talking about hookup culture. Sex-positive journalists – as well as a few of those promiscuous college students – are worried that the slowdown in sex signals that the kids are not allright. Tara Bahrampour at the Washington Post is one of those trying to figure out what the hell is going on! A video offers several explanations:

  • TURNED OFF BY HOOKUP CULTURE
  • MORE PRESSURE TO SUCCEED, LESS TIME TO SOCIALIZE
  • MORE COMFORTABLE CONNECTING OVER THE INTERNET THAN IN PERSON
  • EASY ACCESS TO PORN
  • INCREASED USE OF ANTI-DEPRESSANTS, WHICH AFFECT SEX DRIVE

Less hysterically, she also features quotes from various experts:

Female empowerment means women are less likely to succumb to male pressure to have sex.

Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families:

“As people have gotten much more accepting of all sorts of forms of consensual sex, they’ve also gotten more picky about what constitutes consent. We are far less accepting of pressured sex.”

Social and cultural media prevent the formation of romantic relationships.

“Some experts are concerned that the drop-off reflects the difficulty some young people are having in forming deep romantic connections. They cite other reasons for putting off sex, including pressure to succeed, social lives increasingly conducted on-screen, unrealistic expectations of physical perfection encouraged by dating apps and wariness over date rape.”

Pressure to succeed causes Millennials to delay relationships and focus on work. 

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and chief scientific adviser to the dating site Match.com:

“It’s a highly motivated, ambitious generation. A lot of them are afraid that they’ll get into something they can’t get out of and they won’t be able to get back to their desk and keep studying.”

Socializing online means more emphasis on physical appearance.

Jane Twenge, lead study author:

“This was the group that really started to communicate by screens more and by talking to their friends in person less…It ends up putting a lot of importance on physical appearance, and that, I think, is leaving out a large section of the population. For a lot of folks who are of average appearance, marriage and stable relationships was where they were having sex.”

Unlike in face-to-face meetings where “you can seduce someone with your charm,” Twenge said, dating apps are “leaving some people with fewer choices and they might be more reluctant to search for partners at all.”

Electronics hamper one-on-one, in-person intimacy.

Norman Spack, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School:

“The nature of communication now is anti-sexual. People are not spending enough time alone just together. There’s another gorilla in the room: It’s whatever is turned on electronically.”

Spack thinks the decrease in sex is “sad”: “Everyone’s missing out on a good time.”

Jesse Singal at NY Magazine notes that curiously, the Wash Po failed to include what the study authors themselves had to say about their results.

“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.”

…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.

…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.”

Hookup Culture is Still a Massive Fail

Twenge adds that the hookup culture myth is – and always has been – unwarranted:

“There are some teens and young adults who are using hookup apps and are very promiscuous; it’s just they are the exception.”

One of those exceptions is Lea Luniewicz, a student at Boston College, writing at Verge Campus:

“What happened to teenage rebellion??!? You guys are getting soft. Is college not THE place for sexual liberation and exploration anymore? Whoever conducted this study should try the population of Boston College on for size. Seriously kids, if you’re not getting it on because you want to “get back to your desk and keep studying,” grow a pair. The studying will always be there, your youthful beauty (and libido) won’t. Don’t waste your youth while your [sic] young!”

I believe that Lea & Co. are lashing out because their own preferences for casual sex are no longer the dominant narrative. Let’s face it – the vast majority of young people are still having sex, they’re just not having it as soon, and they’re having it mostly in relationships. It seems like a stretch to be alarmed about low libidos when 85% of early 20-somethings are sexually active. From the Boston Globe:

Justin R. Garcia, an evolutionary biologist and sex researcher at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, seconded that point, saying that while the increase in young adults who are sexually inactive was compelling and statistically significant, there was a broader takeaway.

“The data also shows that 85 percent of young people in their sample are sexually active in the last 12 months,” he said. “The vast majority of American youth are sexually active, and that’s the reality we need to take seriously.”

I also believe that when findings like these get publicity, it has the potential to affect behavior. It punches a hole through the Pluralistic Ignorance that has kept so many Millennials misinformed about the prevalence of casual sex. The more young people realize they’re normal if they don’t prefer casual sex, the less pressure they feel to go along with the cultural narrative being imposed on them by a promiscuous minority.

Helen Fisher certainly isn’t worried:

“It’s probably a good thing,” she said. Noting that baby boomers were known not only for free love but also for high divorce rates, she added, “I think [taking it slowly] is going to lead to better first marriages.”

In the end, she predicted, biology will prevail. “Sex is a powerful drive, and so is romantic love. . . . The sex system is way below the cortex. It’s way below the limbic system,” on a level with thirst and hunger.

“They’ll get to the sex,” she said. “I’m positive of that.”

I share Fisher’s view. We’ve extended the definition of adolescence to age 26 – if young people are maturing to adulthood more slowly, achieving life milestones later, it seems right and reasonable that sexual activity is delayed as well. There are many factors at work here, including lackluster economic opportunities for today’s youth.

Millennials are faced with different challenges than any generation before them, and Gen Z will face new ones as well. America is changing, and those shifts will show up in boardrooms and bedrooms. What’s encouraging is that Millennials have shown an ability to adapt by practicing different values. For example, they have less cash on hand, but they also reject materialism.

For now, they’re taking sex seriously and assuming less risk. And that’s a good thing.