Why millennials are having less sex (and what we need to do about it)

Young people born in the 1990s are having fewer sexual partners than previous generations, a recent study revealed. But why? And what do we, as sex educators, need to do to address it?

At first glance the answer seems obvious. We don’t need to do anything. If millennials are choosing not to have sex, that’s up to them. Nevertheless it seems strange, doesn’t it, that the generation for whom we’re told the “hook-up” is just part of life, in which sexting on (or before) a first date is par for the course, and sex is available supposedly at the swipe of a finger, should be opting out?

A study published in by the Archives of Sexual Behaviour found that 15 per cent of people aged between 20 and 24 and born in the 1990s had not had a sexual partner since they were 18. For people born in the 1970s and 1980s and asked the question at the same age, the figure was 12 per cent. But for baby-boomers born in the 1950s the figure was just 6 per cent.

Reasons postulated for this rise in sexual abstinence vary. Increased prevalence of technology in people’s lives is one suggestion, with experts claiming that the amount of time spent communicating via tech rather than in person is affecting intimacy. Norman Spack, associate clinical professor of paediatrics at Harvard Medical School said: “The nature of communication now is anti-sexual. People are not spending enough time alone just together.”

And it almost goes without saying that porn has been cited as a potential passion-killer. One of the report’s co-author’s Ryne Sherman said the ready availability of porn meant that young people were able to relieve their sex drives in a way that previous generations could not.

All of these explanations ring immediate bells in the SRE world, where educators and campaigners alike have long been arguing that comprehensive sex education needs to include discussions about the role technology now plays in our lives and relationships. Similarly, while porn can and does provide a healthy supplement to many people’s sex lives, it is crucial that young people learn not only how to distinguish between on-film fantasy and real life but to understand and recognise the additional physical, emotional and psychological experiences that come with real-world sex.

Sherman also added that what people view as “sex” has also shifted over the last fifty years. Far fewer young people now “count” oral sex as sexual intercourse compared to previous generations, he said. Indeed, as author Peggy Orenstein discovered in her recent book Girls & Sex, for the majority of young people, giving or receiving a blowjob (and it is almost always the girls who are performing oral sex on the boy, not the other way around) is considered “no big deal”. Meanwhile – she found - penetrative sex is loaded with expectation and stigma.

In a generation that values independence and disparages the notion of “catching feelings” even casual sex is considered “too intimate”. Even if we applaud this as a move towards finding intimacy in ways other than sex, it should still raise concerns for sex educators, parents, and teachers alike that young people feel too anxious or busy or under pressure to contemplate dealing with the emotional fallout of sex.

One of the case studies featured in the Washington Post’s coverage of the story was a 26-year-old who had not had sex since her last relationship ended 18 months previously. “To me, there’s more intimacy with having someone there next to you that you can rely on without having to have sex,” she was quoted as saying. “I don’t want to do anything that would harm the relationship and be something that we can’t come back from.”

While on the face of it a woman in her 20s making informed decisions about whether and how to have sex can only be seen as positive, there is something slightly alarming about her characterisation of sex as something that could potentially “harm the relationship” and, worse still, be something you might not “come back from”.

Of course, the fact that this woman and her peers are turning down sex rather than engage in a less-than-happy experience is to their benefit. The fewer people having unwanted or non-consensual sex, the better. But while the idea that millennials are being more discerning about their sexual partners is an attractive one, the flipside is that fewer young people are seeing sex as something to be engaged with, discussed and negotiated.

Because for every young person who elects not to have sex out of informed preference, another is avoiding it out of anxiety or apprehension. There is absolutely nothing wrong with opting out of sex, but we want to ensure people are making that choice with confidence and not out of fear.

By Franki Cookney