Oh, those Millennials. They're constantly hooking up and they're always on Tinder. They must be the most sexually promiscuous generation ever.
Except they’re not.
In a paper last year, my co-authors and I found that Millennials actually have fewer sexual partners than GenX’ers and Boomers did at the same age. That made me wonder if there were more Millennials (born 1980-1994) and iGen members (1995-2012) who weren’t having sex at all—who had no sexual partners.
In a new paper, we find that 15 percent of 20-to-24-year-olds born in the 1990s have not had sex since turning 18, compared to only 6 percent of comparable young adults born in the late 1960s—more than twice as many.
The same pattern appeared in a more comprehensive analysis including adults of all ages that more precisely controlled for age. In a Washington Post article on that study, young people mentioned a variety of reasons for not having sex, from doing other things to just not wanting to take the risk of a messy sexual relationship.
I can hear the collective reaction: With sex so pervasive in the culture, how can this possibly be? But ours isn’t the only study to find this pattern: Teens are also simply less likely to have sex now. In data from a biannual survey done by the Centers for Disease Control, 41 percent of high school students in 2015 had had sex, down from 54 percent in 1991.
The next question is why are more Millennials and iGen members putting off sex? That question is always tough to answer with data like this. You can see what changes might be related, but it’s virtually impossible to be sure of the cause. Correlation (or co-occurrence) is not causation. But there is one sure-fire rule: If something doesn’t change in the right direction, then it can’t be the cause.
That immediately rules out one explanation I keep hearing. In the Washington Post article, several experts theorized that young people today are too busy working and studying to have sex. But that isn’t true. Teens and young adults in their early 20s today are less likely to be working than they were 10 years ago. High school students in the 2010s spent less time on homework than their predecessors in the early 1990s, and several studies have found that today's college students study less than their counterparts in earlier decades, when young adults were much more likely to be having sex.
Somehow Boomers and GenX’ers found the time.
That might be because the previous generations were not on their phones all the time. It's possible that young people (and maybe the rest of us) are so busy texting, watching YouTube videos, using Snapchat filters, and so on that they’re not having sex. More precisely, if these online forms of communication have replaced getting together in person, there are fewer opportunities to have sex. Or sex just isn’t as attractive when there are so many other ways to entertain yourself. Sometimes when you say you want to “Netflix and Chill” (a recent euphemism for sex), you might actually want to Netflix and chill—or watch porn. Pornography has become incredibly accessible, and for some young people it might be enough. Others might find actual sex disappointing after watching so much porn. In a recent cover story in Time magazine, several young men said they struggle to perform sexually with real women because only porn excites them.
There’s another possibility: Millennials and iGen members are growing up more slowly. The average age at first marriage and first birth has been rising for a while. GenX’ers had sex earlier than Boomers and Silents but married and had kids later. Now, late Millennials and iGen members are putting off everything. Sex is joining the late-to-adulthood party, but that could be situational—more Millennials live with their parents, which is not a sexy situation.
This is an interesting dilemma. We live in an era when premarital sex is more acceptable than ever, part of a wide-ranging theme of more individualism. That’s the primary focus of my book Generation Me. Each generation becomes more focused on the self and less on following social rules. In that system, premarital sex is fine: If it feels good, do it. There’s a corollary, though—it’s also fine not to do it. Individualism also means the freedom to not have sex.
There’s a related trend here in that Millennials and iGen members are, at least physically, the safest generation in modern times, and possibly in history. Deaths from homicides and car accidents are at the lowest levels in decades. Individualism (combined with economic pressures and birth control) means fewer children per family, and that means a generation brought up to be very, very careful. If that caution extends to sex, putting off sexuality might be attractive. That’s particularly true due to iGen’s recent tendency to emphasize not just physical safety but emotional safety, which is the impetus behind recent college campus trends such as safe spaces and trigger warnings. iGen in particular does not want to get hurt, and sexual relationships are messy things.
Is this trend toward later sex good or bad? I’d love to hear what you think. I see both sides: Waiting until you are ready to have sex is always a good idea. But, especially by the time you’re in your early 20s, sex is one of the best parts of life. Enjoy it now, before your energy starts to fade and family and career pressures mount.
Netflix can wait.