IT’s always hard to know just from looking at a culture how much sex is really going on. You might think today’s young adults are getting quite a bit of it. They are, after all, the generation who grew up with sexting and online hook-ups. But, as a recent US report demonstrated, statistically they are having less sex than any generation since the 1920s. Some 15 per cent of young adults who were born in the 1990s said they’d had no sex partners since age 18, but just 6 per cent of Generation X-ers admitted the same.
Of course, this is not the image we have of this younger generation. Watch Celebrity Big Brother, The Only Way Is Essex, Geordie Shore or the American drama Girls, or surf internet gossip sites, and you could easily conclude that there is more sex going on than ever in British and US history. On Celebrity Big Brother, viewers have witnessed 24-year-old Marnie Simpson, whose personal selling-point on entering the house was that she’d already had sex on television and had “the best-looking vagina in Newcastle”, canoodle with Lewis Bloor, who earlier said he had bedded over 100 women.
In their attitudes to sex, Simpson and her peers also seem frequently at odds with the older generation on the show. The reality star managed to silence 46-year-old Saira Khan, when she tried to involve her in a chat about her sex toy. “Marnie. I’m married. I don’t do sex,” Khan said.
This is just one example of the way in which our culture, by giving platforms to those who create the biggest noise and outrage, seems to be telling us a different story about what young adults today are getting up to, than these statistics reveal.
It seems only a few years back people were worried that this generation might end up almost hyper-sexed. There was panic over the pornified world in which they were growing up, about the “sexualisation” of children, inappropriate clothing lines and the raunchiness of pop stars. As they grew, we all worried about the proliferation of hardcore internet porn and whether this would lead to unrealistic expectations around performance and body hair. Sexting, Tinder, drunken campus parties: these were just some of the moral panics along the way.
But here we have the end result of all that. Not more sex, but a little less. Just because a culture is more frank or displays its sexuality more openly, doesn’t mean it’s doing more of it. Some academics have noted that, in the United States, the sexual revolution began long before the 1960s, in a “silent revolution” that took place following the Second World War, unspoken of, though measurable as a rise in single mothers and driven, perhaps, by a desire to live in the moment following troubled times. It was only later that the social conventions changed to follow suit.
Today, it’s the opposite. Social conventions suggest we are becoming ever more sexually liberal and accepting of anything that involves adult consent, but what people are actually doing tells a different story, of a little more abstinence, and even, possibly, more puritanism.
Meanwhile, sex isn’t the only thing young adults are having less of. This generation are drinking less alcohol, taking fewer drugs and falling pregnant less young than previous recent generations. Alongside this, they are also on course to be the first generation to earn less than their parents, and are likely to stay living with them for longer – surely also an opportunity-crusher, even in the most relaxed households.
Of course, there is no right quantity of sex to have. Every generation does things differently from the one before it. And there is no need for a mass panic. It’s not that millennials have stopped having sex. It’s just that they’re having a little less of it.
Nevertheless it is worth asking why this shift is happening. Authors of this recent US report suggest a multitude of reasons: among them the fact that this generation are doing almost everything later, that they are “risk-averse” and that they are the first to have come of age with digital technology. Researcher Jean Twenge noted that they had “really started to communicate by screens more and by talking to their friends in person less”. The result being less contact and less sex.
Tere is another element. This is a generation who have come of age in the often vicious arena of trolling and shaming, that is modern social media. Only the most thick-skinned can be immune from worry about what others might say about them out there, or of revenge porn and cyberbullying.
Given all these off-putting factors, it seems a wonder that there’s still any sex going on at all; a marvel that the whole generation hasn’t given up and left it to the Celebrity Big Brother stars to do it on behalf of the rest of us. Fortunately they haven’t. For all this recent moral panic, the death of sex is still a long way off.