Research Shows We’re Having Less Sex, But The Reason Why Is Still Up For Debate


It’s been a talking point for a while now: That our generation is, apparently, “having less sex”.

But less sex than what? Than what the researchers expected? Than what Netflix suggests? And less sex than who? Than our parents? Or is it our grandparents?

An article published by The Atlantic at the end of last year described it as “the sex recession”, claiming that millennials are not only withdrawing from physical intimacy in adulthood, they’re also launching their sex lives later. From 1991 to 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that the percentage of high-school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent. In other words, in the space of a generation, sex has gone from something most high-school students had experienced to something most haven’t. And it wasn’t because they (we!) had swapped it for oral sex either – those statistics haven’t moved much between generations. Abstinence is also extending beyond just high-school students; according to research published by Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, people who are currently in their early twenties are two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as Gen Xers were at the same age.

But the explanation as to why we are doing the dirty less often is still up for debate. When I shared these statistics with readers of The Twenties Club, almost none of you were surprised but your theories were wide-ranging. There were optimists like Jade, “We’re having less sex because we feel empowered to say ‘no’. The more conversations we have about sex, the more both genders acknowledge that a person should be valued for their character rather than their willingness to put out.” Or Sophie who argued, “Because of feminism, access to a person’s body is no longer a rite of passage. Instead we are free to make our own sexual choices including how and if we use our bodies for pleasure. Feminism has also lead to a greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community which means marginalised groups feel less pressure to use sex as a means to change/hide their preferences.”

But for every positive explanation, there was a counter-argument. Medication, #MeToo, and mental health all featured among the more disheartening reasons for why readers weren’t having as much sex in their twenties and thirties as they envisioned they would. Lucy raised the controversy around hormone-altering medications like the Pill, “being on a hormone-altering contraception since I was 17 has ruined my natural hormone levels and I literally have no sex drive anymore. It’s a catch twenty-two: you’re on birth control so that you can have sex freely, but then the birth control takes away your sex drive…”. Emily had a similar experience on the Pill, but also lost her sex drive while on anti-depressants in her early twenties, “Individually, both medications were hell. But combined, they were torture.”  I heard from young men who said that in this new call-out culture, they were too afraid to approach women in public – out of fear they’d be perceived as creepy – and therefore they weren’t in as many situations that could possibly lead to sex. For what it’s worth: I’m not saying I agree with that sentiment, but it’s important to acknowledge that this is how a lot of guys our age are feeling.

For women in heterosexual relationships, Amelia’s insecurity was a popular one, “My partner and I don’t have a crazy amount of sex, and while he has never put any pressure on me, I definitely feel a lot of external pressure from society; when I compare my sex life with the television series I watch or the books I read that depict sex, I always feel inadequate.” But she raises an interesting point – what counts as “a lot” of sex?

The Atlantic piece I quoted earlier said today’s young adults are on track to have fewer sex partners than members of the two preceding generations.”  But from the (v basic, non-scientific, super lazy) Instagram call-out I did, our “numbers” look… well you be the judge:

The average number among the women who spoke with me (who varied in age from 21 to 36), was 9 sexual partners. Ranging from women who were still virgins or had just slept with one person, to women who had slept with over 50 different people. For the guys I spoke with (both straight and gay), the average number was 12, and they ranged from 3 partners to 36.

But these numbers don’t mean much in the context of our Great Sex Recession, do they. Because what you consider to be “a lot” of sex, might not be a lot to me. What matters is that our generation isn’t viewing sex in the same dopamine-inducing, connection-building, soul-affirming, make-love-not-war kind of way that our parents did at our age.

So now I want to know: What are the implications of this? What have we lost? And how do we get it back? 

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