Sam Wei, a 26-year-old financial analyst in Chicago, has not had sex since her last relationship ended eighteen months ago. She makes out with guys sometimes, and she likes to cuddle.
“To me there’s more intimacy with having someone there next to you that you can rely on without having to have sex,” she said. “I don’t want to do anything that would harm the relationship and be something that we can’t come back from.”
Instead, Wei finds “intellectual conversation more stimulating and more pleasurable than having sex sometimes…I’m just kind of more of a rational person. I like to make sure it makes sense before I dive into it.”
It’s not a very sexy time to be young, despite millennials’ reputation as bed-hoppers frolicking like the characters in “Girls.” A study published Tuesday in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, finds that younger millennials – born in the 1990s – are more than twice as likely to be sexually inactive in their early 20s than the previous generation was, and more likely even than older millennials were at the same age.
Recent research also shows that overall, millennials – people born between the early 1980s and 2000 – have fewer sexual partners than the baby boomers and Generation X, immediately preceding them.
Granted, the vast majority of young adults are still having sex, but an increasing number appear to be standing on the sidelines.
Delaying sex is not necessarily bad, experts say – being intentional about when to have sex can lead to stronger relationships in the long run. The trend may also reflect women feeling more empowered to say no, said 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 ,” Coontz said. “We are far less accepting of pressured sex.”
But some experts are concerned that the dropoff reflects the difficulty some young people are having in forming deep romantic connections. They cite possible negative reasons for putting off sex, including pressure to succeed, social lives increasingly conducted onscreen, unrealistic expectations of physical perfection encouraged by dating apps, and wariness over date rape.
‘The nature of communication now is anti-sexual’
Noah Patterson, 18, likes to sit in front of several screens simultaneously: a work project, a YouTube clip, a video game. To shut it all down for a date or even a one-night stand seems a waste. “For an average date you’re going to spend at least two hours, and in that two hours I won’t be doing something I enjoy.”
It’s not that he doesn’t like women. “I enjoy their companionship, but it’s not a significant part of life,” said Patterson, a web designer in Bellingham, Wash.
He has never had sex. “I’d rather be watching YouTube videos and making money.” Sex, he said, is “not going to be something people ask you for on your resume.”
That attitude does not surprise Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and chief scientific advisor to the dating site Match.com.
“It’s a highly motivated, ambitious generation,” she said. “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.”
According to the new report, 15 percent of current 20 to 24-year-olds have not had sex since turning 18, up from 6 percent in the early 1990s. And a study last year found that while millennials are more accepting of non-marital sex than earlier generations, they reported fewer sexual partners than any group since before the sexual revolution — an average of 8, compared to 11 for boomers and 10 for Generation X.
The decline seems likely to continue: According to the latest Centers for Disease Control data, the portion of high school students who have ever had sex plunged last year to 41.2 percent after declining steadily from 54.1 in 1991 to 46.8 in 2013. The portion who reported sleeping with multiple partners also plummeted, from 18.7 in 1991 to 15 in 2013 to just 11.5 last year.
Among millennials, the effects are most dramatic among those born in the mid-1990s and later – the first cohort to come of age when smartphones were ubiquitous.
“This was the group that really started to communicate by screens more and by talking to their friends in person less,” said Jean Twenge, lead author of the two studies.
So has sex declined because people are not meeting in person? Perhaps in part. But online life can also affect offline life in more subtle ways – especially when potential mates can disappear forever with a swipe of the thumb.
“It ends up putting a lot of importance on physical appearance, and that I think is leaving out a large section of the population,” said Twenge, who teaches psychology at San Diego State University . “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,” she said, dating apps are “leaving some people with fewer choices and they might be more reluctant to search for partners at all.”
It does not help that many millennials are relatively unfamiliar with the kind of down time it takes to really get to know a partner.
“The nature of communication now is anti-sexual,” said Norman Spack, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “People are not spending enough time alone just together; there’s another gorilla in the room, it’s whatever is turned on electronically.”
Alexandra Wolff, 19, had hoped to find romance in college. In high school, she and her friends were so focused on schoolwork that they didn’t date. But as a freshman last year at George Washington University, she found that between meeting new friends, attending classes and participating in extracurricular activities, she still didn’t have time.
“I don’t involve myself in the scene of frat parties and hookup culture…but it seems like every other option is so time consuming and very hard to seek out,” said Wolff, who has never had sex. “It’s not like I’m saving myself for anything; it’s more like I’ve been busy.”
At Tulane University in New Orleans, Wolff’s high school classmate Claudia W., 19, feels like an odd duck in a sea of Tinder users. She wants what she calls an “old-fashioned” relationship, leading to marriage and kids. But fellow students are into “very casual one-night stands, going to bars and going home with someone,” she said.
Claudia, who didn’t want her last name used because “I don’t want all my professors reading about how I’m a virgin,” said her parents worry.
“They always ask me, ‘Are you against relationships? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?’ My mom – she hooked up all the time in college – she’s like, ‘I would still love you, but are you gay?’ But for me it’s not anything about chastity or fear of sex… I’m just like, ‘eh, it’ll happen.’”
A reluctance to ‘catch feelings’
Millennials have been called the most cautious generation – the first to grow up with car seats and bike helmets, the first not allowed to walk to school or go to the playground alone.
The sense of caution sometimes manifests itself as a heightened awareness of emotional pitfalls. For example, many young people speak disparagingly of the messy emotional state love and lust can engender, referring to it as “catching feelings.”
This generation has also grown up in an age in which possible to inflict suffering in ways that are both hidden and horrifyingly public, such as cyberbullying or posting compromising pictures online. In such an environment, young people have developed what some see as necessary defenses and others view as thin skin.
“On college campuses you see older people scratching their heads about ‘safe spaces.’” Twenge said. “That’s about emotional safety, this new idea of words being more harmful,” referring to trigger warnings and other terms college-age people use to talk about potentially trauma-inducing stimuli.
Meanwhile efforts to counteract hookup and drinking culture, some campuses have begun instigating “yes-means-yes” rules stipulating that each step of a sexual encounter require verbal consent.
For some, staying away altogether can feel less treacherous.
That is Patterson’s takeaway. “Third wave feminists seem to be crazy, saying that all men are participating in this rape culture.” He opts for porn instead. “It’s quicker, it’s more accessible, what you see is what you get.”
Isn’t he curious about actual sex? “Not really,” he said. “I’ve seen so much of it…There isn’t really anything magical about it, right?”
For his part, Leo Fusco, a 25-year-old construction worker and subcontractor in Oakland, CA has refrained from sex in part because he is repelled by the hookup culture.
“I’ve overheard conversations where every detail was given – ‘We were in this position for this long, and then we were in that position’ – and that’s a major turnoff for me,” he said. “There’s a lot of people my age who have no filter in terms of how they express themselves in public.”
Isn’t he curious about what sex is like? “I’m curious on a physical level, like I’m curious about how a new sandwich would taste, but it’s not like a driving curiosity.” Besides, he said, “I don’t particularly like not being in control of myself.”
Abstinence may not be such a considered choice for everyone, however; there can also be environmental factors. For example, the use of anti-depressants, which doubled between 1999 and 2012, can reduce sex drive.
“That’s a real problem,” Fisher said, adding that antidepressants can also “blunt emotions,” making it harder to fall in love.
To Spack, that is sad. “Everyone’s missing out on a good time,” he said.
But Fisher is not 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, as long as pharmaceuticals don’t get in the way, 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.”