Many articles and think pieces have been written about the outbreak of promiscuity among the generation born in the 1990s. Dating aps and “hook-up culture” are supposedly exposing young people to a tide of sexually transmitted infections and a lack of true romance. Just one problem: It’s completely untrue.
Complaining about corrupted youth is an age-old pastime, but the idea of a more sexually active generation is plausible. "Online dating apps should, in theory, help Millennials find sexual partners more easily," said Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University in a statement.
This is sufficient to spur petrified speculation about the damage all this sex is allegedly doing. Scientists, on the other hand, prefer evidence. Twenge is first author of a paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior providing some actual data.
Whether an increase in sex would actually be a bad thing is more a matter for philosophers than scientists, but Twenge has shown that, at least for Americans, the trend is the other way.
Twenge used the General Social Survey of 26,707 geographically and racially representative Americans, which includes a question on sexual partners since turning 18. Unsurprisingly, those born in the late 1980s and early 1990s (referred to in the paper as Millennials) were more likely to report having had no sexual partners in that time than older peers – after all, the period since turning 18 was much shorter for them.
However, when Twenge looked at what people had done in the early years after coming of age, she found substantially more Millennials reported no sexual partners than Generation X'ers did 20 to 30 years before them.
Among the group born in the early 90s, 15 percent had no sexual partners since turning 18. Thirty years before, the figure was 6 percent. "Many of the differences between the groups in the recent generations were also significant," said co-author Dr Ryne Sherman of Florida Atlantic University. "For example, women were more likely to be sexually inactive compared to men, Whites more than Blacks, those who did not attend college more than those who did, and in the East more than the West."
“Technology may have the opposite effect if young people are spending so much time online that they interact less in person, and thus don't have sex," Twenge observed.
Distinguishing the influence of technology from cultural shifts, for example if people uninterested in sex feel less peer pressure, is challenging, but the authors offer several theories.
"This generation is very interested in safety, which also appears in their reduced use of alcohol and their interest in 'safe spaces' on campus," Twenge noted. "This is a very risk-averse generation, and that attitude may be influencing their sexual choices."
It is not just that a larger minority are having no sex. Other studies have shown a substantial decline in sexual activity among American teens, and that those Millennials who have sex do not have more partners than their predecessors.