Millennials aren't having as much sex as older folks, which is cause for either widespread panic—ugh, kids these days—or a collective sigh of relief—yay, kids these days—depending upon what sort of moral panics one subscribes to.
The news comes courtesy of a study released Tuesday: "Sexual Inactivity During Young Adulthood Is More Common Among U.S. Millennials and iGen: Age, Period, and Cohort Effects on Having No Sexual Partners After Age 18." It contains a lot of interesting findings, but the big one is that people born in the 1990s are twice as likely to refrain from sex during their early 20s as members of the previous generation were. Older millennials*—those born in the 1980s—are having more sex than younger millennials, too.
It's not just that young people are waiting longer to have sex (although that's true, too: the percentage of high schoolers engaged in sexual activity has fallen from 54 percent to 41 percent over the last 25 tears). It's that people in their 20s who have had sex before—they aren't, say, morally opposed to premarital sex—are consciously deciding to pursue other activities.
Researchers note that there is an upside to all this: less people having risky, unsafe sex is definitely a good thing from the standpoint of fighting disease and preventing unwanted pregnancy. It also might reflect changing consent norms and the empowerment of women. Maybe fewer people are being forced to have uncomfortable or undesired sex.
Of course, the study has also produced some hand-wringing, according to The Washington Post:
But some experts are concerned that the drop-off reflects the difficulty some young people are having in forming deep romantic connections. They cite other reasons for putting off sex, including pressure to succeed, social lives increasingly conducted on-screen, unrealistic expectations of physical perfection encouraged by dating apps and wariness over date rape.
This generation has also grown up in an age in which it is 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, in efforts to counteract hookup and drinking culture, some campuses have begun instigating "yes-means-yes" rules stipulating that each step of a sexual encounter requires verbal consent.
For some, staying away altogether can feel less treacherous.
If millennials are having less sex because a cabal of vindictive university administrators—in service of sex-negative feminist activists—are teaching them to fear intimacy as part of some new wave of left-wing puritanism, then okay, this seems like a problem. And it does seem to be the case that kids today are being raised in a culture of stifling paranoia about safety: physical safety, intellectual safety, and emotional safety. We don't want millennials deciding not to have sex because they have been fed bad information and made to feel afraid when they shouldn't be.
That said, there are plenty of other explanations for why millennials are having less sex. As New York Magazine's Jesse Singal points out, millennials are delaying marriage and living with their parents longer—two lifestyle choices that decrease their opportunities to have sex:
Another factor has to do with the changing lifestyle of young people. "With more living with their parents even postrecession (Pew Research Center, 2015), young adults may have fewer opportunities to have sex. In addition, marriage is the traditional outlet for sexuality, and only 26% of Millennials aged 18–32 were married as of 2014, compared to 36% of GenX'ers (born 1965–1979) in 1997 and 48% of Boomers." So the odds that a young person is unmarried and living with his or her parents today is significantly higher than it was in the past, and that on its own reduces the odds that they will have had sex since turning 18.
There's another, less obvious reason—one libertarians ought to cheer. Perhaps it's the case that young people simply have better options for how they spend their time than members of previous generations did. It's no surprise that when the only way to pass the hours was having sex or reading by candlelight, people were having a lot of sex. But there's just so much more for the modern young person to do in a day (and night). Consider one such millennial's testimony, according to WaPost:
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 like 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," he said.
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, although he likes porn. "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 résumé."
Living in a free society means letting other people make the choices that are right for them, as long as those choices don't infringe on anyone else's fundamental freedoms. Not everybody likes the same things. If some people want to have a lot of sex, but other people want to work on their start-up company, and still others want to just play Pokemon Go all day, that's fine. It's the benefit of a pluralistic society guided by classically liberal values—made possible, of course, by free market capitalism.
(*This millennial considers himself right smack dab in the middle of the pack, having been born on 8-8-88. Send birthday gifts to the Reason DC office.)