Is there anything that us dastardly millennials won’t ruin? First diamonds, then marriage, religion, and now sex. Mainstream media outlets have been running stories on how bad the millennial dating scene is since the middle of the decade, but as we near the decade’s end, it turns out that the picture being painted of us isn’t necessarily accurate.
Publications like Vanity Fair, Bustle, the New York Times and late last year, The Atlantic, have each weighed on modern dating in the digital world. Even the Washington Post ran a story this year on the ‘Great American Sex Drought’. “The portion of Americans 18 to 29 reporting no sex in the past year more than doubled between 2008 and 2018, to 23 per cent,” the article reports. But, putting aside the fact that the millennial age range is actually 23 to 38, these statistics are drawn from a source that isn’t as reliable as all these major publications are making it out to be.
So let’s look at these numbers up close, shall we?
The General Social Survey (GSS)
The data that all of these big articles are drawing conclusions from—including the Atlantic’s December cover story—doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. It also, perhaps unsurprisingly, doesn’t include much input from millennials. You know, the actual subject of the study?
For starters, the definition of sex used in these articles isn’t nuanced at all. It doesn’t factor in non-penetrative sex—which is super limiting and hetero-normative—and doesn’t account for use of toys, nor does it fully reconcile itself with the changing social climate of dating, which, I admit, is hard to do; the social context is pretty murky (more on that later).
The apocalyptic data comes from a study called the General Social Survey, or GSS. This is a regular, long-term study carried out in the US, which focuses on a wide range of social and political topics.
So right out of the gate, it’s not a survey dedicated to sex. As subjects answer questions on politics, money, and religion, they also answer a small handful of basic questions like “how often did you have sex in the last 12 months?” No effort made to go into detail on what ‘sex’ includes, and no questions follow-up on the answer. The GSS has been running in the exact same way for decades.
The GSS found that the difference in sexual encounters per year between 18 to 29-year-olds in 1989-1994 and 18 to 29-year-olds in 2010-2014 was only an average drop of 2.79, from 81.29 to 78.5. So, if you’re here for a flat answer to our headline, it’s ‘hardly’. The difference is minuscule, and that’s assuming Boomers in the late 80s were all being entirely honest about how much they were doing it when they answered the question.
Basically, the question sucks as far as scientific research goes, as it doesn’t go into any sort of detail. Does this matter? It sure does if you consider that Millenials are more sexually experimental than previous generations.
Cosmo, who also ran a story on the sex recession, interviewed a number of researchers including Justin Lehmiller, PhD, who said: “our definitions are expanding.” He went on to state that, “It’s not that we’re necessarily having less sexual contact overall, we’re just having different kinds of sexual contact than have traditionally been measured.”
Lehmiller has also pointed out that contradictory data isn’t difficult to dig up. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average age at which Americans have sex for the first time has held at 17 for almost 20 years.
“If younger adults really were having a lot less sex, you’d probably see the average age of first sex increasing,” he said.
The Rise of Sexual Intelligence
This perceived drop in sex is being held up as an example of a bad thing, whereas Helen Fisher, PhD, and senior research fellow of the Kinsey Institute, calls it “the rise of sexual intelligence”. A biological anthropologist, Fisher’s quotes on love and relationships have been used a fair amount in a few features on the sex recession over the past few years. Now, she’s said she finds the headlines excessive.
More recent surveys have been carried out since the last round of the GSS. The 2018 and 2019 Skyn Condom Sex & Intimacy Survey paint very different pictures to the GSS. If anything, this goes to show that deeper investigation is needed to get consistent results. These recent surveys “challenge many preconceived notions about the generation,” according to Skyn.
Cosmo also carried out its own surveys and found that a different picture emerged. “We’re a generation that favors artisanal everything,” the article says. “Why would we settle for basic sex?” In general, its questions focused far more on the mental health and well-being of respondents, asking questions like “are you happy with the amount of sex you’re having?” and “do you think your friends are having enough sex?”
Overwhelmingly, their subjects were very content with their sex lives.
Sex educator and scientist Debby Herbenick also runs a regular survey of sex and intimacy. Called the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, her data also shows a small drop in sexual frequency among younger generations, but since her questions are more nuanced, they put this in context against the survey’s other findings; that sexual pleasure is increasing.
“This is a generation, more than any other generation, that can really fuse the relational with the recreational to create sex that feels intimate, emotional, and connected, in which pleasure is really front and center,” said psychotherapist Ian Kerner, PhD, to Cosmo. This implies that what we’re seeing isn’t just a drop in sex, it’s specifically a drop in mediocre sex, which past generations have just felt like they had to grin and bear.
Cosmo’s survey backs up this idea. “Almost every respondent said they value quality over quantity when it comes to sex. They were also overwhelmingly satisfied with their own sex lives, a notion that has not been explored in all the alarmist articles.”
Quality over Quantity
The last big thing that Cosmo’s article focused on was the #MeToo movement, and the disregard for it in all the negative millennial sex press over the past few years.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that some of the warning bells these alarmist articles are ringing are real. Vanity Fair’s 2015 article—Tinder and the Dawn the Dating Apocalypse—explores some legitimately disturbing disconnects between young men and women in the digital dating world.
But in the years since 2015, a lot has changed, and those talking about the drop in sex haven’t properly put it in social context.
“When you think of all the stories we’ve heard since it exploded in 2017 about bad sex, coerced sex, harassment, and rape,” Julie Vadnal writes for Cosmo, “the idea that millennials are mostly having the sex we really want to have seems even less like a sad dry spell and more like mass empowerment.”
Herbenick agrees. “People have had to start thinking about what it means to have sex that feels good,” she says. “Some are really trying to take the affirmative-consent approach, where less of the sex they’re having is in that murky area.”
So, Millennials are having less sex?
At face value, yes, but it’s because we’re picky, and this means the sex is better. Plus, if you take into account that we consider ‘sex’ to include more than just some classic P in V, chances are we’re actually not having less. There just isn’t any bulletproof research on it.
Does this mean we should ignore those saying that a sexual recession is gripping modern society? Well, not entirely; it’s important to stay critical of how casual dating apps can change the relationships we have, but being aware of this is something to celebrate. Ultimately, millennials are sick and tired of Boomers arranging data in a negative light to make themselves feel better.
The Atlantic article on the Sex Recession is a great read, but did it do it’s due diligence to find out how millennials feel about it? Did it allow itself to be used as fodder for a tired joke with younger generations as the punchline?
Cosmopolitan’s Vadnal ends her piece in a very different place to the Atlantic’s. In it, she calls Mary Jane Minkin, MD of the Yale School of Medicine to “get the opinion of a doctor who sees millennials all day in her classrooms and her medical practice.” Minkin straight-up laughs down the phone at the idea of a sexual dry spell among Millenials.
“Wait, let me see if my business partner is here. I want to get another professional’s viewpoint,” Dr Minkin says. “I have Cosmo on the phone asking if millennials are having a lot less sex than previous generations… …She’s making a face, shaking her head… …The phrase she used was ‘fucking like bunnies.’” 🐇
Subscribe to the Zizacious newsletter to keep up to date with our blog, including more sex and sex-adjacent articles like this one! Being smart is hot, so don’t miss out!