With the rise of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble putting potential sexual encounters at our fingertips, you’d be forgiven for assuming that young people were having more casual sex than ever.
But according to a new study, millennials are actually having far less sex than their parents did at the same age.
US researchers have analysed findings from a long-running social study of almost 27,000 people across several generations, and found that young people born in the early 1990s – now in their early 20s – are almost three times as likely not to be sexually active than their parents’ generation.
And according to the authors of the study, this decline in youthful sexual activity could be traced back to two major causes: property and porn.
Dr Ryne Sherman, assistant professor of social psychology at Florida Atlantic University, and psychology professor Dr Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, suggest that millennials' sex lives could be impacted by the fact that many young people now live with their parents well into adulthood. They also point to the easy availability of alternative forms of entertainment, including porn, as potentially distracting millennials from sex.
Dr Sherman and Dr Twenge analysed data from the General Social Survey – a survey of US adults that includes millennials as well as the generation that came before them, so-called ‘Generation X’ – for the study, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour.
Some 15% of 20- to 24-year-olds born in the 1990s reported having no sexual partners at all since they turned 18. In contrast, when members of Generation X, born in the 1960s, were asked the same question at the same age, only 6% gave the same answer.
The only other generation to report having less sex than millennials were those born in the 1920s.
“This study really contradicts the widespread notion that millennials are the ‘hook-up’ generation, which is popularised by dating apps like Tinder and others, suggesting they are just looking for quick relationships and frequent casual sex,” says Dr Sherman.
“Our data shows that this doesn’t seem to be the case at all and that millennials are not more promiscuous than their predecessors.”
Dr Twenge, the author of Generation Me, observes that far from facilitating sexual encounters, the rise of technology and social media could actually be reducing young people’s opportunities for casual sex.
“Online dating apps should, in theory, help millennials find sexual partners more easily,” she says. “However, 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.”
The study echoes British research suggesting that today’s young adults are less likely than previous generations to have casual sex – as well as being more likely to avoid other ‘risky’ habits like binge drinking, drug-taking and crime.
A survey by Match.com last year found that 49% of twentysomethings hadn’t had sex at all in the previous year, while official figures out in March showed that teen pregnancy rates in England and Wales have almost halved since the dawn of social media.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with waiting longer to have sex – or declining to engage in casual sex altogether. Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, observes that the trend could actually reflect millennial women’s increasing sexual empowerment.
“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,” she tells the Washington Post. “We are far less accepting of pressured sex.”
“This generation appears to be waiting longer to have sex, with an increasing minority apparently waiting until their early twenties or later,” says Twenge. “It's good news for sexual and emotional health if teens are waiting until they are ready. But if young adults forgo sex completely, they may be missing out on some of the advantages of an adult romantic relationship.”