As soon as I heard about the pair of new studies showing that millennials are getting less sex than their parents did, I knew the kids would twist themselves into pretzels explaining to me how that’s a good thing. After all, we’re the ones who ruined the environment, razed the economy and stuck them all with a hundred grand in college debt, so how could anything that we did ever be good?
The first of those two studies, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, revealed that millennials have had far fewer sexual partners than the boomers or Generation X. In fact, millennials are having sex less than anybody since their grandparents’ “Greatest Generation,” who averaged just two partners apiece. Boomers and Gen X’ers in the study averaged 11 sexual partners. Millennials, the study says, are likely to average eight.
This may seem odd, since college campuses these days are known to be dens of sexual misbehavior. (All those hookups! Frat parties! Binge-drinking! All those Title IX investigations!) And anyway, boomers have been having sex longer than millennials have, so naturally they’ve had more partners, right? Turns out the clever researchers included a complex statistical analysis projecting millennial sex into middle age to get to that eight lifetime partners. The kids are never going to catch up. And this despite the fact that 58 percent of people today say there’s nothing wrong with having premarital sex, up from just 28 percent in 1972, when the boomers were frisky even in the face of societal shaming and no free birth control.
But it’s another statistic from the study that’s really startling: One in three 20-somethings have never, ever, not even once had sex. And a different study, conducted by online dating site Match.com, turned up some equally morose data. It showed that 49 percent — damn near half — of all people in their 20s today haven’t had sex within the past year. Hey you guys? I know you don’t want to hear this, but your 20s is when you have the most sex in your lifetime. Or at least, it was before you all turned your 20s into an extra decade of junior high.
Millennials aren’t the only ones opining that people at the height of their sexual prime not having sex with each other is a positive development. Asked about the Match.com study, Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers who works with Match.com (which, of course, has no ulterior motive whatsoever in pointing out millennials’ paucity of meaningful relationships), explained what’s happening with young folk today to Time’s Charlotte Alter: “In their 20s, I think they’re working very hard. There’s something to be said for the fact that they may be taking relationships and commitment more seriously.” And Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University — the guy who champions the value of “extended adolescence” — told Alter that millennials are simply being more responsible in their sexual habits: “This is a generation that has grown up with an awareness of HIV/AIDS.” More annoyingly, he suggests — of course! — that we boomers are to blame for the millennials’ sexual drought: “It could be that the children saw the consequences of not following the rules,” he told Time — like high divorce rates and drug addiction — and have chosen a purer path.
But the really convoluted defenses of today’s attenuated sex drives come from millennials themselves. Take Julieanne Smolinski, who penned an aren’t-we-virtuous little essay for GQ called “In Defense of a Sex Drought” in which she says millennials are abstaining thanks to an Internet awash with porn, plus an approach to sex ed in their schooling that emphasized disease and death. Why all the attention to quantity, she wonders? Thanks to the miracles of technology and their superior social-media skills, millennials are “more easily able to determine who’s actually worth having sex with beforehand, rather than the trial-by-error method of our parents.” Young people’s current carnal shortfall is “a big, beautiful step forward,” she says, because “It suggests that — finally! Hallelujah! — we’re phasing out the belt-notch comparisons of yore.”
To which I say: Oh, Julieanne.
The thing about having sex with a lot of different people, dear child, is that it helps you figure out what you want and don’t want in a partner, not to mention what pleases you and what won’t (when, that is, the sex is consensual and freely given, not driven by desperation or self-destructiveness or the opportunity to carry a mattress around). It’s what makes finding a life partner in 21st-century America different from finding one in 17th-century Russia, where your marriage to a man you’d never met was arranged by your parents and his via a matchmaker. Anyway, what makes you think we hippies were counting the notches in our belts when we were making love, not war? We were way too hopped up on pot and LSD to keep track.
If you ask me, millennials aren’t getting any for a simple reason: They’re scared. They’re scared they’ll be accused of rape or sexual assault in the current climate of fear and oppression and trigger warnings. They’re scared they won’t live up to those Internet porn performances Julieanne proposes as a valid alternative to flesh-and-blood sex. And they’re scared of what you say in the morning when you wake up next to someone in bed and have to, you know, talk, not text. But you young folk go ahead and keep on telling yourself that watching porn beats having sex with a real live person. Don’t worry; scientists are hard at work on the robots that will take human partners out of the equation permanently. With a little luck, you can all stay virgins for the rest of your lives.
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