A new study suggests that the sex lives of young people are the equivalent of flossing your teeth: According to the UK's third annual National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), they elicit disappointing results.
A portion of the survey, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, asked almost 2,000 men and women aged 16 to 21 about how they view and have sex. Surprisingly, the researchers found that about 9 percent of sexually active young men and 13 percent of young women reported a "distressing sexual problem," which the study notes are usually associated with older adults. For the men, that included reaching a climax too quickly; for the women it was never reaching one. Additionally, both reported feeling anxiety and a lack enjoyment during sex.
Subsequently, the study also reports, a sizable minority of young people are just giving up on sex altogether. About 6 percent of sexually active men and 7 percent of sexually active women surveyed said they actively avoided sex in the past year because of one of these problems. These findings align with a another study that came out this week that reported millennials are hooking up less than the previous generation.
In the report, the researchers explain that these problems could stem from a "practice effect," or that fact that teens—whose intimacy probably revolves primarily around memes and clandestinely bumping braces in the hallway between class periods—are sexually unexperienced. But they also suggest something more dire: Problems like feeling anxious and uncomfortable during sex could be lifelong due to sex education in schools failing. "When it comes to young people's sexuality, professional concern is usually focused on preventing sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy," Dr. Kirstin Mitchell, the study's lead author, told the BBC. "However, we should be considering sexual health much more broadly."
Pamela Madsen, a sex educator who runs retreats for women of all ages who want to get in touch with their sexuality, agrees. She emphasizes that sex ed in the US is improving, but there is still a missing link. "Younger women are now articulating what is typically associated with older women," she said over the phone. This reveals an enduring gap in sexual health: pleasure.
"There's a lack of pleasure education," she explained. "Teaching people how to touch is still not on the curriculum. There's now curriculum around inclusion and around consent, but we still haven't embraced pleasure as an important part of human development and health. That's the piece that scares the shit out of us: that we should like sex. I have 24-year-olds and 54-year-olds who are working on the same issues because they never learned how to have and give pleasure. We have to be willing to teach pleasure tools to young adults."
The study's authors reached a similar conclusion: "While young people say they want to talk about pleasure, nonpenetrative alternatives to intercourse, and power relations in sexual relationships, school sex education tends to neglect these topics, the content instead reflecting the protectionist concerns of adults in authority," they write. "If we wish to improve sexual well-being in the population, we need to reach individuals and couples as they embark on their sexual careers, to prevent lack of knowledge, anxiety, and shame turning into lifelong sexual difficulties."
Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist who focuses on the topic of intimacy, adds that, overall, it's important to just talk about sex in a rational way; sex shouldn't be traumatic, but not every experience is going to be mind blowing. "Teaching young people (and adults) about pleasure is a key element of understanding how sex operates in society. But… we don't seem to have the language or even an awareness of sex that is just 'whatever' and that in turn contributes to this cycle of inaccuracy and confusion," she said in an email. "We need to find a way to educate, discuss pleasure, and also discuss sex as an everyday ordinary activity."