This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
There are a lot of reasons I waited until I was 23 to have sex. Actually, “waited” is a misleading term. Because waiting implies some kind of withholding or restraint—a starvation of sorts. I just thought I had better things to do than mattress dance with guys I only half-liked. I’m not trying to get on a feminist high horse here but growing up I was told that, as a young woman, I had more opportunity than any generation of ladies before me. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make use of that opportunity, to prioritize school and extracurriculars over boys so that I could appease the amorphous feminist visionary who followed me through daily life, much like the ghost of a dead relative.
Of course, my celibacy was also encouraged by health class presentations in which the nurse thrust her meter stick toward the projector screen to show us what gonorrhea looked like under 300X magnification, and how genital warts the size of brussels sprouts would take over our bodies. They weren’t teaching STI awareness; they were instilling stigma. Like many young women, I was (and still am) plagued by the idea of accidental pregnancy—something Drew Barrymore in Riding in Cars with Boys told us would ruin prom, crush our career dreams, and emotionally destroy our fathers.
Whichever way you look at it, relationships—and our relationship with relationships—look a lot different than they did 30, 20, or even ten years ago. We meet on apps. We date people overseas. We’re embracing non-monogamy. And while a liberal shift in our culture, the seeming limitlessness of online hookups, and increased acceptance of non-heteronormative sex may make it seem like we are embracing our inner bunnies and going at it more than ever, recent research shows exactly the opposite.
As reported in the Atlantic, the percentage of high school students who’ve had sex has dropped from 54 percent (in 1991) to 40 percent (in 2017). The article also states that, according to Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, folks in their early 20s are two and a half times more likely to be abstinent than Gen Xers were in their 20s, and that young adults are on track to having fewer sexual partners than both Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.
The article sites solo sex, helicopter parents, and lack of social skills among contributing factors to our dwindling desire to knock boots. But what about libido-dimming medication, depression, over-tiredness, and straight-up safety? VICE thought it worthwhile to ask young people upfront: Why aren’t you having sex?
*Name has been changed
In the generation of cheating, lying, and ghosting, I'm not about to have sex with someone who I'll never hear from again. I tend to be very cautious of people and their intentions. I'm not OK with being a quick fuck. —Bella, 21
When I was younger, I was having plenty. But as I entered my 30s and my economic situation didn’t change I just refocused my time. There is a bit of shame in not being stable in your 30s so I avoid relationships. I don’t want to date while still trying to get back on my feet. —John*, 33
I take a few different medications—antidepressant, a mood stabilizer, and antipsychotic. A huge side effect of most of these kinds of medications is lowered libido. I often go through long phases of being completely disinterested in sex to the point that the thought of it makes me ill. Even if I do happen to have sex, it is impossible to achieve orgasm with a partner. If I'm persistent I can sometimes get off on my own. Before starting these meds three years ago I had a healthy, active sex life and had regular orgasms. Another common side effect that I have is not being able to get wet, or stay wet, and that makes sex physically uncomfortable. It also makes me embarrassed and has made past sexual partners feel as though they're doing something wrong. It's super frustrating. My lack of sex drive has been a huge factor in my last two relationships falling apart. My life was a mess before I got treatment, and I'm in a much better place now. The side effects of my meds can be frustrating at times, but ultimately worth it. I’d rather mental stability over sex drive. —Emma, 28
I wasn't very sexually active as a teen or young adult because of an intense fear of pregnancy and STIs. Now, my wife is asexual, we have an open marriage, but I'm picky about my sexual partners. I think about sex often and have a high libido when I find a suitable partner, but between my pickiness and social anxiety I don't go out. Add in a 40-hour work week, I'm too tired and would rather just hang out with my wife. —Diana, 27
So as for myself, it’s always a risk in putting myself out there, as either I am met with aggression and transphobic tropes. For example: Straight cis men asking if they are gay if they have sex with me. Or I get men who grossly fetishize my body for their own pleasure, often times without asking my consent. I openly state that I’m a trans woman—and I use they/them on my accounts now because I would rather have the transphobic ones block and delete me, and then I weed out the fetishizers. It’s a risk for me to open myself up in such a intimate and physically vulnerable position. I have essentially stopped any relationships due to experiences this year. Queer sex is harder because the community is so fatphobic, and lack any acknowledge that we are bodies that are capable of sex, let alone like it. So why try when I know nine out of ten, it’ll be unsatisfactory and there’s a huge risk my partner—if they’re cis men—could kill me. —Jaye, 24
For me, the priority right now is figuring out my own life. I usually don’t have the patience for small talk, and I don’t really have any time for hookups let alone a committed relationship. So it just doesn’t happen. I’m less interested than ever in finding someone else. Building my career is a lot more of a priority, and the relationships I do put energy into are amazing friendships—that’s worth so much more than a one night stand. Maybe millennials are just more caught up trying not to be broke. —Keiver, 25
With third-wave feminism, there was this idea that having lots of sex was almost like wearing a suit at work, as in, in order to become equals we women should also have as much non-committal sex as we perceived men to be having. This was an important step in bringing female sexuality to the general consciousness, but I think now we’re at the point that we realize our feminine sensitivity is also a strength and that it’s okay—preferable in some cases, even—to not have sex without attachment and to take it more seriously and be more selective. Also, I think a lot of hetero woman are waking up to the fact that sex, not all but a lot, with a man is often less fulfilling, orgasm-wise, than going solo. We used to be like, “look at all the sex we can have too!” and now I’m like, “well I can, but I also don’t have to in order to prove I’m a bad-ass bitch.” I don’t want to have to have so-called sex like a man—as in, often and without much emotional attachment—in order to be taken seriously. —Rachel, 26
I am in a long-term relationship and have since gotten a vasectomy, but about two years back, I was not very sexually active. A large part of it was that I was absolutely terrified of getting someone pregnant. Like, terrified. Now, I have a five-year-old daughter. She was conceived while I was using a condom and my ex said she was on birth control. Coincidentally, my current girlfriend has a son that was conceived the first time she ever had sex—from a broken condom. The fear of accidentally having a child was absolutely paralyzing to me, even before my daughter was born, but her conception was like validation of all my fears! Of course, I love my daughter more than anything. I just wish I had been in a more stable situation before bringing her in to to the world. —Joshua, 26
I just turned 30 and got out of an 11-year relationship. I could be having crazy amounts of sex right now but 1) my standards get higher with every hook up and 2) I'm petrified of STIs. The dissolution of my marriage has been so amicable that people have a really hard time understanding why we're doing it. But my husband and I have higher standards than my parents and their generation. Our marriage was good but we knew we could be more fulfilled—probably. Young people know that they don't have to settle for sub-par sex, and I think dating apps have something to do with that. There's always another option in your pocket, and so you’re actually less likely to have sex with someone because you know there’s probably a better hookup waiting for you somewhere. — Emily, 30
I’m in a relationship and pregnancy is a huge fear of mine. Add to that the fact that my body cannot tolerate hormonal birth control and the major irritation I get from condoms, sex really isn't an option until I can get sterilized. And most doctors aren't open to that option until I'm over 30 with a kid. —Christina, 25
I didn’t lose my virginity until I was in my mid-20s and a big part of that was my focus on academia and music as opposed to socializing or dating. I felt a lot of pressure to be something. I also spent a lot of my teenage and young adult years anxious and underweight, which meant I had no libido or romantic interest to speak of at all. I guess I never developed dating habits. I’m in a relationship now but in my single days I never really found the no-sex thing a problem. Romantic love is great but it isn’t everything. If your friendships fulfill you emotionally, and your hand or a toy fulfills you sexually, what’s wrong with that? — Niki*, 26
I'm on a medication that can cause a dysfunctional sex drive but I am also at the mercy of my hormones. Estrogen and whatnot kill my sex drive but I'm not certain that I want to get on testosterone even though I'm non-binary. I don't want to be a dude, I just want to want to have sex. —Freddie, 31
People are having less sex because we're working longer hours, for less money, and in more fragile jobs. We don't have time for sex, nor the mental capacity to seek it out, nor enjoy it when it comes, so that it can potentially be sustained in, like, a relationship. Neoliberalism is bad for our libidos. —Tim*, 24
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Mica Lemiski on Twitter.