In the heady 2000s – back when lads mags reigned supreme and girls at school were dubbed either “sluts” or “frigid” – sex seemed to be at the forefront of everyone's minds. If you hadn't lost your V card by a certain age, you were considered a loser (never mind the fact that virginity is by and large a social construct.) After that, it was about how much sex you were having and who with. The actual quality didn't seem to matter – sex was a numbers game.
A decade or so later, however, and attitudes and behaviours around sex in general seem to have largely shifted – particularly among Gen Z. According to one study published back in January, researchers at Rutgers University and the University at Albany found that young American adults between the ages of 18 and 23 were having 14 percent less “casual sex” (meaning sex outside of long-term partnerships) than those of the same age group a decade beforehand.
Elsewhere in Australia, in 2019, ABC’s national survey Australia Talks found that 40 percent of people aged 18 to 24 reported “never” having sex (never!). Here in the UK, UCL-led research found in 2019 that fewer than one in 30 14-year-olds in the UK have had sex (including oral sex) – significantly lower in comparison to those born in the 80s and 90s, 30 percent of whom purported to have had sex before the age of 16.
Despite the data – and the wave of inflammatory headlines about a Gen Z sex recession in its wake – we know that plenty of young people are still having sex (we have a whole column dedicated to it). Research often only ever tells us what people are open to sharing, as opposed to what's actually going on. But what about those who really aren't having sex, at all? Because there are whole swathes of 16 to 24-year-olds who are actively choosing to abstain from sex (volcels, if you will) for non-religious reasons.
24-year-old Kero* from London tells me that she chose to step away from sex three years ago due to low self-esteem. “I just wasn’t confident enough to put myself out there or connect with anyone,” she explains. More recently, she's considered having sex again – but only under certain conditions. “I’ve grown from my past insecurities and those sentiments have sort of matured into, ‘I only want to be with a man who has earned my trust, who worships the ground I walk on, who honours and respects me.’”
Others, like 20-year-old Lucy*, also London-based, tell me that they became abstinent because they “got lost in all the nonsense” and “didn't do as much for myself as I wanted.”
Avoiding nonsense was actually quite a regular reason for holding off from sex. “I decided to give myself a year of no sex,” says 21-year-old Drew* from Manchester. “I wanted to improve my illustration work, and chasing girls and getting heartbroken clouded my judgement. So I did it for me.”
Most young people I spoke to for this piece didn't think celibacy was any more common among their generation than those of prior decades. But, some theorised, maybe Gen Z were more open and accepting of it. Many seem to be more clued up on ideas like consent, body autonomy and sexual identities.
“With asexuality becoming more known in the 'collective consciousness', I think that whoever is accepting of differences or queerness is accepting of celibacy. Sex isn't a given,” says 21-year-old Charlie*.
Lucy makes a similar point. “With more awareness about consent and all that, a lot of us assess if we actually want to do something... and sometimes we find that we don’t.”
“I do think it’s more accepted,” adds 22-year-old Ash, from London. She abstained from sex when she was 20 after being sexually assaulted. “I was able to speak about it easily with my friends and they understood.”
Indeed, if you're Gen Z, vowing off sex is nothing to be embarrassed about (and rightly so). A quick scroll through the celibacy hashtag on TikTok reveals hundreds of videos, many of them wholesome clips posted by young people espousing the benefits of abstinence. “Five ways to deal with sexual urges while celibate,” reads the text overlay from one, while the user reels off tips like “Don't dwell on it” and “If you self-pleasure, that's okay.” Another shows a girl dancing to Megan Thee Stallion. “Celibate 17 months,” reads the text overlay. “I need all my girls to reclaim our power and go celibate.”
Chloe Combi, author of Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives, thinks that sex is no longer something young people necessarily care to boast about, which might explain their willingness to try celibacy and be open about it.
“I think sex is a bit like booze – there was once a sort of glamour in excess,” she explains. “But as we've become more spartan and more anti-excess, I think Gen Z's attitudes to sex have been subsumed into that mindset that actually there's something very respectable in saying no, whether for more personal or bigger reasons like growth or spirituality.”
Combi also points to a general acceptance among young people when it comes to different sexual makeups. “Sex for young people is definitely not labelled,” she says. “They place themselves far more on many spectrums – how sexual they are, who they have sex with, gender identity etc – rather than getting too hung up.”
It’s obviously impossible to make generalised statements about entire generations. Some young people have sex, others actively choose not to, and that’s been the case since the beginning of time. Even so, when I was a teenager in the 2000s, I’m pretty sure my peers would have looked at me like I was deranged if I’d publicly declared celibacy, which, looking back, isn’t particularly fair. It makes me feel hopeful that so many young people today seem confident about what they do – and don’t – want to do with their bodies.
“Celibacy is nothing to be ashamed of,” says Drew. “It means you’re exercising choice over where you’re putting your time and energies.”
Kero agrees: “I’ve been through a lot, and I deserve to be loved.”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.