Are Millennials Having Sex? An Investigation

Yes! No! Er, kinda! (It's complicated.)

by Gray Chapman; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
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Jul 6 2017, 7:30pm

Along with murdering Applebee's, dinner napkins, bars of soap, blood diamonds, and J.C. Penney, (to name just a few), millennials might also be killing the sanctity of marriage and committed relationships—or, at least, that's what some news headlines might have us believe. Fervid, hand-wringing articles have decreed this generation to be addicted to Tinder, incapable of commitment, and deeply averse to labels within relationships: an ultra-casual, free-for-all "dating apocalypse," as one Vanity Fair writer described it.

But the narrative of a Tinder-fueled fuckfest exploding in the wake of Gen X isn't really the case at all. "It's definitely not true that millennials are having way more sex than everybody else," explains Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College and author of American Hookup, an immersive and research-backed account of the culture of sex on college campuses.

Data published recently in the Archives of Sexual Behaviors echoes this: "Millennials hold the most permissive sexual attitudes of any generation, though they chose to have sex with fewer partners than Gen X'ers did at the same age," the researchers from San Diego State University—led by psychology professor and author Jean Twenge—write. And just last week, the CDC released new research finding a dramatic decline in reported sexual activity among teenagers: 42 percent of women and 44 percent of men, age 15 to 19, reported having intercourse, compared to 51 percent of women and 60 percent of men in the same age group in 1988.

This seems counterintuitive, considering American attitudes around premarital sex are statistically more relaxed and permissive than they've ever been before—not to mention the ease with which one can seek out and engage in casual sex, thanks to the advent of dating apps (the use of which has nearly tripled among 18- to 24-year-olds since 2013, according to the Pew Research Center). Still, the question of whether millennials are having more or less sex than previous generations is kind of puzzling, even to sociologists.

The truth appears to be somewhere in the middle. Levels of promiscuity aren't really changing, and by some measures, they may actually be decreasing. Tinder and other dating apps haven't killed the relationship or ushered in a golden age of sexual promiscuity. But that doesn't mean millennials are hooking up the same way their parents did.

"What has definitely changed is the frame for the sexual activity," Wade says. She explains that for past generations, two people going out on a date was typically understood by both parties as an exploration of a romantic relationship. Of course, that wasn't always the case. But at the very least, that was the assumption, or the acceptable lie.

Now, though, that backdrop has changed, because "I just want sex" is a socially acceptable alternative to "I'm seeking out my life partner." As a result, the way we then choose to interact and communicate changes. Suddenly, everyone is working off of different scripts, or templates of interaction and behavior. "The 'just sex' script are both sort of very palpably present, and they have a really hard time knowing which one they're supposed to be using with the other person, which one the other person is using, and when it might flip on them," Wade says. "One of my students said she felt like there was no ground beneath her feet. It's just gotten more confusing."

In that environment, Wade says, the socially safer option is to follow the "just sex" script, because at least that protects you and your ego—you don't "look desperate" by appearing to want something more than the other party is willing to give. "So, with everybody defaulting to using the 'just sex' script, or ready at a moment's notice to flip over to the 'just sex' script to deny vulnerability, then that's not gonna be very rewarding, because it requires them to pretend like they don't care about anybody," she says. "People may actually care about each other and want romance, or they might not, but everyone is kind of having to perform this disinterest."

This scenario of performative disinterest as emotional camouflage sounds depressingly hollow. And yet, despite all the pearl-clutching about millennials eschewing marriage and commitment, the numbers show young people actually are often looking for something more substantial, fulfilling and long-term than just a casual hookup. "I suspect a lot of the sex young people are having is partner seeking… so the sex isn't really for pleasure; it's for this other purpose of finding somebody," Wade says.

In other words, a lot of millennials are secretly looking for more, but acting out this performative disinterest to cover egos and asses. And it's probably not shocking that this rote, utilitarian kind of partner auditioning might not yield the hottest sex, either. "If what you're doing is looking for a partner in a culture that expects you to have sex before expressing romantic feelings, this sex becomes part of the game you're playing," Wade says. "So, you wouldn't necessarily expect the sex to be that great, because you're just kind of trying people out."

And that dynamic—sex as strategic means to an end—is a tale as old as time.

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