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That study about millennials having terrible sex lives is probably bullshit

There are many reasons to be skeptical of a new academic study that claims today's young adults are having significantly less sex than Generation X.

by Tess Owen
Aug 4 2016, 1:05pm

Foto via Flickr

Millennials are already widely perceived as lazy, entitled narcissists who spend their days tweeting and playing Pokemon Go. Now there's a new study making the rounds that claims to offer empirical proof that today's young adults also have terrible sex lives.

Researchers from San Diego State University, Florida Atlantic University, and Widener University are boldly claiming that millennials aged 20-24 are having far less sex than previous generations. In fact, 15 percent of surveyed millennials in that age range reported having no sexual partners since they turned 18, compared to 6 percent of Generation X people born in the early 1960s who said they remained celibate in the years after high school.

"As well as being more likely to eschew marriage, stable careers, and living independently in their early 20s, more Millennials and iGen'ers are also forgoing sex during emerging adulthood," the researchers wrote in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

The authors of the study offered a variety of explanations for their findings — ranging from the funding of abstinence-only education in schools, to fears about STDs, to the premium placed on good looks on dating apps like Tinder, to popular misconceptions about "millennial hook-up culture" — but there are just as many reasons to be skeptical.

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The first is the way the data was collected. While drawing on a large sample size of more than 26,000 Americans, the information was gleaned from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been carried out every year since 1972 and claims to tap a nationally representative sample of Americans over 18.

As Stanford sociologist Aliya Saperstein has noted, such surveys tend to use heteronormative language and often don't reflect contemporary understanding of sex and gender as two distinct categories with more than two options. One of the authors of the new study, Professor Brooke Wells from Widener University, told VICE News that she agreed that social surveys "need to offer better response options and word questions so as to better reflect less binary experiences of gender."

"The GSS asks about the number of male partners and the number of female partners, so it's possible that some partners are not being captured in this metric because people are increasingly not identifying...as either male or female" Wells said.

But she isn't convinced that this variable impacted the results of the study, particularly as the move "toward less binary constructions of gender has been a much more recent phenomenon."

Wells and her colleagues also relied on a very small window to make large proclamations about the sexual habits of an entire generation. Specifically, they compared people aged 20-24 who were born three decades apart from each other. Broadening the scope of the study beyond those two four-year periods would likely paint a more complete picture.

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Another problem, which the researchers noted in their paper, is that the definition of what constitutes "sex" is left up to the GSS respondents to decide. It's entirely possible that earlier generations unintentionally exaggerated their sex lives by lumping all kinds of sexual activity into the broader umbrella term of "sex," thus skewing the numbers.

The survey also conflates sexual activity with promiscuity. A person's sex life is determined by the number of partners they've had since their 18th birthday, not the number of times they report having had sex in a given week.

All that being said, the researchers do make some valid points. They note that when kids these days "Netflix and chill," their activities generally include "a variety of sexual behaviours." The study wonders if, perhaps, more millennials are choosing to give and receive oral sex instead of having full-blown intercourse.

Studies have repeatedly confirmed that fewer people are getting married in their 20s than ever before, and the millennial sex researchers noted that marriage is a "traditional outlet for sexuality." They also cited a Pew Research poll that confirmed the sad millennial reality that record numbers of twentysomethings live with their parents — the implication being that bringing a partner home to your rickety twin bed under your mom and dad's roof won't do wonders for your sex life.

While we can quibble about how much sex millennials are actually having, that much at least is true.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen

Photo via Flickr