Study after study suggests that millennials are having less sex than a generation before, says Sarah Graham – but maybe we’re finally doing it on our own terms
It’s probably telling that my response to a recent Atlantic article on the so-called “millennial sex recession” was a shrug. “Who the hell has time for sex?” I quipped. “We’re all too busy stressing about the end of the world.”
Hyperbole aside, it is clear that sex has slipped down our priority list. Over the last few years, an increasing number of headlines have mourned the millennial generation’s collective sex life, with study after study after study showing we’re having less sex than our parents – but why?
It is a curious issue. As Kate Julian writes in The Atlantic, sex has never been more ubiquitous. From porn to hook-up apps to non-monogamy, sex is more widely and readily available than ever before, and our attitudes to sexuality, kink and polyamory are significantly more liberal than previous generations.
Are we so oversaturated by sex that we’re just bored of hearing, thinking and talking about it? Has “normalising” sex taken away its subversive appeal? Or did a childhood of horror stories about life-ruining STIs and teenage pregnancies scare us into sexual repression?
There’s plenty of speculation about the reasons. Maybe the “snowflake” generation is too anxious or too picky for sex. Maybe social media – the chief source of all millennial problems – is to blame. Or maybe Tinder’s too much like hard work and we’re all taking “Netflix and chill” a little too literally. What once meant getting frisky to the opening credits of House of Cards now means falling asleep, dribbling on each other’s shoulders, somewhere in the middle of an intense binge, while Netflix periodically asks if we’re still watching.
The most likely explanation seems to be a complicated mix of many of these. At our age, most of our parents were already married and giving birth to or raising us. Many of them owned their own homes and were comfortably settled into the job they’d probably have for life.
But modern life feels much more complex now. We’re beginning our adult lives with much higher debts, settling down later, working longer hours with less job security and facing higher living costs. Everything, from our increasing stress levels to our antidepressants and hormonal contraceptives, can mess with our libidos. We’re spending more and more of our income on rent and mortgages, stuck living in flat shares for longer – or, even worse for getting in the mood, moving back in with our parents. And, instead of an hour a day dedicated to the morning paper or the 6 O’Clock News, we’re overwhelmed by a 24/7 influx of information. Some of which, right now, is frankly terrifying.
Perhaps it’s not so much that millennials are less interested in sex, but simply that we expect more from it
There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to combine long working hours with eating right, getting to the gym, socialising, curating the perfect social-media presence and keeping on top of world events, the Waterstones bestsellers list and the latest TV dramas.
Something as simple as a casual drink with a friend has to be planned months in advance and is usually then postponed or rescheduled at the last minute anyway. Date nights between couples are organised via iCal invites slotted into romantically synced Google calendars, while single millennials endlessly moan about all the time that’s wasted on swiping, messaging and pointless one-date encounters. Is it any surprise if we’re all constantly exhausted and crippled by anxieties?
But perhaps a more positive side effect of all this is that millennials are more self-aware and more discerning about the sex they choose to have. As a generation, we’re more open than any generation before us about our mental health, our identities, struggles and desires, and the importance of self-care.
We’re politically aware, pissed off about the impact of Brexit and the housing crisis on our futures, and we’re more demanding about what we want out of life – with a growing number of millennials turning to self-employment as a way of carving out some freedom and flexibility over their futures.
As The Atlantic article highlights, declining levels of sex among millennials may also be linked to rising rates of masturbation, growing disillusionment with hook-up culture and dating apps, and a rejection of bad, coercive and otherwise unwanted sex.
In that spirit, could the millennial approach to sex – for women, in particular – actually be more about prioritising quality over quantity? While feminism in the 90s may have been all about beating men at their own promiscuous games, feminist approaches to sexual health and liberation have evolved instead to centre female pleasure, autonomy and “cliteracy” – sex on our own terms, rather than sex for sex’s sake.
Perhaps it’s not so much that millennials are less interested in sex, but simply that we expect more from it. Maybe, instead of opting out of sex altogether, we’re actually opting for better sex less often – choosing self-love over disappointing one-night-stands, and as couples saving ourselves for monthly weekends of passion, rather than insisting on regular but brief and lazy weeknight fumbles. The world’s a stressful enough place right now without the pressure of keeping sex on our to-do list.