Most of us prefer not to think of our parents’ sexual history. Of course we know the facts of life, and we’ll acknowledge what led to our existence. As a teenager, I avoided the subject. I knew my parents were of a generation known for free love and a sexual revolution.
Evidently the Boomers ditched the social conventions of their parents (the so-called “greatest generation”). Research shows that the number of sexual partners shifted substantially, from 2.16 for the Greatest Generation to 11.68 for the 1950s-born Boomers (controlled for age). Growing up in the wake of the sexual revolution, it’s no surprise that my generation (Gen X) carried on its own version of the sexual revolution.
Evangelicals such as my parents worried over the sexually permissive landscape that we were inheriting. Breakdown of families, higher rates of divorce, STDs, and the AIDs epidemic heightened their concerns. Not surprisingly, a purity movement emerged within many faith communities hoping the next generation would embrace sexual morality.
Many of us made purity vows, and youth group conversations revolved around burning questions: “How far is too far? What [sexual behavior] is and is not OK?” Some held to their vows. Others tested limits without actually having sex (defined as intercourse). And many rushed to the altar believing it better to marry than burn with passion (1 Corinthians 7:9).
According to findings of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, more than half of those who took virginity pledges went on to have sex within three years; 88 percent of them had sex before marriage. Purity vows aside, my generation has danced with ambiguous definitions of sexual morality. On average, Gen X’ers have had 10 sexual partners, a slight decrease from Boomers of the same age.
Millennials (Gen Y) seem to have upped the game through what older generations label a “hookup culture.” Rolling Stone explains the shift of the current sexual revolution: “From OkCupid to Chatroulette to Tinder to Grindr to Twine Canvas to Snapchat, the current sexual revolution resides as firmly in code as it does in the bedroom.”
The next generation inhabits a sexually charged landscape though surprising new research suggests a cooling down.
According to a recent study published in the journal “Archives of Sexual Behavior,” millennials are having less sex than any generation in the last half century. Young millennials (the ones born in the ‘90s) are even less likely to be sexually active.
The Washington Post summarizes: “[They are] twice as likely to be sexually inactive in their early 20s than the previous generation was, and more likely even than older millennials were at the same age.”
The millennial generation (defined here as those born between 1980–2000) averages 8.26 sexual partners—fewer than the last two generations (Boomers and X’ers) did at their age. Ironically, the report found that ideologically, millennials are more accepting of the idea of premarital sex than previous generations.
Is sex becoming less cool to the next generation? What reasons do millennials have for holding off on sexual relations though they by and large aren’t waiting for marriage?
“The changes are primarily due to generation—suggesting people develop their sexual attitudes while young, rather than everyone of all ages changing at the same time,” said study leader Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.
“This has caused a large generation gap in both attitudes toward premarital sex and number of sexual partners,” she explained in a statement.
Millennials’ have complex reasons for their beliefs and choices within the culture they inherited. Experts offer explanations of their decreased sexual behavior compared to the previous two generations:
Ambiguous definitions of sex may have muddied the landscape.
Millennial columnist Emily Shire comments in The Daily Beast, “The General Social Survey asks how many partners respondents had sex with, but the generation that grew up with the Lewinsky scandal blasting into our living rooms knows the answer to that question isn’t so simple.”
Millennials vary in their definitions of what does and does not constitute sex (i.e. oral sex and the like may or may not count). The numbers may reflect an incomplete story needing further study.
Young people are much more careful about whom they choose as a sex partner.
According to Willard Harley, bestselling author of His Needs, Her Needs: Building An Affair-Proof Marriage, the sexual promiscuity of the 60s and 70s brought a high rate of divorce, sexually transmitted diseases and a host of other negative outcomes. Harley comments of men and women born in the 80s and 90s,
“They have had first-hand experience seeing how a wonderfully romantic relationship can go south by observing their parents and their friends who have been recently married. Sex is considered to be a trap by many of the men and women that were born during this time.”
Millennials are known as a cautious generation.
The trend of “helicopter parents” decking them out in bike helmets and kneepads, monitoring their welfare and development may have cultivated some inhibitions.
The first to grow up in the age of Internet, smartphones and social media, this generation understands the emotional pitfalls of cyberbullying or posting regrettable pictures online. For example, some young people speak disparagingly of the messy emotional state love and lust can engender, referring to it as “catching feelings.”
Casual relationships are more common.
Casual sex with friends or acquaintances (“friends with benefits”) may seem like a good idea to millennials fearful of romantic and emotional entrapment. The recent study suggests that if millennials have casual sex, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re willing to sleep with lots of people.
“While these partnerships are casual in nature,” the researchers wrote, “they may be defined by regular contact between a limited number of individuals, perhaps reducing the overall number of partners.”
The increasing number of millennials living at home with their parents may account for decreased sexual activity.
One young millennial who has never had sex says, “I’d rather be watching YouTube videos and making money.”
Pornography addiction inhibits numerous men and women from meaningful personal and sexual connections. Some experts are concerned that the drop-off [sexually] reflects the difficulty some young people are having in forming deep romantic connections.
I doubt that we are seeing a trend toward sexual morality,” Harley summarizes, “but rather a trend toward fear of romantic relationships. The rate of marriage has been steadily decreasing since the 1980s and in the last census the percentage of married adults was less than the percentage of single adults for the first time in American history. I expect that to continue on for decades to come.
Millennial attitudes and behaviors reflect more than stereotypical “hookup” culture. More than the latest research findings, it reflects the brokenness we all share as humans (Romans 3:23).
And it points at profound needs of the next generation. Like all generations, millennials need to see loving marriages and families. They need safe spaces to know God’s purposes for us (relationally, emotionally, physically and sexually).
Through ups and downs, older generations should try to transcend judgments and offer supportive encouragement to the next generation. That way, millennials can see that healthy relationships, though scary, are worth it. More than anything, we need to see the One who promises to satisfy every desire as nobody and nothing else does.