Millennials are proving to be more open-minded about sex, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to sexual irresponsibility. (Photo: Stocksy/Simone Becchetti)
Millennials have been criticized — and, in some circles, lauded — for the birth of hook-up culture, the casual sex revolution in which “friends with benefits” is the new norm. But is the latest generation of young adults really as promiscuous (and careless) as the name of the movement implies? That’s what a new study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior aimed to find out.
The researchers analyzed data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative sample of thousands of Americans over age 18, collected between 1972 and 2012. In the survey, people are asked about their sexual attitudes — for example, whether sex before marriage is wrong — as well as their own behavior in the bedroom.
Not surprisingly, the scientists found that some serious shifts have occurred in young Americans’ attitudes toward sex — but that liberalism doesn’t necessarily equal a sexual free-for-all.
Read on to find out what the 18-to-34 set really thinks about sex:
1. Millennials don’t see a problem with sex before marriage.
In the early 1970s, 47 percent of young adults approved of premarital sex. That number rose to 50 percent of Gen Xers in the 1990s, then leapt to 62 percent of millennials in the 2010s. This, of course, partially reflects the changing times — in 2008, a majority of American adults (of all ages) first stated that getting busy before saying “I do” is “not wrong at all.”
But millennials are also uniquely liberal in their view of premarital sex. The rising age of first marriage — in 1970, women typically tied the knot at age 21, versus age 27 in 2010 — may partly explain this trend, says lead study author Jean Twenge, PhD, author of Generation Me and a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.
In fact, more than ever, young people are disinterested in marriage altogether: In a 2013 Gallup poll, 9 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds said they’ve never married and don’t intend to do so, versus just 3 percent of 35- to 54-year-olds. If fewer young adults are interested in getting hitched, it follows that more of them would give premarital sex their stamp of approval.
A more compelling explanation, however, is the growing sense of individualism in the U.S. “Individualistic cultures place more emphasis on the needs of the self, rather than following social rules,” says Twenge. (She cites a study showing an increase in the words “I,” “me,” and “mine” in books and song lyrics, along with a decline in the words “we” and “us,” as proof that we’re becoming more self-focused as a nation.)
2. Millennials have fewer sexual partners than their parents did.
Despite the “anything goes” attitude about sex among young people, one piece of the hook-up culture puzzle is missing: a spike in sexual partners. The researchers project that, by age 45, millennials will have had an average of three fewer sexual partners than members of their parents’ generation. (By middle age, millennials will have had eight partners, versus 11 among Baby Boomers.) Millennials “have the most accepting attitudes toward premarital sex, but they’re choosing to have sex with fewer partners,” says Twenge.
For more on this study, watch the video:
What’s going on? Twenge has a few theories. “Millennials were the first generation we put in car seats and told they couldn’t walk to school alone,” she says. “That sense of caution might be extending to their sexual behaviors.” Similarly, they were the first generation to be aware of HIV as they entered their teens, potentially encouraging them to be more selective in who they sleep with.
A third possibility: As “friends with benefits” becomes an increasingly popular arrangement, millennials may be having lots of casual sex, but with a smaller, consistent group of partners. Case in point: In a 2010 Indiana University study, 85 percent of men ages 18 to 24 said their last sexual encounter was with a casual partner, friend, or new acquaintance, compared to only about a third of men ages 30 to 39. “And ‘hooking up’ doesn’t necessarily mean intercourse,” adds Twenge. “It could be that they’re hooking up with more people, but maybe not having actual sex with as many of them.”
3. Millennials are smart about safe sex (sort of).
Twenty-three percent of Millennials never had a sex-ed course in middle or high school. Yet, 75 percent think schools should teach comprehensive sex ed — banana-condom demonstrations for all! — and nearly as many say that educating students about safe sex and birth control is more effective at preventing unintended pregnancy than abstinence-only education, according to a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute survey. Millennials are even more insistent about access to birth control, with 82 percent saying that health insurance should cover prescription contraception.
But how are millennials doing outside the classroom? They aren’t necessarily practicing what they preach: In a 2013 Duke University study of young women, about a third admitted to using the withdrawal method of birth control at least once, leading New York magazine to dub millennials the “Pullout Generation.” Even so, the teenage pregnancy rate is at an all-time low — in 2013 alone, birth rates for women ages 18 to 19 dropped by 8 percent, according to CDC statistics. “While reasons for the declines are not clear,” the CDC says, “teens seem to be less sexually active, and sexually active teens seem to be using birth control more than in previous years.”
4. Millennials don’t stigmatize homosexuality.
The generation raised on Will & Grace is, unsurprisingly, more accepting of homosexuality. In fact, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior study, the largest attitudinal shift occurred in Americans’ view of homosexuality, with acceptance among young people rising from 21 percent in the early 1970s to 56 percent among millennials in the 2010s.
This acceptance extends outside the bedroom to the courtroom, too: According to a 2014 Public Religion Research Institute survey, more than two-thirds of millennials support same-sex marriage, compared to just 37 percent of members of the Silent Generation (born in the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s). “It used to be that homosexuality was taboo,” says Twenge. “That is increasingly, year after year, falling away. In five or 10 years — my guess would be closer to five — acceptance of homosexuality is going to become a majority opinion [among all age groups].”
Read This Next: New HPV Vaccine Can Prevent 80% of Cervical Cancers