New research contradicts the perception that young Americans are looking for shallow relationships and casual sex. In fact, the study reveals that more Millennials, born in the 1990s in particular, are forgoing sex during young adulthood.
Although Americans are more accepting of premarital sex, the new sexual revolution has apparently left behind a larger segment of this generation than first thought.
The study dispels the widespread notion that Millennials are the “hookup” generation, which is popularized by dating apps like Tinder and others. These apps supported the general belief that Millennials are just looking for quick relationships and frequent casual sex, said Ryne Sherman, Ph.D., a co-author of the study.
“Our data show that this doesn’t seem to be the case at all and that Millennials are not more promiscuous than their predecessors.”
A key finding from the study conducted by Sherman and co-authors Jean Twenge, Ph.D., San Diego State University, and Brooke E. Wells, Ph.D., Widener University, is that the changes in sexual inactivity in Millennials was not related to the time period or decade, but rather to the generation.
“This is really about this generation of young American adults and not the time period in which they are living,” said Sherman. “This has very little to do with changing norms about sexual behavior; the generations are just different and it has everything to do with them.”
To determine if this shift was due to differences in age or generation, the researchers used a two-pronged approach to compare sexual inactivity rates by birth decade among 20 to 24 year olds.
To begin, they conducted a unique age-period-cohort analysis using the entire sample of adults ages 18 to 96 in the General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS is a nationally representative sample of American adults since 1989. Researchers also examined if variables such as gender, race, education, region, and religiosity influenced changes in sexual inactivity from one group to another.
Among Americans aged 20 to 24, Millennials born in the early 1990s were significantly more likely to report no sexual partners after age 18 than GenX’ers born in the late 1960s.
The increase in adult sexual inactivity between the 1960s and the 1990s generations was larger and significant among women (from 2.3 percent to 5.4 percent), but not among men (from 1.7 percent to 1.9 percent). It was non-existent among Black Americans (2.6 percent to 2.6 percent, compared to a significant jump from 1.6 percent to 3.9 percent among Whites).
“Many of the differences between the groups in the recent generations were also significant,” said Sherman. “For example, women were more likely to be sexually inactive compared to men, Whites more than Blacks, those who did not attend college more than those who did, and in the East more than the West.”
Americans born in the 1990s were the most likely to be sexually inactive in their early 20s, and showed a definite break with those born in the 1980s. Other findings from the study indicate that those born in the 1990s are growing up more slowly than those born in the 1980s.
For example, fewer get a driver’s license or work for pay, also showing a generational break at some point in the 1990s.
However, “online dating apps should, in theory, help Millennials find sexual partners more easily,” suggests Twenge. “However, technology may have the opposite effect if young people are spending so much time online that they interact less in person, and thus don’t have sex.”
Concerns over personal safety and a media landscape saturated with reports of collegiate sexual abuse might also contribute to millennials’ sexual inactivity compared to previous generations, Twenge continued.
“This generation is very interested in safety, which also appears in their reduced use of alcohol and their interest in ‘safe spaces’ on campus,” she said. “This is a very risk-averse generation, and that attitude may be influencing their sexual choices.”
Other factors contributing to fewer millennials having sex could include the widespread availability of pornography, the historically high number of young adults living with their parents, the later age at first marriage, and increased access to instant entertainment online. The research findings appear in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
“While attitudes about premarital sex have become more permissive over time, rise in individualism allows young American adults to have permissive attitudes without feeling the pressure to conform in their own behavior,” said Sherman.