As a sex educator and a mom, I am worried about young people’s sex lives . .. but not in the ways that you might think. I’m not talking about the potential risks of unprotected sex or “hook-up culture” — I’m worried that young people aren’t having enough sex. There, I said it.
Young adults in the US were having fewer sexual encounters even before the pandemic. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this summer, researchers found that 30.9% of 18-24 year old men were “sexually inactive” between 2016 and 2018. 12.6% of women in the same age group reported sexual inactivity during that time frame. A decline is seen in high school students, too, in a 2018 YRBS study conducted by the CDC. I should note that these studies have fairly binary definitions of gender and assumptions of what constitutes “sex,” but, that aside, they are still troubling.
Why Are Young People Having Less Sex?
Experts have theories on what’s behind this trend: the need for financial independence prior to sexual activity (um, what?), the lack of excitement about “hook up culture” (yawn…the name may be catchy, the concept is old), access to pornography and technology, the delayed development of young people in general as they are living at home longer and spending more time with their parents, and fear of negative outcomes.
Of those theories, I think screen time and the way technology has reshaped human interaction is probably the biggest driver of the drop in young adults being sexually intimate. Spending time on screens has hindered our ability to communicate about intimate topics in person and made vulnerability more challenging, and this may be especially true for young people who have grown up on screens. On-demand pornography may satisfy immediate pleasure seeking but it’s no substitute for human contact nor does it allow young people to develop the essential relationship skills built by giving and receiving pleasure and navigating communication and consent.
More Pandemic, More Problems
Yes, young people were having less sex even before the Covid-19 pandemic began. I was concerned then. I am more concerned now. As you may know from my previous writing for Nurx, I am not moralistic about sex of any kind. I don’t see lack or abundance of sexual experience as a measure of one’s character, and I definitely don’t support systems that have binary or gendered or heterosexist or ableist double standards about sex and pleasure. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I am not opposed to consensual experimentation.
As a mother, it is impossible for me not to compare my children’s experiences in adolescence with my own. It’s funny, most caricatures of parents suggest that we want to live vicariously through our teens – to relive our youth. Uh, no. I don’t want their experiences; I would rather that they had some of mine.
Gen Z teens and young adults are juggling strange new versions of school, whether virtual, masked in-person, or hybrid. They are not supposed to hug their friends. They sit at lunch socially distant and discouraged from talking without a mask on. Desks have plastic barriers. If students are too close to each other, they are reprimanded and asked to move further away. Students on college campuses have to limit group size and socialization and contact, too.
Think of how difficult it is to act on (or even develop) crushes. They barely see one another in person let alone have the chance to practice flirting. Their faces are masked and prevent them from seeing someone else’s smile to help them further decode body language. There are no passionate and sloppy kisses in stairwells. There are no seven minutes in a closet called “Heaven,” no spinning bottles. Instead there is fear of Covid-19, or fear of being shamed or reprimanded if you’re not careful enough about contracting Covid-19. What happens when people are forced to ignore or minimize burgeoning feelings of attraction? You may internalize the belief that those feelings aren’t important. But here’s the thing: if you are having them, they are very important. Young people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, or disability, deserve to have their desires respected; sexuality isn’t something they should be told to put on a back burner as if it isn’t a priority — it’s an innate part of them, of all of us.
Look, I am well aware that not every person has (or wants to have) these sexual or intimate experiences growing up, and I am not saying that every experience I had in my younger days was one that I would like to repeat. But I loved those feelings of desire, of practicing flirtation skills (even when they were horribly awkward), of feeling excited and nervous and turned on and not knowing exactly what was going to happen next. I loved falling in love…and out of love…and in love (or maybe lust) again. These experiences are what gave me the tools as an adult to have meaningful relationships and the skills to evaluate whether or not a partnership was healthy or enjoyable.
While I can, and do, teach lessons of pleasure, safe sex, boundaries, communication and consent to children, teens, and emerging adults in my work, there is a lot to be learned from lived experience. Sexual exploration, of one’s self as well as partnered, is a hallmark of adolescent and young adult development. I am concerned that young people are losing the opportunity to connect intimately with another person. Our experiences during our teenage and young adult years help to inform not only future behaviors, but give us the tools to explore pleasure, develop resilience and vulnerability, and practice the critical skills of consent and communication.
I do not want Gen Z to be afraid of sexual exploration. That’s not a good introduction to intimacy and we can wind up carrying that fear or guilt into adult relationships. While I believe that it is important to think about all outcomes before making decisions, we shouldn’t be disproportionately focusing on the potential negatives; we should be talking about how to access and use contraception and condoms, manage the risk of STIs by encouraging testing and treatment, building confidence by developing communication skills, and teaching young people that they can have consensual, pleasurable, and safer experiences.
In Search of Sexual Silver Linings
I’m trying to find some good in all of this, since we still don’t know when it will be safe to kiss people outside our immediate household without fear of contracting a potentially deadly illness. Covid aside, it’s possible that there are some positive aspects behind the trend of young people having less sex. Perhaps in the past some people felt pressure (whether real or perceived) to have sex before they were ready, and now members of Gen Z are more comfortable saying no, or able to accept “no” as an answer. And a reduction in teen pregnancies, if it is attributed to more informed decision-making and to increased use of birth control, is a good thing. (But I want to be realistic here: even though there are declines in teen pregnancies across the board, there are significant disparities between racial and ethnic groups. This isn’t an indictment of those groups, rather, it is an indictment of the education and access to services (or lack thereof) that we have typically provided. There is always room for improvement.)
I’ve been thinking about how to use this time as an opportunity. We can be reminding the young(er) people in our lives that we believe connection and intimacy and pleasure are important. We can remind them that these times are challenging but there’s no reason that they (okay, all of us) can’t be thinking and dreaming about the types of relationships we might want to explore when physical intimacy becomes a little safer. We can be using this time to develop a new set of communication skills. And we can still be talking about how to engage in safer sexual activities, because when this is “over,” many people are rightfully going to want to share their bodies with another human being, even if they might be nervous about doing so. The desire for connection, both physical or emotional, shouldn’t be seen as risky, it should be viewed as a joy-filled element of what it means to be human. We should be fanning, not extinguishing, those sparks in ourselves, at any age.
About the Author
An internationally recognized expert on sexuality and relationships, Dr. Logan Levkoff is an author and educator dedicated to perpetuating healthy and positive messages about sexuality and relationships and encouraging honest conversation about sexuality and the role it plays in our culture. As a thought leader in the field of human sexuality and personal relationships, Logan frequently appears on television including Good Morning America, The Today Show, and CNN. Logan is an AASECT Certified Sex Educator and Sex Educator Supervisor and served on the AASECT Board of Directors. She received her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Life Education from New York University and holds an M.S. in Human Sexuality Education.
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