Social and religious conservatives rejoice: teenagers and young people today are having far less sex than a generation ago; teenage pregnancy rates are down to only a third of what they were at their peak; and abstinence is two and a half times as common among Gen Y as it was among Gen X.
These seeming victories of chastity and restraint over the culture of hedonism and excess are all the more surprising considering that in most other ways the world is going to hell in a hand basket if you are a religious or ethical moralist. And all the more counter-intuitive (or maybe not) at a time when pornography in all its mind-boggling variety is so ubiquitous and accessible and the popular culture has succeeded in sexualising just about everything around us. So what’s going on?
If you’re curious about that – as well as about the broader topics of love, dating and relationships among the Millennials – do yourself a favour and have a read of the most recent “Atlantic Monthly” cover story “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?”. It’s a complex and ambiguity-rich environment out there, where things are not always as they seem and the cause and effect don’t necessarily follow the common logic (for example, more porn might actually mean less real life sex). Writes Kate Julian:
Over the course of many conversations with sex researchers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, therapists, sex educators, and young adults, I heard many other theories about what I have come to think of as the sex recession. I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.
#MeToo also, unsurprisingly, makes an appearance.
If the enemies of the permissive society will indeed celebrate this Millennial “sex recession”, the societal implications are far from overwhelmingly positive. Dig deeper and the phenomenon of decreased sexual activity turns out to be equally a symptom and a consequence of young people being more solitary and lonely, fewer relationships being formed, the declining ability to confidently interact and communicate with others outside of the electronic universe, and the broader disenchantment with and disengagement from life in general as well as from the joys and the pains of adulthood. Julian does not go into this tangential direction in her article but less sex and less attachment also translates into fewer children, with its own monumental and potentially catastrophic longer term consequences for the developed world. Being single and childless myself (in both instances that I’m aware of) it would hypocritical for me to blame Gen X and Gen Y for shirking their duties and almost literally throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But it’s far to point out that social change is always complex and never clear-cut.