Younger Americans—Millennials and Gen Z—might seem like the most sexually liberated and open-minded generations the country has ever seen. They embrace the idea that gender is a fluid concept, something one determines for oneself and entirely divorced from the sex one happened to be at birth. They talk frankly and bluntly about sex on social media. And, as Vice has noted, they are “rejecting sex-ed stereotypes by teaching themselves instead” on platforms such as YouTube, Tumblr, and Twitter. Teen Vogue even recently offered its young readers a how-to guide about anal sex (which the publication refers to as going to “fifth base”).
Despite this unprecedented candor about sex, they aren’t actually having much of it. According to the U.S. General Social Survey, although all Americans are having less sex than they used to, it’s 18- to 29-year-olds who have seen the most precipitous decline in activity: 23 percent of them reported that they have not had sex in the past year. That’s more than double the number who reported being celibate in 2008.
Young men are driving the downward trajectory. As the Washington Post noted, “for most of the past three decades, 20-something men and women reported similar rates of sexlessness,” but since 2008, “the share of men younger than 30 reporting no sex has nearly tripled, to 28 percent.” That’s compared with the 8 percent increase in sexlessness among women in the same age group. As the Atlantic noted, a recent study in the Journal of Population Economics “examined the introduction of broadband Internet access at the county-by-county level, and found that its arrival explained 7 to 13 percent of the teen-birth-rate decline from 1999 to 2007.”
Some cultural conservatives see the new abstinence as a victory for traditionalism and believe we should harness the moment. As Concerned Women for America’s Penny Nance told NPR: “Schools and public health advocates owe it to parents and people of faith to support the young girl or boy who wants to delay sexual behavior. Marriage and delaying sex until at least adulthood are good goals.”
Culture warriors may be looking through the wrong end of the telescope here. Despite the positive side effects of the new abstinence (including lower rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and abortion), satisfaction in relation to sex seems to have declined along with frequency, and attitudes among younger Americans about the possibility of finding healthy long-term relationships are not positive.
The steady stream of graphic information and constant demands to go public with one’s open-minded, sex-positive lifestyle appear to have generated more weariness and cynicism than Rabelaisian enthusiasm. Data from the General Social Survey show that more than half of Americans ages 18–34 do not have a steady romantic partner.
And although younger Americans are having sex at a later age than previous generations, they are also delaying marriage or deciding not to get married at all (the percentage of Americans who have never been married has been steadily rising). Even those who do choose to marry are having fewer children during their prime childbearing years; there were approximately half a million fewer babies born to American women in 2017 than in 2007. As Jonathan V. Last outlines meticulously in his landmark book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, the choice to have fewer or no children has radical long-term implications for American society.
Cultural conservatives are correct to urge prudence about having sex too young, but they seem to presume it won’t extend to prudence toward (or rejection of) creating families. It appears that American youth are ignorant of and frightened by the prospect of genuine intimacy with another person—a fear we’ve already seen blossom in some countries, such as Japan, where increasingly large numbers of young men have forsworn human relationships for virtual ones.
Some observers blame the new abstinence on “incels”—involuntarily celibate men—and the “toxic masculinity” they promote on platforms such as 4chan. Everywhere we’ve seen hand-wringing articles about “the rage of the incels” and claims that these young men aren’t looking for love but for “absolute male supremacy.” According to this line of thinking, these aren’t troubled young people confused about the rules for relationships; rather, they are aggressive strivers, hungry for “structural power,” motivated by misogyny.
But it’s fear and confusion, not aggression, that best describes the state of mind of young men, and for good reason. A 2017 poll by the Economist found that among Americans ages 18-29, 17 percent believed that a man asking a woman out for a drink “always” or “usually” was sexual harassment; twice as many young respondents as older ones thought commenting on a woman’s appearance was harassment. As W. Bradford Wilcox and Samuel Sturgeon have argued, polling data reveal that “young adults are now more concerned than their older peers about sexual assault, and more likely to view behavior related to sex and dating as troubling.”
Pop culture contributes to this sensibility; the positive relationships valorized in shows and movies targeted to younger viewers are now as likely to be same-sex or trans than heterosexual. Euphoria, HBO’s surreal high-school drama, prominently features a relationship between trans Jules and Rue, played by Zendaya. By contrast, straight males are often portrayed as villains, and the shows are celebrated for it. As the TV critic Phil Owen noted of one such series popular with younger viewers, “‘Riverdale’ goes full-on ‘men are evil’ for the best episode of the series so far.”
No wonder that rather than date, younger Americans prefer to “hang out” or engage in “friends with benefits” relationships. According to the annual Singles in America survey from the dating site Match, in 2018 “only 11 percent of Gen Z and Millennials date casually.” According to the survey, 58 percent of women and 52 percent of men ages 18–39 “doubt whether they can handle a relationship.”
As Boston College professor Kerry Cronin told USA Today, younger Americans, raised on a message of striving, are uncomfortable making themselves vulnerable in a relationship with no guarantee of success. “In most other areas of your life, when you work hard, you’re going to succeed,” she said. “Effort correlates to success, and that doesn’t apply in dating…the difficulty of that for young adults I talk to is that, ‘Why spend my time?’”
About 40 percent of the young people surveyed by Match “want to find self-love and self-actualization before they find love in another person.” Or, as a 26-year-old woman told Vice, “a lot of hetero women are waking up to the fact that sex, not all but a lot, with a man is often less fulfilling, orgasm-wise, than going solo.”
The evidence is that younger Americans are abstaining from sex not because of effective abstinence-only education, or because they’ve been liberated from previous generations’ restrictive norms, or because they have achieved a new level of emotional and moral maturity. It’s because they fear intimacy, are confused about the new rules of conduct for relationships, and have plenty of ways to escape, via their digital worlds, the often difficult demands of in-person contact.
Civilized society is, in large measure, about channeling the anarchic energies and hungers of the young and directing them toward productive ends. The challenge faced by American society today is precisely that this youthful energy is being tamped down not by a society that works to tame youth but rather by the young themselves. This is something new, though it is likely part of a larger social trend toward loneliness and alienation, as evidenced by the terrifying increase in “deaths of despair” from suicide and addiction among older Americans.
It appears that the social mores conservatives want to see are flourishing not because the virtues associated with them are being embraced by younger generations but instead out of a paralyzing and impotence-producing fear. If this is a victory in the culture war, it’s a Pyrrhic one.