Are Young People Really Having Less Sex?

Millennials born in the 1990s were more than twice as likely as GenXer's of the 1960s to have had no sexual partners past age 18. Credit: Getty Images

Millennials, who already have a reputation for forgoing the traditions of marriage, stable employment, cable subscribing, and credit card use may be bucking sexual norms as well. Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s are more sexually inactive than older generations. This is according to headline-grabbing research published recently in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

"I think that there's something real here, but I think that there may be a bit of noise too," says Laura Carpenter, associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, who was not involved in the research.

The study used the nationwide General Social Survey to find the number of partners people ages 20 to 24 reported having after age 18. The most shocking finding was, when the stats of people at this age were compared, Millennials born in the 1990s were more than twice as likely as GenXer's of the 1960s to have had no sexual partners past age 18. However, the numbers of inactive people in either generation was relatively small, making up 6 percent of the GenX responders and 15 percent of the Millennials. It's also interesting to note that this difference was only seen among people without a college education.

Because of the very specific nature of these findings, it's important to not that the study doesn't tell you how much sex or how many sexual partners each generation is having. If one person had only one sexual partner after 18 by the time they were 24, they are part of the sexually active category, alongside someone who had 40 partners in that time. These numbers are only about self-reports of whether these people had sex with someone. The survey also left the definition of "had sex with" open-ended, so some generations may count more varied activities (such as oral sex) as "sex," when others wouldn't.

There is still likely some truth to this gap. In particular, Carpenter agrees with the authors' suggestion that younger generations may be inhibited from sexual activity by living at home. These younger generations graduated college and were finding jobs around the time of the recession. "Frankly housing is a lot more expensive that it used to be," says Carpenter. "[Whereas] Generation X was coming of age in the 'go go' economy of the first Clinton administration." According to the Pew Research Center, people ages 18 to 34 were more likely to live in their parents' home than in any other arrangement. The last time this was true was over 130 years ago. This could also help explain why Millennials who have gone to college don't exhibit the same inactivity — their dorms gave them the personal space they needed to get busy.

Carpenter also says that people's changing ideas about sex may have influenced this data. Even on surveys, people can feel peer pressure to answer questions in ways that aren't truthful. With people being increasingly open about their sexual experiences (or lack thereof) and the rise of people identifying as asexual, Carpenter says that survey respondents may now be more comfortable admitting that they haven't had sex since becoming adults than respondents in past generations.

The stats about sexual inactivity covered in this study don't directly contradict the idea of Millennials as the "Hookup Generation." After all, it's only 15 percent that are reporting zero partners past 18. However, that label still warrants some restraint, according to Carpenter. "Every generation has a panic about the sexual excesses of youth," she says. In the 20s, the lasciviousness of kissing that scandalized the elders. In the 40s, it was "going steady." Hooking up isn't new, says Carpenter, and just because the media is telling you the youngsters are all taking part in some sexually irresponsible trend, doesn't mean that's generally the case.