Millennials aren’t having nearly as much sex as you think they’re having.
If you have bought into popular-media portrayals of adults born in the 1990s—and especially if you read that Vanity Fair article last year about the coming “dating apocalypse”—you might believe that millennials are the “hookup generation,” swiping left and right, moving from partner to partner and bed to bed with ease.
But as it turns out, the “hookup generation” appears to be a media myth.
According to a new study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, millennials born in the 1990s were “significantly more likely to have no sexual partners” than Gen Xers. In fact, controlled for age and time period, the only generation with a higher rate of sexual inactivity than today’s 20- to 24-year-olds was the one born in the 1920s.
“I wouldn’t say we set out to do this but, in some ways, it’s a response to that [Vanity Fair] article,” Ryne Sherman, an assistant professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and co-author on the study, told The Daily Beast.
Sherman and the study’s lead author, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, were actually interviewed for that widely read Vanity Fair essay, which painted a grim view of Tinder’s effects on 21st-century dating culture.
At the time, Sherman, Twenge, and sex educator Brooke Wells had found that millennials will actually have fewer sexual partners than Gen Xers and a comparable number to baby boomers—a conclusion Sherman said he stressed to the style magazine.
But the finished Vanity Fair article referenced—and dismissed—that finding in a paragraph that was awkwardly jammed into the middle of an anecdote about twentysomethings talking about OKCupid at an East Village sake bar.
Hanging out at urban watering holes and on college campuses might give the illusion of a “hookup generation,” it seems, but the facts paint a different picture.
“Our data show that this doesn’t seem to be the case at all, and that millennials are not more promiscuous than their predecessors,” said Sherman.
Twenge, Sherman, and Wells’s new study analyzed responses to the General Social Survey, a nationally representative poll that asks about the number of sexual partners people have had since age 18, controlling for age and time period.
They found that 15 percent of Americans in their early twenties who were born in the 1990s reported being sexually inactive as compared to only 6 percent of those born in the late 1960s. Not only do millennials appear to be having sex with fewer partners, more of them are abstaining from sex in their twenties altogether.
The results, Sherman said, came as a surprise even after his previous research.
“We had a hint because we had already seen that the total number of sexual partners was down,” he said. “But we didn’t know that abstinence would be up.”
There are several reasons why more millennials might be putting off sex in early adulthood. For one, as the Pew Research Center observed, nearly one-third of today’s young adults are still living at home, largely because of economic factors like lower wages and social ones, like delayed age of first marriage.
Mom’s basement might be rent-free but it’s not exactly a bachelor pad. Or, as the study puts it: “With more [millennials] living with their parents even post-recession, young adults may have fewer opportunities to have sex.”
Supporting this theory is the fact that millennials without a college education were more likely to be sexually inactive than those living on college campuses (which, not coincidentally, have been ground zero for the “hookup generation” trend pieces).
But even those frisky college coeds you’ve read so much about aren’t doing the deed all that often. The data in the study show that college-educated young adults born in the 1960s and those born in the 1990s have the exact same rate of sexual inactivity.
And even when college kids say they are “hooking up,” that doesn’t always mean penetrative intercourse. One large survey found that fewer than one-third of first-semester college women reported having vaginal sex during their most recent hookup. Sometimes “hooking up” just means kissing.
It’s possible, as this new study notes, that millennials in college “largely engage in nonpenetrative behaviors that may actually make it easier to delay vaginal sex,” but even then, there’s simply not enough data to support the claims of a “hookup culture.”
Sherman told The Daily Beast there could be a simple explanation for the huge discrepancy between the think-pieces and the data.
“Attitudes toward sexual permissiveness have become more liberal,” he noted. “People are more accepting of premarital and homosexual sex, for example. So attitudes toward sexuality have moved in that direction but behavior isn’t actually following that.”
When reporters and essayists combine millennials’ progressiveness on sexual issues with their seemingly widespread use of dating apps, the conclusion practically draws itself: Today’s 22-year-olds must be having more sex, more often, with more people.
But just because millennials are talking about sex doesn’t mean they’re having it.