Why Aren't Millennials Having Sex Anymore?

A non-sexual revolution.

Sex on a college campus isn’t usually news.

A study published last week in New York Magazine surveyed and documented the sexual habits of college students. The assumption of the magazine's reporting is that these slightly younger millennials are the heirs of the sexual revolution, and the study aims to show what that looks like.

For the most part, you won't read any surprises. The students' responses are all over the place, ranging from what you'd expect to more experimental stuff. In an editorial about the study at Esquire, the writer concludes that “sexually active millennials, it would seem, are eschewing definition entirely, creating their own labels to find like-minded individuals.” And respondents use ambiguous descriptors like “nonbinary” that feed this narrative.

Of all the study shows, the most out-of-place finding doesn't relate to sex but to virginity. Nearly 40 percent of college students claim they’ve never had sex. Only five years ago, as the Esquire editorial notes, a 25-year, “exhaustive” study called “Sex Lives of College Students: A Quarter Century of Attitudes and Behaviors,” found that college students who say they’re virgins made up only 13 percent. If both numbers hold up, that’s a startling, 27 percent jump in a really short time span.

The number of college students claiming they’ve never had sex is nearly 40 percent. Only five years ago, a 25-year, “exhaustive” study found that college students who say they’re virgins made up only 13 percent.

As counterintuitive as this may seem, it’s not totally new information. Earlier this year, data from Match.com—yes, Match.com publishes studies—indicated that one in three of all twentysomethings, not only those in college, are still virgins. And this looks like more than a few kids trailing behind their peers. The same study showed that nearly half of millennials haven’t engaged in sex in the past year. Further, a study by San Diego State University (published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior) revealed that millennials take fewer sexual partners than Boomers or Gen Xers.

It’s an interesting twist in a culture that often assumes a ubiquitous, entirely pleasurable sexual utopia. The writers of the New York Magazine study speculate that millennials’ apparent decision to delay or forgo sex grows from the “freedom” they own.

Perhaps there are fears at play: Both men and women said ‘rejection’ was their greatest sexual fear; but for women, that is followed closely by ‘coercion.’ But the general feeling among virgins and nonvirgins alike was that they were having less sex than their friends. Everyone, in other words, thinks they are the exception to a general state of wild abandon.

They continue: “It’s as if sexual freedom has become a burden as well as a gift.”

Sure, the reasons behind this trend are probably as nuanced as reporting from the Middle East. Among a variety of possible explanations, the students in the survey suggest that the American Pie culture many said would reduce sexual fears is just producing a new set of them.

This represents more evidence that sexual liberation isn’t all that liberating—and liberation itself isn’t all that satisfying.

Beyond these fears, though, a large part of this trend relates the ubiquity of sex itself. After all, when sex is everywhere and everyone is having it (87 percent just five years ago), then illicit sex certainly no longer projects independence, and it probably causes more anxiety than it’s worth. We’ve reached the point where sex is widespread and normal, and now it’s boring, like Playboy Magazine.

About a week ago, Playboy made all kinds of news when its leadership announced that the magazine will no longer publish nude photographs. Sadly, the decision appears uninfluenced by morality or virtue; rather, the magazine simply can’t survive in the gawkerhood it established. In an instance of true irony, our sexual market is too progressive for Playboy.

In a similar way, sexual hookup culture isn’t edgy or exciting anymore. It’s mainstream, the blue sport coat of the past 20 years. Today’s twentysomethings—at least those in these particular studies—feel no pressure to engage in the right-of-passage sex that (seemingly) dominated cultural thinking several years ago. (One couple at NYU, both of whom identify as asexuals, told New York Magazine that they’re “happily” in an asexual relationship.) With everyone rushing to define themselves by their sexual escapades, the more unique option seems to be to abstain. Like the newly restrained Playboy, this represents more evidence that sexual liberation isn’t all that liberating—and liberation itself isn’t all that satisfying.

This reality makes sense of Christian teachings on sex.

Christians need to be ready, both with a reimagined view of sex, and a clear message of the reality far beyond it.

In the Book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul writes that God is revealing His “mystery” by bringing “unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10). From there, he defines this mystery as God’s calling a group of people (the Church) that includes both Jews and Gentiles (those culturally, theologically and socially divided). By doing this, God’s “intent was that now, through the Church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 3:10).

And then, in the middle of this talk about God’s mystery and His work in the universe, Paul makes a surprising connection: After describing the husband and wife's sexual (“one-flesh”) relationship, he writes, “This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). In some sense—a sense definitely mysterious—the Christian vision of sex, tied inextricably to husband and wife, points far beyond bed sheets and individual freedoms. It points to the deepest fibers of reality, and of the Christian faith.

Reacting to Playboy’s announcement, theologian Russell Moore explains how this innate human longing for deeper connection is why porn—or illicit sex on campus—ends up falling short of its promises.

This is why sexual revolutions always turn out so boring. This is why the sterile, casual, condom-clad vision of sex in our culture is so dull. This is why pornography is so numbing to the soul. It is because, in the search for sexual excitement, men and women are not really looking for biochemical sensations or the responses of nerve endings. And, in fact, they are not ultimately even looking for each other. They are searching desperately, not for mere sex, but for that to which sex points–something they know exists but they just can’t identify. … They are looking to be part of an all-encompassing cosmic mystery. They are looking for a love that is stronger than death.

If Moore is right, then the majority of people around us are searching for satisfaction. Casual sex is proving it just can’t provide it, so more and more people are leaving it alone—because why bother? But that doesn’t mean our neighbors stop searching. And so we Christians need to be ready, both with a reimagined view of sex, and a clear message of the reality far beyond it.

Top Comments

Jaime A. Castillo Verduzco

1

Jaime A. Castillo Verduzco commented…

Maybe Millennials are just more honest about being virgins -- couldn't it be due to a change in the perception of virginity; perhaps there is less of a stigma to admitting it.

Jon Jensen

1

Jon Jensen commented…

I propose that one of the reasons they're not interested in sex is because of internet pornography. Could it be that these millennials are more attached and focused on synthesized sexuality (pornography) that they've forgotten or haven't learned what true healthy sexuality is?

10 Comments

Sarah María Welle

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Sarah María Welle commented…

I would like to see the data of the study, and when I went to your links I couldn't find it. You should look into that. I go to a private Christian University and I have a hard time believing that our generation is becoming less sexual. I would say the majority of my peers are sexually active or have been in the past. Not to mention that current sociological data contradicts what you are suggesting in this article. I agree with Jamie Verduzco. I would argue that my generation seeks authenticity and honesty, not asexuality, or whatever you seem to be implying in this article, and perhaps the idea that those 40% felt liberated enough to comment on their abstinence has to do with a deeper sense of freedom that we didn't have in previous generations.

Jon Jensen

1

Jon Jensen commented…

I propose that one of the reasons they're not interested in sex is because of internet pornography. Could it be that these millennials are more attached and focused on synthesized sexuality (pornography) that they've forgotten or haven't learned what true healthy sexuality is?

Michael Johnson

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Michael Johnson replied to Jon Jensen's comment

Absolutely! Sex free of the risk of rejection! And, as this article so articulately points out also free of meaning.

Chad Harrington

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Chad Harrington commented…

Thank you, Aaron, for this article. A good word with good research. My favorite line is, "This is why pornography is so numbing to the soul." Essentially God created us to be filled with him, not just chemical reactions, as you mentioned; we're designed to be truly and intimately loved. It's like what G.K. Chesterton said, "Every time a man walks into a brothel, he's looking for God" (or something like that). Thanks again for a well thought out article.

Brad Beer

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Brad Beer commented…

I'm very skeptical about this study. I do believe millennials have fewer partners since there is far less pressure. It's no longer a rite of passage and abstinence is just as valid a choice as same-sex relationships. Hook ups are far more common, I'm certain. Sex is no longer something mysterious. Want to know about it? Just jump online. That, and they seem much more honest about their lives, living out loud so to speak. Still, I doubt you will get that kind of honestly by talking to them at your church, as there are definite expectations. Also, it would be creepy just to ask out of the blue. Please note I am not endorsing, only describing.

This is what I've seen and what they describe since I tend to interact with a lot of them. They are also amazingly inclusive, intelligent and caring.

Michael Johnson

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Michael Johnson commented…

LOVE THIS ARTICLE! Sharing this post with the Future Marriage University (FMU) community at https://www.facebook.com/FMUniversity. However, virginity does not equal sexual purity, so I'm uncertain how much has really changed. I talk about that in this post from our FMU blog: f-m-u.com/Blog/date-to-enjoy-verbal-intercourse/

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