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.
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.
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.
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.
Aaron Cline Hanbury is a contributing editor for RELEVANT. You can follow him on Twitter at @achanbury