“No Sex Please, We’re Only 26”, said today’s online headline from one of Britain's leading newspapers.
A new study has revealed that British Millennials are less sexually active, at least by their mid-20s, than were the generations immediately preceding them.
The study has tracked 16,000 young people since 1989-90, when they were aged 14. The most recent results were collated from questionnaire data collected in 2016.
The Next Steps project is overseen by the Institute of Education, part of University College London. It was first instituted by the Department for Education.
In these results, one in eight 26 year-olds said they had never had sex. If those who refused to answer the survey had not had sex, the final figure could be one in six. This compares with one in 20 for the two previous generational cohorts.
Looking for reasons behind the findings, the researchers have pointed first to a culture of hypersexuality, in which young people find it harder to be intimate and are more fearful of not matching up to the pop-culture image of sexual desirability or experience.
There is certainly good reason to believe that this is a contributing factor. Arguably, no generation before the Millennials has had to endure such a constant bombardment with sexualised imagery.
In its childhood, Generation X was the first cohort to be exposed to a constant drip feed of sex on TV. They inherited the fall-out of the much vaunted but, in the end quite grubby, “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 70s.
“Make love not war” became, in many instances, nothing more than a hippy-like mantra for those who wanted cheap sex, without the hard but rewarding work of achieving real intimacy or pursuing secure commitments.
Ironically - or perhaps predictably - many of the Baby Boomers who advocated free love in their ‘60s youth later advocated much more conservative mores for their children or grandchildren.
Despite the fact that hippiedom’s vision of sex didn’t necessarily fulfil the need for intimacy, television, advertising and ever-more gratuitously sexualised movies kept sex ever before young Gen-Xers.
It wasn’t until the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and 90s that pop-culture began to rethink its mores. Even then, though, it largely treated the outbreak as if it had little or no connection to hypersexualised values and behaviour.
Sexual experience continued to be presented to young people as an indispensable badge of maturity and the ultimate expression of self-assurance. All in the name of either ultra-liberal social agendas or old-fashioned commerce.
For young Millennials, the impact of cultural sexualisation was exacerbated further by the arrival of the internet.
Theirs was the first digitised generation. They grew up with the internet in the way Boomers grew up with television, although engagement with the web was, from the beginning, a much more 24/7 proposition.
The arrival of social media has made things even more difficult for those who hunger after face-to-face, physical intimacy. A generation in need of intimacy has had to settle for relationships largely mediated or managed using screens.
Even when Millennials gather in physical space, ubiquitous digital gadgets ensure that the well-named problem of “absent presence” reduces their face-time.
While physically in one place, they are often mentally or emotionally in another, engaging with an online environment which provides an ecosystem of distraction. (This is not, of course, a problem restricted to Millennials.)
In some parts of the world, digitisation has apparently contributed to problems with teen sexual health.
A few years ago, a study of teenage behaviour in the Asia-Pacific region led the U.N. to conclude that smartphone apps can be linked to a rise in sexually transmitted diseases.
Phone apps, said the researchers, often promote easy access to very casual physical encounters. This, in turn, raises the possibility that teens will contract STDs, which are a growing concern in this densely populated region of the world.
All of this is a valid cause for concern. Yet using a hypersexualised culture as the primary rationale for higher levels of virginity among Millennials underrates their levels of maturity.
Could it be, in fact, that Millennials are just more sensible than either Gen-Xers or Boomers when it comes to their sexual experience?
After all, the results of the latest research cause concern only if we first accept that holding onto one’s virginity is in some way a negative thing. Or that remaining a virgin serves as a pointer to some form of maladjustment.
Actually, other research in decades past has suggested that delaying sexual intimacy can be a positive thing - especially if it means that physicality is expressed within the context of secure, committed relationships.
This is where marriage, and the monogamy it promotes, has served our culture well. Real intimacy is harder to achieve without the sense that one can safely become naked emotionally as well as physically, without the likelihood of rejection.
For a great many older adults, I suspect, sowing one’s wild oats seemed attractive only until they became aware of the beauty and fulfilment of a secure commitment.
Promiscuity looks less attractive when one has experienced a lasting relationship, in which each partner accepts the other as they really are - and tries, at least, to seek their best interests.
Millennials who have delayed sexual intimacy should not be treated as though they are deficient in some way.
They should be congratulated, for being sensible enough not to allow themselves to become messed up and messed about by liaisons that don’t satisfy and, in some cases, lead only to recrimination and regret.