Relationships

What Everyone Gets Wrong About Gen Z and the Sex It’s Allegedly Not Having

A young man kissing a woman's hand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by photoguns/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Gen Z is not having sex—it’s filled with “puriteens.” Or maybe the rising generation is just thinking about sex the wrong way, or having the wrong kind of sex. The breathless headlines and speculation brought on by research that shows some people born after 1996 may be having less sex than their elder counterparts are reminiscent of previous panics about teen sexuality. But as always, the real story is more complicated. On a recent episode of ICYMI, Rachelle Hampton was joined by You’re Wrong About’s Sarah Marshall to talk through the hand-wringing reasons people think the youth aren’t having sex, what the data does (and doesn’t) show, and how Gen Z might just have the healthiest relationship with sex yet, even if they aren’t having any.

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This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Sarah: Today, we’re going to talk about the sex lives of teenagers. It seems like the culture at large right now is convinced that Gen Z is the most prudish generation. They are allegedly turning their backs on the progressive ideals of sex positivity. We’re seeing headlines about Gen Z not having sex. They’re all around us—the headlines, not the Gen Zers.

We’ve been hearing about this since at least 2019. But are the youths actually sex-averse, or is there possibly something more going on there? Why are we so obsessed with the kids’ sex lives all the time and now and forever?

Rachelle: We have decided apparently that Gen Z just is not fucking nearly enough. That is what everyone is talking about. There are so many headlines across the internet about this supposed phenomena. Have you seen any of these? Just in 2021, we got pieces that included GQ’s Gen Z Are “Puriteens,” But Not For The Reasons You Think, Newsweek’s What’s Driving Teens’ Aversion of Sex?, BuzzFeed’s These Gen Z Women Think Sex Positivity Is Overrated, Rolling Stone’s Are Sex-Negative ‘Puriteens’ Actually Taking Over the Internet?, and Vice’s Why Gen Zers Are Choosing Celibacy. If you read all those headlines and not the pieces, as most of us tend to do, you might have the thought that perhaps Gen Z is not as horny for each other as previous generations.

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Sarah: First, we have to establish that most of these pieces are based on very thin evidence. It’s going to be a while before we have actual longitudinal data about the sexual attitudes of Gen Z, not least because the youngest member of Gen Z is 10 years old right now. “Generations” are fake and made up for marketing purposes as well. But what data is actually out there to support the puriteen narrative?

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Rachelle: There are a few studies that most of these articles seem be pulling from. The primary ones are from January 2021, where researchers determined adults 18 to 23 weren’t having as much casual sex as that same age group 10 years before. And then one from 2020 that found that between 2000 and 2018, there was a significant decrease in men ages 18 to 24 having sex, but no meaningful change in that same time period for women, which is a fascinating little dissonance.

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Sarah: And in yet another study, this one for March 2021, researchers found that the biggest factor for the reduction in casual sex among 18-to-23-year-olds is reduced alcohol consumption. But with men, there are also other factors, such as hours spent online or living with a parent. One of the funny things about the study is that it also says they found women would likely be having even less sex than they are if they were online less.

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The researchers are also clear in their conclusion that they just don’t have the data about why this is happening. They just know it’s a thing that is happening.

Rachelle: That is kind of the crux of this entire Gen Z puriteen myth: people just have an idea that something is happening, but have no idea why. There are so many just conjectures flying around. Some “sex neuroscientists,” which is a field I did not know you could be in, like Debra Soh in a Newsweek op-ed from last October, suggested that young people aren’t engaging in sex as frequently because of the increase in “helicopter parenting” and a decrease in adolescence getting jobs in their free time.

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Sarah: Some are also arguing, and you might have seen this coming, that the availability of online sex content means people are satisfying their sexual needs on their own, thanks to pornography, and are engaging in online sex acts, including sexting or webcamming, which are not traditionally classified as sex.

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Rachelle: But others have also suggested that the reason for the sex decline of teenagers is because boys have fallen behind girls in education and are therefore disillusioned with sex because they aren’t the ones on top anymore, which is my least favorite theory, which probably means that it’s maybe right.

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Sarah: Blaming things on women in the workplace or in higher ed is often a distraction. Because look, one of the things I do in my work is find the shortest distance between any topic and the satanic panic. And maybe weirdly, I’m going to identify here a connection to the fact that the satanic panic was used partly to scare women for going to work and putting their kids in daycare. The implication is like, you’d better be careful about going back to work you dumb bitch because your child’s going to be taken by a coven.

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Rachelle: Wow! The real reason is satanic panic. I love that. We’ve solved it.

Sarah: It’s always it.

Rachelle: We spent a lot of time thinking about why other people think teens are prudes, but let’s actually look at what Gen Z is saying itself. Also, importantly, the oldest person in Gen Z right now is 26, I believe. Like 1996 is the last year, is the last cutoff. They are teens, but they’re not only teens. That’s an important consideration. Some of them qualify to pay for their own healthcare.

From the articles that talked directly to Gen Z, like the BuzzFeed piece, we mentioned sex positivity—that is what seems to be the phrase on everybody’s lips. They think is that sex positivity is kind of an outdated way to look at sexual interactions. That it’s overrated. And that the previous iterations of sex positivity were very focused on the pro-sex aspect, but not necessarily the power dynamics that are inherent in pretty much any sexual interaction.

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Sarah: Right. Is it bad for them to point that out? Let’s explore that. The concept of sex positivity, we first begin to see this in the 1960s, and it’s long also been considered to mean that non-traditional sex acts aren’t bad. We have to take ourselves out of a good-bad binary, which has essentially dictated at least American discourse about sex to that point in time. And then we see this transformation of the idea over the years the same way. Sex positivity eventually comes to mean something like women should be free to do whatever they want and what they want should be embracing casual sex as a form of liberation, but this leads to a lot of younger women through the years thinking sex is something that they’re required to do in order to be liberated. It becomes an expectation. It is, and this is not my wonderful phrase but I think it’s great, the girl-bossification of casual sex.

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Rachelle: It’s my favorite phrase that I’ve ever come up with. And that’s really what it feels like, where it’s this expectation that something that men traditionally have only had access to, whether it’s the corner suite or it’s casual sex, is inherently liberatory if women also participate in it.

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Sarah: And then that comes directly from the idea that like anything men like, it must be good and it must be this exciting achievement.

Rachelle: It makes sense that a new generation is trying to basically push back against the way that sex positivity was portrayed to them in media. But they’re also importantly very young and that’s not always the best at coming up with the solutions at what is in essence a very complicated ideological and theoretical issue.

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Before we attempt to write a dissertation, we’d be remiss not to bring up the fact that Gen Z is probably the most sexually progressive generation that has existed thus far. In the past 20 years, the wider acceptance of queer people has just led to more people embracing non-heteronormative identities. Gen Z has broadened the queer umbrella. They’ve kind of blown up or are attempting to blow up traditional male-female binary roles. It just tracks that as you think more about sex and gender as it pertains to your sense of self, that it gives you a little bit of distance from societal pressure of what a normal “teen sex life” should look like.

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Sarah: For a while, it felt like there was this question of just how can Gen Z be so sexually progressive and also be having less sex. But talking about getting outside of binaries, right? These two things aren’t as mutually exclusive as they seem. It’s much easier to not feel like you have to do something when you’re presented with so many possibilities of what gender and sexuality looks like or can look like.

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Rachelle: While you have to know how to navigate online spaces pretty secretively, the internet still offered and continues to offer a freedom that was unthinkable in the past. For the first generation of children on the internet, they knew more about how to navigate those spaces than their parents could ever hope to and could ever hope to.

This freedom is easily a double-edged sword, because there’s the Wild Wild West of the internet, and then the popularity of sex positivity kind of all conglomerating and mixing together in the ‘90s, early aughts. It was a sort of sexual free-for-all that, for me at least, kind of perpetuated this pressure of casual sex as the norm. I—sorry mom—encountered a lot of things on the internet as a child that I definitely should not have. I mean, 2 Girls 1 Cup was just passed around in my middle school band room.

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Having access to things like that at the age of 11 or 12 probably wasn’t the best for a developing brain. But like thinking about 2 Girls 1 Cup in the band room, I’m just like, “Wow! That’s cute.” I’m sure there’s something far worse out there right now. It’s just all normal and it washes over you. It’s funny, because I don’t even think we have the data on what that means for people of my generation, like what that did to our brain.

It’s really funny that we think that we can understand what’s happening with the generation that’s like 10 years old right now that is, for all intents and purposes, the first one to come up post-internet, amid all these panics about the internet.

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Sarah: It’s really a variation of the same fear that we saw off playing out after teen dramas became ubiquitous, right? We have the premier of Beverly Hills 90210 in the early ‘90s, essentially building that genre. And then after that, the hits keep coming and they don’t stop coming. We have Dawson’s Creek. We have Degrassi. We have The Secret Life of the American Teenager. We have Gossip Girl, and now we’re on to Euphoria.

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These shows all helped build a cultural understanding of what teenagers are doing, and that has always included sex. The moral panic’s priority list is interesting, because I remember the teen sex and teen pregnancy panic, and then we got to should we protect the teens from getting murdered at school? Now we’ve graduated to protect the teens from discovering their own gender panic.

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Rachelle: Before there was too much sex, now there is not enough sex. It kind of just goes to show that as long as teens, as long as children exist, there’s going to be panics about sex lives of teens or lack thereof. It’s one of the first parts of a child’s life that parents genuinely have zero control over no matter how much they try to insert control, which honestly probably a good thing, because it’s not like historically adults have been great at teaching kids sex education.

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Sarah: Most sex education in the U.S. is still extremely abstinence-focused. It highlights the dangers of sex rather than focusing on offering any meaningful, practical explanations about sex itself and the issues connected to it like consent and power dynamics. If nobody’s going to teach them, the kids are going to figure it out for themselves, and that is what they have been doing.

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Rachelle: I think there’s this general thought with the kind of sexual positivity movement of the ‘90s and the early aughts that as sex has become more available and casually accepted, as online dating has made finding someone outside of your immediate circle of friends more readily available, that just meant that more people would be having more sex always, and that that would always be a good thing. I don’t know why it took this long, but we’re learning now that that isn’t the case.

At this point, I feel like we’ve really spent the entire episode saying it’s really too early to tell how exactly Gen Z’s going to navigate this moment we’re in, which is a very complicated moment, because we’re in between the failure of sex positivity to contend with things like #MeToo. But we’re also navigating what is essentially an all-out assault on sexual freedom, on abortion, on contraception, on gay rights. I don’t envy being a teenager right now having to deal with figuring out what sexual freedom looks like at this moment.

Sarah: At the end of the day, I think adults like to fixate on what teenagers are doing for a lot of reasons. One is that we are afraid that they’re going to figure out more than we did and be happier than we were able to be. I say, go do it.

Listen to the full conversation on ICYMI, Slate’s internet culture podcast, below.

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