Skip to main content

No Sex, Please—We’re Millennials

New research finds an increasing percentage of Americans in their early 20s are abstaining from sexual activity.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Kids today! They simply refuse to follow the example of their elders.

For one thing, they’re apparently having less sex.

That reality first hit home a year ago, when a research team found Millennials, on average, have fewer sex partners than members of the preceding generation (Gen X, which, given its promiscuous tendencies, should perhaps be re-named Gen XXX).

Now, those same researchers — Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, Ryne Sherman of Florida Atlantic University, and Brooke Wells of Widener University — report abstinence is surprisingly common among Americans in their early 20s.

“Americans are now strikingly more accepting of premarital sex,” they write in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, “but more of those born in the 1990s are nevertheless forgoing sex during young adulthood.”

Twenge and her colleagues examined data from the General Social Survey, an ongoing, nationally representative sample of American adults. Beginning in 1989, the survey included questions about participants’ sexual behavior, including how many sexual partners (male or female) they had been with since their 18th birthday.

“Fifteen percent of 20- to 24-year-old Americans born in the 1990s had no sexual partners since turning 18,” the researchers report. That compares to 6 percent of Gen Xers born in the late 1960s.

Gen X should perhaps be re-named Gen XXX.

This trend was far from uniform. Abstinence levels rose for women but not men, and for whites but not blacks. What’s more, “the rise in sexual inactivity was driven primarily by those who did not attend college,” the researchers note, “and thus missed the ‘hookup culture’ of many college campuses.”

Nevertheless, the overall trend is striking, and Twenge and her colleagues attribute it to a variety of factors. “Young adults are living with their parents for longer and marrying later, both of which may delay sexual activity,” they note.

Also, “the HIV epidemic and associated public-health messaging may have impacted later generations more,” they write, “with more delaying sex and/or reducing their number of partners as a safety strategy.” Finally, the numbers may reflect, in part, “the influence of abstinence-focused education and cultural movements” such as “purity pledges.”

Intriguingly, this increased level of abstinence has occurred even as attitudes toward sexual behavior have continued to grow more permissive. “This disconnect may speak to rising individualism,” the researchers write, “wherein individuals hold permissive attitudes about a variety of behaviors, while also feeling less pressure to conform.”

If pretty much everything is OK — so long as no one is hurt or abused — than abstinence becomes a viable choice. In a less-judgmental society, forgoing sex isn’t as frowned upon as it once was.