How Money, Media, and Mental Health are Making Millennial Life Less Sexy

More than fifty years after the sexual revolution, sex in America is in a free fall – especially among young adults who historically are the most sexually active. The children of Boomers – who revolutionized American sexuality during the 1960s – are having far less sex than their parents. Millennials are not only doing it less but they are losing their virginity later than their parents and those from the X generation. The share of Americans who say they never once had sex in the past year is rising, and—most surprising—young adults top this list.

Some have called these trends a “sexual counter-revolution,” arguing that “whereas the 1960s saw a freeing up of attitudes towards sex, pushing at boundaries, this counter-swing is turning sexual freedom into sexual fear, and nearly all sexual opportunities into a legalistic minefield.” Children have always rebelled against their parents but typically they do so by upping the stakes. Today, especially younger millennials, are countering the freedom and liberality of Boomers with a new more puritanical and cautious approach to sex.

Casualties of the “sexual counter-revolution”

This decline in sexual behavior among millennials is the result of a nexus of factors from social media to social anxiety. I recently attended an Anti-Aging Academy of America (A4M) conference where I was shocked to learn that 33% of millennials are infertile – this figure applies to men and women and has proven to be multifactorial. However, I see some psychosocial and health ramifications that are as clear as day:

  • less and later marriage – later marriage means greater difficulty conceiving
  • lower birth rates – in the U.S., the birth rate is lower than it’s been in 30 years
  • lower libidos – largely the result of the hypothyroid epidemic
  • difficult pregnancies and more miscarriages – older parents have a harder time conceiving
  • increased number of people suffering from hormonal imbalances
  • lower testosterone which leads to lower sperm count. If you’re looking for solutions for low testosterone, you can read more here.
  • erectile dysfunction – yes, even among millennial males, 25% experience intermittent ED. To learn how we can treat ED, go here.
  • infertility in women and men
  • more mental health issues – anti-depressant and anti-anxiety prescriptions are at an all-time high
  • greater social isolation – largely the result of technology and social media

These trends are apparent among both young adult men and women. So, all that talk you hear about “Netflix and chilling”? It may be just that – talk. Young men and women appear to be doing lots of binge-watching and less and less “chilling.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some positive developments of less sex are also evident–from fewer unplanned pregnancies to broadening the public discourse around issues of consent, sexual harassment, and rape, along with an unprecedented acceptance of LGBTQ community.  

Wait. What? Millennials aren’t hooking up like mad?

Yep. You read that right. Despite a lot of buzz about “hookup culture,” from 2004-2012, young adults didn’t have any more sex than their counterparts in 1988-1996. They were, however, less likely to be in a steady relationship with the people they slept with. American adults, on average, are having sex about nine fewer times per year in the 2010s compared to adults in the late 1990s. That’s a 14% decline in sexual frequency.

According to analysis of the General Social Survey, other 18- to 30-year-olds aren’t doing it at all. From 2002 to 2004, 12 percent of them reported having no sex in the preceding year. A decade later, during the two years from 2014 to 2016, that number rose to 18 percent. Time magazine puts the figure at one in three 20-somethings who have never had sex at all. Rather than focusing on sleeping around, it appears that many in their 20s are focused on getting ahead. Explanations for this phenomenon abound – experts blame everything, including:

  • more time spent on smartphones and other devices
  • the millennial trend of living with their parents
  • anxiety about the future and anxiety in general
  • fear of missing out (FOMO) magnified by social media

While millennials may not be doing it in record numbers, they are doing their Sex Ed homework online.

There is also the possibility that millennial conceptions of what constitutes “having sex” may be skewing the results. Anecdotally, in my practice, I’ve seen a rise in oral sexual behavior especially among young adult patients. Even so, these numbers indicate an undeniable cooling off of sexual conduct.

The most cautious generation

If Boomers are the sexiest generation, millennials are the most cautious by a landslide. Hovered over by ever-present helicopter parents, millennials were raised to be risk-averse. From birth, they wore helmets and fastened seatbelts. But risk-taking plays a major part in sexual experimentation. Millennials had unprecedented access to information about sexual behavior via the internet, including potentially alarming data facts about unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Such access made an already anxious and serious generation more so. No generation before has had so much awareness about sexuality and so little real-life experience.

Millennials grew up in the shadow of HIV and informed about STDs, explains Jeffrey Arnett a research professor at Clark University and author of Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood. “When the Boomers were in their heyday, that didn’t exist and it seemed like free love was a good idea.” He also notes that millennials are much more likely to use condoms than Boomers ever were. I have seen this positive pattern in my practice, as well.

Millennials may view their parents’ comparatively fast and loose behavior as a cautionary tale. This is a lesson that they apply when making many of their life choices. These cautious millennials are not just having less sexual partners than Boomers, they are also limiting all sorts of risky behaviors:

  • they drink less – what once a rite of passage is now considered reckless
  • they smoke less – the popularity of vaping may change this
  • teenage pregnancy has dipped dramatically – and condom use is up
  • they commit less crimes – the crime rate is half now than it was 20 years ago

Money and marriage: Are millennials choosing salaries over sex?

Some posit that sharing a roof with their parents is among the limiting factors when it comes to millennials and sex. There’s likely something to this. For the first time in more than a century, young adults are more likely to live at home with parents than to be married or live with a partner. Married people have greater access to sex – and indeed engage in more sex, more often – than single people. Since millennials tend to marry later, a decrease in sexual participation makes sense.

Studies show that globally millennials are logging in some serious hours. Many are virtually married to their careers. The pressure on this generation has taken its toll so much so that those who are employed feel they must work crazy hours for job security or moving up the corporate ladder. The emphasis on preparing first for college and now for careers has come at the expense of romantic relationships and age-appropriate sexual experimentation – the very behaviors that typically lead to marriage.

Millennials have an historically low marriage rate. And, obviously, since married people are less likely to be virgins than the non-married, it follows that a decline in marriage means an increase in virginity.

Multiple monetary factors are at play when it comes to declining marriage rates:

  • More and more women choose to enroll in college and join the workforce before having children or getting married: the average age of first marriage for females in the U.S. has climbed to 27, compared to 23 in 1990, according to Pew statistics.
  • Millennial males remain less likely to hold down a job than the generation before them, even as women their age work at higher rates.
  • Student loan debt is through the roof, hitting the $1 trillion mark six years ago and many millennials can barely keep their heads above water.
  • Some millennials may simply be more selective than past generations – this is not necessarily a bad thing. With increased economic participation, women are much more active in the mate selection process than in the past.
  • Their Boomer parents were known not only for free love but also for high divorce rates. Divorce is rarely cheap and is often the result of financial friction.

Postponing marriage until you’ve got serious bank sounds smart. But it may impact your ability to conceive.

Many elements are involved in making relationships work – and money plays a fundamental part. However, putting off marriage until your financial house in order may impact your chance of having children. Later marriage is correlated to women having babies later in life, which means that those who experience difficulty conceiving – and this number is higher than you think – look into fertility treatments later, too.

Screen time vs. sexy time: New media and sexuality

Technology influences all of us in a modern world – but millennials were the first generation to grow up with new media pervading every aspect of their daily lives. It is no coincidence that the current dip in millennial sexual activity corresponds with the rise of new technology. The proliferation of smartphones and increased screen time undermine the development of non-virtual relationships, resulting in a sort of sexual disconnect that we’ve not seen in prior generations. New technology encourages millennials to devote more time to social media, video games, pornography and other virtual distractions, and less time with their human peers in person. Less flesh-and-blood encounters mean less sex.

The concomitant rise of social media also contributes to the decline in sexual intimacy among millennials. According to the Pew Research Institute, 88% of 18- to 29-year-olds are on some kind of social media network daily, if not several platforms. A majority report visiting Instagram every day, and 38% report visiting the app multiple times per day. Scientists have found that simply getting a “like” of one’s social media postings triggers a dopamine bump—which simulates an addiction cycle similar to drugs.

During their spare time, many millennials are choosing their screens over sex and selecting their devices over dating.

Social media and self-esteem

Social media also takes a toll on millennials’ self-esteem. Seeing peers portrayed with flawless bodies, accomplishing enviable personal and professional milestones, and advertising their seemingly perfect love lives, increases feelings of insecurity as it amps up competitiveness and the pressure to succeed. Social media rewards such displays with digital applause while propelling the less secure online toward mental health issues, body dysmorphic disorders, and social isolation.

People continually immersed in an electronic world don’t experience as much human contact of any kind as those who, in previous generations, found their stimulation face-to-face. Last year, a study found that, contrary to popular belief, older populations aren’t necessarily at the highest risk of feeling lonely. In fact, loneliness is greatest among teenagers and young adults. Social isolation often dovetails with low self-esteem, particularly among young adults.

Dating apps and sexual appetites

Meanwhile, finding sex outside of relationships has never been easier. Dating apps allow men and women to hookup with multiple partners – in shifts throughout the day, if they desire. Because these apps are accessible via smartphones, people can now keep illicit liaisons secret from their partners in ways not imaginable before. Extramarital sex is more widely accepted among millennials than any age group. In a recent study, compared to older generations, millennials reported the lowest disapproval of infidelity at 75 percent.

For millennial singles, online dating leaves much to be desired as well. Researcher Jean Twenge, a millennials-expert tells the Washington Post that the prominence of online dating contributes dramatically to their slumping rates of sexual activity. “It ends up putting a lot of importance on physical appearance” which “leaves out a large section of the population,” says Twenge. “For a lot of folks who are of average appearance, marriage and stable relationships was where they were having sex … [and dating apps may be] leaving some people with fewer choices and they might be more reluctant to search for partners at all.”

This superficial component of dating apps leaves many feeling left out and less likely to risk the emotional damage that comes with rejection. Many millennials would rather be safe and solo than suffer the consequences of “catching feelings.”

Many single millennials would rather be safe and solo than risk rejection or the possibility of “catching feelings.”

Porn and performance. Yes, they’re related.

Pornography is pervasive – there is no doubt about it. And its consumption is on the rise, especially among millennial males, but women are picking up steam. A research team led by Brigham Young University economist Joseph Price looked at shifting attitudes and behaviors surrounding porn from 1973 to 2012. Their research, published in the Journal of Sex Research, finds “porn viewership has increased substantially among young adults.” Popular adult site, Pornhub, saw its viewership grow from 10 million daily visits in 2009 to 25 million in 2012 to 75 million in 2017. That’s a significant leap by any standards.

Rising pornography consumption represents a serious factor in declining millennial sexual behavior. Young men particularly dedicate a significant amount of screen time and attention to virtual sex rather than the real thing. Twenge accounts for such devotion to porn like this: “Why risk rejection, sexually transmitted diseases, relationship arguments or having to meet up with someone when you can watch porn in the privacy of your own bedroom and do things your way?” I’ve got more on the increase in “self-love,” below. Keep reading for that.

But, excessive porn viewing affects more than the mental wellbeing of millennials – it also affects physical performance. Sexual perfectionism is an emerging problem that is firmly rooted in watching porn. Young men and women expect real-world sex to be seamless…just like it appears to be in the pornography that they’ve watched since they were teens. But, in reality, sex is messy and unpredictable. Sexual perfectionism can lead to all types of sexual dysfunction in men and in women – from the inability to orgasm (anorgasmia) to erectile dysfunction.

I’m not in the mood: Millennial sexuality and mental health

It’s not hard to imagine how the challenges of 21st-century life would spawn an epidemic of anxiety among this generation. A survey published earlier this year by the American Psychiatry Association found that millennials are by far the most anxious generation. Women tend to be more anxious than men, and people of color scored 11 points higher on the anxiety scale than Caucasians. Millennials are reporting these and other mental health conditions at higher rates than any generation before. This awareness may not necessarily mean that they are suffering any more than their older counterparts, but they are considerably more vocal – and less judgmental – regarding mental health.

Also referred to as the “anxious generation,” millennials grew up with the constant exposure to the internet and social media. For all of the benefits of technology, life in a digital world is complicated and many millennials feel overwhelmed. Constantly. Higher educational demands and pressure to earn hefty incomes also lead to an inflated quest for perfection. Given the amount of time they spend online, millennials cannot resist the urge to compare their personal and professional achievements to everyone else’s. This practice leads to low self-esteem, insecurity, and a host of other unhealthy mental habits.

Specifically, a dramatic increase in perfectionism – even when it comes to sex. Perfectionism often manifests as a fear of failure – or not performing constantly at your best. Fear of failure in the bedroom is very real. I talked about sexual perfectionism above and I hear these concerns from my patients almost daily. Taking pharmaceuticals is not always the solution and, in some instances, may even compound problems.

One in six Americans are on antidepressants, and the rate is even higher among millennials. Many medications used to treat anxiety and depression decrease libido and sexual activity.

If that’s not depressing, I don’t know what is. For those of us in the medical profession, now is the time to start having different conversations with our patients.

Millennials are doing their Sex Ed homework

While millennials may not be hitting the sheets en masse, they are, nevertheless, highly informed about sexuality. Since most millennials grew up with smartphones and access to the internet close at hand, the way they learned about sex is vastly different than past generations. Whereas Boomers may have had their first intimate encounter with a Playboy magazine or even National Geographic, many millennials found early thrills online.

Sure, both generations likely heard some version of “The Talk” from their parents, but millennials had the advantage of consulting Google for any follow-up questions rather than press their parents for embarrassing details. Millennials are also a more open and less judgmental group who have grown up with important issues like LGBTQ rights, consent, and sex positivity as part of the national conversation.

Self-love is the ultimate in safe sex. And the most “cautious generation” is practicing more than most.

And “self-love” is broadly accepted. The stigma surrounding masturbation has never been less pronounced. Across all generations, millennials masturbate the most often. A recent study comparing the “self-love” practices between the generations found:

  • Millennials masturbate an average of 18 times per month
  • Gen Xers get after it about 13 times per month
  • Boomers loosen their own belts about 7 times monthly

Most millennials have no qualms about discussing masturbation and routinely enlist the help of sex toys. Some even identify as “solosexual,” meaning that they engage exclusively in solo sex rather than sex with partners.

Say what you will about the millennials but at least the “cautious generation” is practicing safe sex. And lots of it.

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