Remember when Vanity Fair published an article last year gleefully proclaiming we were at the dawn of a “dating apocalypse” and promiscuous millennials and their newfangled internet-enabled devices were on their way to destroying sex and romance as we know it? And remember when Tinder, affronted by this suggestion of base crassness, took to Twitter to unleash a savage, epic rant directed at the magazine and its indelicate fingering of the app as a prime catalyst of our rude new world?
-@VanityFair Little known fact: sex was invented in 2012 when Tinder was launched.— Tinder (@Tinder) August 11, 2015
Tinder wasn’t the only collateral damage in journalist Nancy Jo Sales’s nearly 7,000-word piece: a widely circulated paper from Archives of Sexual Behavior claiming millennials have fewer sex partners than previous generations was bizarrely relegated to a dismissive parenthetical. Now, roughly a year later, the authors of that study are back and re-inviting us to the lively party that is speculating about millennials, and their perceived failings, on the internet.
The new Archives of Sexual Behavior study uses data from the General Social Survey—a nationally representative sample of American adults aged 18 to 96, conducted biannually since 1989—to examine patterns of sexual inactivity over time. The analysis shows that not only are people born in the 1980s and 1990s reporting fewer sexual partners than GenX’ers or Baby Boomers, but also that the marked change in sexual inactivity is independent of the effects of age or time period. In other words, it can be attributed to a generation alone.
Americans born in the 1990s were more likely to be sexually inactive in their early 20s.
The numbers are significant: Fifteen percent of millennials born in the 1990s and between 20 and 24 years old reported having no sexual partners since the age of 18. That’s more than double the six percent of GenX’ers born in the 1960s who reported having no sexual partners during the same age ranges.
These comparisons are purely descriptive in the sense that they give us clues about what, exactly, defines the millennial generation: Americans born in the 1990s were more likely to be sexually inactive in their early 20s; women were more likely to be sexually inactive than men; and people who did not attend college were more likely to be sexually inactive compared to those who did.
“We can say ‘Here’s the trend’ and isolate it down to saying it’s a generational thing, but we can’t exactly say why,” says Ryne Sherman, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science at Florida Atlantic University.
Potential explanations explored in the paper include the rise of internet pornography, the economic downturn and its role in delaying millennials’ independence from their parents (think less independent lodgings to help facilitate sex), and the possibility that millennials are indeed hooking up with more partners, but engaging in penetrative sex less often. The explanation Sherman favors is that apps like Tinder—and the rise of the internet itself—provide an outlet for people to connect and be social without needing to pursue sex in real life.
Of course, another possible explanation is that different generations interpreted the survey’s key question—“Since the age of 18, how many sexual partners have you had?”—differently.
Sherman thinks this is highly unlikely, saying that if interpretation of the phrase “sexual partners” was changing, it would show up in the period effect (i.e., everybody living in that time would experience a change in the meaning of the term) and not just the generational effect. It didn’t.
But, I’d challenge Sherman to have a conversation with my grandmother about “sexual partners” and see if he still feels we’re all still on the same page about words and what they mean.