We’ve all been in this situation before. We sit down with our friends to update each other about our lives. We run through a list of the usual: How’s work? How’s family? And, naturally, we land on the question we’ve been leading up to this whole time: How’s your romantic life?
Ah, yes—the eternal question, and, let’s be honest, where the meat of the conversation lies. Who doesn’t love a good chat between friends lamenting the state of our love lives? But lately, there has been a marked shift in these conversations, particularly among young people. What used to be laundry lists of partners who ghosted us, people who neglected our needs in bed, or dates that spouted unnecessary political rants have turned into something else. With a note of pride, you turn to your friend and say, “It’s been months since I’ve last had sex. And I’m loving it.”
If this situation sounds familiar, then you’re one of the many millennials and Gen Z’ers who have rejected hook-up culture and casual sex for a whole different lifestyle trend: voluntary abstinence.
Are young people actually choosing abstinence more often than previous generations?
It appears so. The Archives of Sexual Behavior reports that 15% of millennials aged 18 and older have never had any sexual partners. So yes, according to the data, voluntary abstinence is a sexual fad up there with sexting and butt-play. Although millennials have a reputation for being the sex-positive “hook-up generation” that is ruining “old-school dating rituals,” the data shows that this isn’t the case. Compared to 6% of Gen X (people born in the 1960s), millennials are more than twice as likely than previous generations to have never had sexual partners.
Contrary to what some critics are theorizing, the trend towards abstinence is not indicative of a desire to “avoid putting yourself out there.” According to sex and relationships researchers, the increasingly popular decision to abstain from sex, even if it’s just “taking a break,” may be a signpost that young people are truly and fully owning their sexual agency—and respecting others’ as well
So, why exactly are young people deciding to “take a break” from hooking up?
There is a myriad of reasons why opting out of casual sex seems to be en vogue as of late. It may partly be that now, more than ever, young people are taking their mental health seriously. And as young people increasingly prioritize their well-being, many are finding that casual sex doesn’t necessarily serve what they imagine their “best life” to be. More millennials might be coming to the conclusion that, for them, one’s “best life” includes very satisfying sex with a partner they’re enthusiastic about.
It’s not that casual sex is bad (in fact, it can be downright phenomenal). However, research published by sociologists in the American Sociological Review suggests that casual sexual encounters can lack the intimacy and communication that sex with a longer-term partner can provide.
Another theory as to why voluntary abstinence is a fad among millennials is the growing belief that consent is no longer optional within sexual encounters. Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, believes that millennials have become more educated “about what constitutes as consent,” and are therefore “far less accepting of pressured sex.”
Perhaps the most notable change within young people’s attitudes towards abstinence is that, now, voluntarily abstaining from sex comes with its own set of bragging rights.
A quick scroll through Twitter reveals the markedly changed tone that young people have adopted in conversations about sexual inactivity. A standard Twitter feed might abound with statements like: “I’ve been abstinent for so long I don’t even remember if I like sex anymore.” Or: “Haven’t had sex all year. Wow. Growth.” Or: “You hit a certain age and realize you’ll go single and abstinent before you allow anyone to mistreat your time, spirit and energy.” In other words, young people abstaining from sex are more boastful than one might expect. It’s almost as if abstinent millennials wear their lifestyle decision like a badge of honor.
Less than a decade ago, many young people were taught that abstinence until marriage was the safest and most ethical sexual choice they could make. Articles were published about the prevalence of “purity rings” and “purity balls” in conservative circles of the U.S., all of which served the purpose of encouraging young people to remain abstinent until marriage. But now that the sex-positivity movement has firmly embedded itself in the cultural zeitgeist, social pressure towards abstinence is less pronounced than it once was. In fact, many young people instead feel pressure to have lots of super-satisfying sex with lots of people.
Ironically, rebelling against this new cultural paradigm by abstaining could feel like the ultimate expression of self-confidence and individuality. Millennials and Gen Z’ers are rebelling against the status quo as young people have always done, but this time, the status quo is the cultural expectation that you must be dating and having sex to be a functioning adult.
The expansion of the sex-positivity movement may be influencing young people’s agency when it comes to decisions to abstain.
As sex educator Debby Herbenick theorizes, many millennials and Gen Z’ers are increasingly deciding to have sex out of desire, not out of obligation. One 2015 study revealed that the idea of “owing” a person sex after they paid for a date was a belief more prevalent among Gen X’ers, with younger folks less likely to feel they “owed” someone sex after going on a date with them for which they paid. “People have had to start thinking about what it means to have sex that feels good,” Dr. Herbenick recently said to Cosmopolitan. This, in itself, changes how the sexual ecosystem has long worked.
The bottom line is that with more freedom comes more choices. So now those young people are freer to choose the conditions of their sex lives, they seem to be choosing whichever option they feel most comfortable with. And, for some, the best option is simply choosing themselves.