This article is part of a series highlighting findings from The State of Sex — an O.school original 2021 study in partnership with Pilotly. The State of Sex study consisted of a 103-question online survey administered to 1,074 US participants, ages 18-75 with an average age of 44.
The study was representative of the US population and oversampled Black, Asian, and Latinx respondents to obtain holistic, readable data on ethnicities and sexual orientation. Our findings enable us to better understand sexual habits, behaviors, attitudes, and consumption.
When it comes to gender and sexual identity, younger generations are leading a shift towards greater fluidity. Most people (85%) who responded to O.school’s State of Sex Survey identified as heterosexual. But among those who claimed an identity other than strictly straight, there were some striking differences in the ways people from different generations described themselves.
Young people are less likely to identify as gay or lesbian
Millennials (ages 25-40) and members of Gen Z (18-24) were less likely than boomers (ages 57-75) to say they were exclusively attracted to members of just one sex. While 12% of boomers identified as gay or lesbian, only 2% of Gen Z respondents did. Instead, millennials and Gen Z’ers were more likely to say they were bisexual (9% and 11%, respectively).
Sexuality researcher and educator Dr. Shemeka Thorpe speculates that younger people’s identification with bisexuality could reflect greater fluidity and reluctance to “be boxed into one or two categories;” it could also be the case that, for some, identifying as bisexual is “a stepping-stone in their sexual development before they identify as pansexual, queer, lesbian or gay.” Another explanation could be reduced stigma towards bisexuality among younger people. While research has suggested that bisexual identity is stigmatized among both straight and gay people, according to a study published in the journal PLOS One, people under the age of 25 had significantly less bias towards bisexuals.
Instead, they take a more expansive view of sexual orientation
Younger people’s responses also reflected a wider variety of sexual orientations, beyond heterosexual, gay, and bisexual. Whereas no boomers selected “another orientation” other than straight, gay, or bi, 2% of Gen Z respondents, and 1% of millennials, did. Asexuality, although uncommon, was also more prevalent among younger people: 1% each of millennials and Gen Z respondents said they were asexual (not experiencing sexual attraction), while no boomers or Gen X respondents did. Although these are small percentages, they may point to a more expansive way of understanding sexual orientation among younger generations.
Younger generations are less likely to experience gender as a binary
Of the people who responded to the State of Sex Survey, members of older generations were likelier to identify as cisgender (identifying with the sex they were assigned at birth): 100% of Gen X respondents, and 99% of boomers, said that they were cis. Among younger people, 2% of millennials, and 4% of people in Gen Z, said that they were trans, nonbinary or gender nonconforming. Similarly, 3% each of millennials and Gen Z respondents use they/them pronouns, while no boomers or members of Gen X did.
More representation might help explain why
So why are young people increasingly likely to reject binaries when it comes to gender and sexuality? Dr. Shemeka speculates that more representation in the media might have something to do with it. “Gen Z is the social media generation,” Dr. Shemeka tells O.school. “Gen Z may identify themselves on a continuum because […] there’s an array of ways for people to identify. Through social media and increased representation of LGBTQ+ people in the media, Gen Z has had the opportunity to learn about different sexual orientations.” Having the ability to connect online with others who share their experiences and seeing a wider variety of identities in media may be encouraging young people to forge their own path when it comes to describing and expressing their gender and sexuality.
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