Words by Elizabeth Seychell Art by Sarah Mackey
Millennials are the ones held responsible for hookup culture and dating apps, yet ironically, statistics suggest that we’re remaining abstinent for significantly longer than our parents.
According to a survey by the UK Next Steps Project, one in eight millennials under 26 have never engaged in sexual intercourse. Compared to previous generations where only one in twenty reported still being virgins at that age, it’s a puzzling shift. Seemingly, society has never been more comfortable discussing sex. Casual encounters are a mere swipe away, and birth control is more readily accessible than ever. Beyond the religious and cultural reasons that have always underpinned individuals’ commitment to abstinence, it seems other, unprecedented factors are at play. Is it possible there’s something unique about the millennial experience that’s influencing not only when we have sex, but also, the way we define virginity itself?
It’s difficult to deny technology’s impact on sexual behaviour. Unlike previous generations, millennials have grown up surrounded by readily-available internet porn. According to a 2015 data dump from Pornhub, 60% of their annual viewership were comprised of millennials. Whilst porn isn’t exactly new, there’s something distinct about internet porn; it’s easily accessible, widespread and private. Hours of masturbatory material is only a click away. With an abundance of stimulation available online, there are less reasons to engage in real-life sex, which is often wrought with nerves and anxiety.
Sex IRL can wait – there’s enough to keep your hands busy for the time being.
Be it sexting, cybersex or chatting via online dating apps, technology provides other avenues for young people to explore their growing desires. According to research conducted in 2015 by the Australian Institute of Criminology, just under half the young people aged between 13 and 18 said they had sent a sext, whilst more than two-thirds had received one. Online sex and technological foreplay haven’t replaced the real deal, but they do possibly push face-to-face experiences ‘til later in life.
There’s also the question of where sex sits as a priority for millennials. With young people often juggling uni life, work, hobbies, family, friends and money, millennials are typically stretched pretty thin as it is. Trends also indicate that as young people are becoming increasingly career-orientated, it’s likely that many are prioritising work and academic commitments over socialising and relationships. In fact, according to 2019 research conducted by student loan refinancing company Comet, 40% of millennials said they would stay single for the sake of their career. As one’s professional life becomes more and more important, it causes an emphasis on academics and extracurricular activities in high school, not to mention competing for internships and grad roles in university. In a climate of soaring house prices, constant job cuts and media-propelled economic doom and gloom, this preoccupation with career is perhaps a reasonable response to a seemingly unstable future. When you’ve got more pressing obligations to deal with, maybe sex just isn’t on the ‘to-do’ list. As American biological anthropologist Helen Fisher said,
“You’d think millennials would be focused on sleeping around, but what they’re focused on is getting ahead.”
Above all, it’s important to consider how notions of virginity have evolved. In a world where non-heterosexual identities are becoming widely accepted, we must reconsider our conceptions of ‘virginity’. Where does this antiquated notion, defined by having penetrative sex for the first time, position those who do not identify as heterosexual? How do those who’ve had various sexual experiences, none of which fulfil the standard definition of ‘losing one’s virginity’ fit? It’s hard to talk about having sex for the first time with the same clarity of the past. It seems silly to talk about ‘popping your cherry’ or ‘losing your V-card’ when virginity is increasingly understood as merely a social construct dressed up as a medical myth. Bottom line: the definition of virginity is complicated, and pretty heterocentric.
Virginity is up to you, there are a myriad of unique experiences which come to shape people’s notion of ‘losing it’.
Consent is a hot topic at the moment and perhaps this relatively new (and amazing) focus is a contributing factor to why millennials are waiting longer. Could it be that young people today are more confident in declining sex they don’t want, and that young people better understand that if it’s not consensual, it’s just not on? Millennials undoubtedly have a unique approach to how they think, talk and have sex, and whilst we can’t be sure of any one definitive reason, there’s at least comfort in witnessing the discussion surrounding sex becoming more inclusive and sophisticated. And we think that’s pretty damn sexy.