Life / Health

No sex please: Inside the millennials' virgin resurgence

Millennials in their 20s and 30s — the so-called “hookup generation” — are anything but.

About 15 per cent of American 20 to 24-year-olds have never had penetrative sex, a jump from six per cent in their parents’ day.

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About 15 per cent of American 20 to 24-year-olds have never had penetrative sex, a jump from six per cent in their parents’ day.

Anna is a 23-year-old content specialist who’s never had sex. She works from home for a Toronto start-up. She’s attracted to men, but doesn’t get to meet many. She’s dipped her toes into the world of dating apps and OK Cupid, with some success.    

While she’s pretty confident she won’t be a virgin much longer, Anna struggles with whether to be upfront about her status on something like Tinder, where many are looking for a quick hookup. But research shows Anna is not unusual at all.

Ryne Sherman and his colleagues set off a media storm when they published research  showing millennials in their 20s and 30s — the so-called “hookup generation” — are anything but.

Compared to GenXers and boomers, millennials have fewer sexual partners and have sex less often, Sherman said. About 15 per cent of American 20 to 24-year-olds have never had penetrative sex at all. In their parents’ day, that number was just six per cent. (The research in this area is still very heteronormative – the survey just refers to “sex” without specifying.)

Researchers floated a few possible reasons for the trend: It’s a hangover from fear-based sex-ed of the ’90s; It’s part of a trend towards less risk taking – today’s young people do drugs less, drink less, and use condoms more than their parents did; It’s a failure to launch – economic trends have landed many millennials at their parents’ place, not the most conducive environment for sexytimes.

But there’s more to it than that. After the study was published, the mail started pouring in.

“We were hit with a bunch of stories like, ‘I’m 23 and a virgin. I don’t have time for sex, I’m committed to my career,’ especially from women,” Sherman said.  

Then there’s another overlooked factor: The decline of the meet-cute. At least in person.

That's part of what's going on with Anna as she gives online dating a try.

“I’m open to sleeping with someone, I just want to know them for maybe a month,” Anna said. “People have been pretty respectful, but I don’t want to engage until I feel ready.”

Jessica*, 33, deals with the same problem. “Who would ever want to have sex with a girl in her 30s who’s still a virgin!? Must be something wrong with her.”

All Jessica’s relationship experience is virtual. In her teens and 20s, she spent a lot of time on the Internet, playing multi-user games and interacting with people from all over the world. “I loved it ... but it also kept me away from real social experiences,” she said. She was in a tumultuous romantic entanglement with a man for most of her 20s — but it was entirely text-message based.

Many of the virgins Metro spoke to went through some kind of struggle in their young adulthood with their sexuality or sexual orientation. Anna has a pervasive phobia of getting pregnant. Another woman tried penetrative sex and found it unbearably painful. A third had come to realize her sexual orientation was somewhere on the asexual spectrum.

One 24-year-old man said, “Simply put, the women I like don’t like me back, so I’ve never been on a date. I don’t have the confidence for one night stands or casual stuff, and it doesn’t interest me anyways because the romantic aspect is really appealing to me.”

But several said they just hadn’t met someone they wanted to have sex with who also wanted to have sex with them, and didn’t feel an urgent desire to be partnered up — a possible side effect of a society that is gradually embracing the philosophy of “you do you.”

Though people who have what researchers call “a late sexual debut” are at a higher risk of sexual function problems than those who lose their V-card at an average age, many do eventually have sex.

“Biology is pretty powerful,” Sherman said. “We all came from a long line of people who were interested in having sex at least once.”

*Name has been changed.

Related trend: relationship virgins

Today’s climate – with new dates and hookups to be found at the touch of a button – and banished just as fast – has produced another kind of virgin: The relationship virgin.

Everybody knows one. A serial dater who has never settled down. A friend who’s not totally inexperienced, but doesn’t like to go out and hasn’t met the person they want to be with. Jason Brown, 35, is that kind of virgin. He’s a photographer who does school photos and fashion work, so he’s around women all the time, but thinks flirting at work can make them feel unsafe – plus it’s plain old unprofessional.

Dating apps and websites strike him as superficial and fake. He says the worst part of his long-term singleness is the pressure – and pity – from friends and family. He’s doing great on his own.

“I depend entirely on myself for everything. And at times it would be really nice if I had a teammate," he said. “But if I can’t, I’ve proven that I’m more than capable of surviving and doing very, very well without anybody.”

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