When a study came out this week finding that millennials have fewer sexual partners than their parents’ generation, I should have felt redeemed. For several years now, I’ve criticized hysteria over hookup culture. I’ve mocked alarmist headlines about rainbow parties and boozy one-night stands. The kids are all right -- more than all right, we’re great! -- I’ve said. And besides, what are we doing that our parents’ generation didn’t do? We may be known as the “hookup generation,” but we hardly invented the one-night stand.
This study suggests that not only are millennials doing what their parents already did before them, they’re doing less of it. Specifically, boomers had an average of 11 sexual partners as adults, whereas those born in the '80s and '90s had eight. Gen-Xers, who came in-between, had an average of 10 lays. Prior to my parents’ generation, there was the Silent Generation with an average of five and the Greatest Generation with just two (dawww). All of which is to say that the young people that have followed the free love generation have not become more promiscuous, despite what all the think pieces about Tinder and sexting would have you believe.
At the same time, my contemporaries are more accepting than any other generation of premarital sex (62 percent said it was A-OK). They also are more accepting of same-sex relationships (56 percent gave the thumbs-up). No real surprise there, given the rising age of first marriage and the changing tide on same-sex marriage. But this, together with the finding about numbers of sex partners, paints a fascinatingly nuanced picture: Millennials are members of a uniquely sexually progressive generation that is nevertheless more restrained when it comes to sleeping around.
There are so many reasons here for someone like myself to celebrate -- not only are attitudes about premarital sex and same-sex relationships heading in the right direction, but it turns out I was right to minimize the threat of hookup culture all along! And yet my primary emotional response to this news was disappointment. No one wants to feel less wild than their parents, especially when it comes to sex. Being a member of the storied “hookup generation” had allowed me to respond to my parents’ stories of their generation’s naked hot-tubbing and partner swapping with a curled lip or an eye roll. They thought they were sooo crazy with their free-loving ways -- if only they knew what it was like now!
But now, I have to think, maybe they were more hardcore. I can’t decide which is worse: Having your generation routinely attacked for its slutty sluttiness or being told that your forebears were the real sexual revolutionaries?
I’m not alone in my ambivalence about this news, either: The tone of the media coverage of the study has been bemused and sometimes outright apologetic to millennials. Consider this Refinery29 headline: “Sorry, Millennials — Your Parents Probably Had More Sex Than You.” The utter insult of it! Excuse us while we lick our wounds and plot Miley Cyrus’ next panic-inducing sexual stunt. There is one defining sexual brag for this generation to hold onto, though. Researchers found that millennials are more likely to have reported having casual sex. This might seem a complete and utter contradiction, but try to wrap your head around this: Millennials are both more inclined toward no-strings -- or at least few-strings -- hookups and sleeping with fewer people than previous generations.
As for why this generation is less promiscuous, the study’s lead author, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, tells me that it’s hard to know for sure. “It could be that they are more cautious overall, as the first generation to be put in carseats and told they couldn't walk to school,” she said, which also raises the potential influence of growing up with a greater awareness of STIs and HIV in particular. “Perhaps millennials are having more ‘friends with benefits’ relationships with a smaller circle of people -- the survey does show a big jump recently in the percentage of people reporting sex with an acquaintance.” That just might explain why millennials are having fewer partners while also being more inclined toward casual sex.
The great news here is that this generation’s offspring will have an easy time outdoing their parents in the sex department. I can see it now: "Back in my day, we had the 'free love' generation to compete with!" I suspect we'll never let them forget it.