In 2019 the idea of a millennial and Gen Z “sex recession” became fact. Or it became the 2019 version of a fact: something we all (myself included) absorb after reading viral headlines on Facebook.
There’s certainly some truth to it. Studies from around the world have shown a moderate decline in sexual activity; a US survey found that between 1991 and 2017, the number of high school students having sexual intercourse dropped from 54% to 40%. In a fascinating cover story, the Atlantic put a name to the phenomenon, and the story stuck: young people are “retreating from intimacy”. This is now being used to explain, and most often criticise, the behaviours of young Australians too.
Last year ABC’s national survey Australia Talks found that 40% of people aged 18 to 24 report “never” having sex. Since then, young people have been lightly mocked on ABC TV, and in the Daily Telegraph. They’ve even been made the subject of an “intervention”-based ad campaign for a condom company. But as clicky as that story sounds, it’s not the whole truth.
There are plenty of young people who aren’t having sex. The Australia Talks survey revealed that Gen Z Australians are about as sexually active as people aged 75 and over. Just 37% report having sex once a month or more.
This is a huge difference from the current sex habits of millennials: 62% of those aged 24-29 are having sex at least once a month, as are 67% of those in their 30s. But this isn’t proof of generational change. Australian millennials and Gen Xers were actually having slightly less sex in their teenage years than Gen Z is today.
Comparative data shows that a female Year 12 student in 2018 was 11.3% more likely to be having penetrative sex than a Year 12 student from 1992. She was also around 10% more likely to have received oral sex than a female student who graduated in 2002. The age of first sexual experience has also stayed pretty steady for decades. ’
Dr Richard de Visser, a psychologist and researcher who contributes to the comprehensive Australian Study of Health and Relationships (ASHR), says he is “not aware of data … that would support the suggestion that young Australians are having less sex”.
Adolescent health expert Dr Melissa Kang agrees: “[Sexual frequency] really hasn’t changed – and I don’t expect it would.” As both a clinician specialising in young people’s sexuality and a long-time author of Dolly magazine’s “Dolly Doctor” column, Kang has, however, observed a loosening of taboos in sexual practice. “There’s much more inclination to have oral sex prior to intercourse [and] probably a very small increase in heterosexual anal sex.”
I have so many friends who are in open relationships and the idea of that would totally spin out my parents
De Visser also notes that Gen Z is “more likely to report gay, lesbian, bisexual or other sexual identities”. (In 2018, 39% of students said they were attracted to people of the same or multiple genders). “Awareness of, and positivity towards diversity in sexuality has increased.”
The figures that are showing declines in sexual frequency are actually from the general population.
After surveying people aged 16 to 69, the 2013 ASHR study found that Australians on the whole were having less sex than a decade prior. Heterosexual couples went from doing it an average of 1.8 times a week to 1.4 times.
This follows an international trend. See also: Britain, Sweden, Japan, Finland and the US. But in Australia, De Visser thinks the term “sex recession” is “probably a bit extreme”. He suggests these “slight changes” could be from people “choosing quality over quantity”, from people being more comfortable saying “no” to a partner, or from an increase in masturbation facilitated by online porn. “It’s unlikely that there’s a simple explanation.”
Instead of scolding young people for not having sex which they are in fact having, maybe we could look to them to understand the many ways that modern sex is changing.
Nic, 24, has sex about once a year and isn’t really fussed about having more than that. “If it happens, it happens,” he says. Sophie*, also 24, feels similarly: “So many people need sex in their lives, but for me? I really don’t know.”
There are many reasons – social, cultural, religious, medical – that people (young or old) feel this way. Nic is still looking for “close, intimate connections with people” but says “that doesn’t necessarily mean sex”.
Sophie, who last had sex three years ago and briefly identified as asexual, says she’s often held back by anxiety and a lack of comfort. In high school, her boyfriend of three years was abusive and their sexual activity (oral sex) was “sometimes consensual, sometimes coercive”. “I need more trust than others may [need],” she tells me.
For Mia, 21, “sex is a crucial part of a relationship”. “I don’t need it all day every day, but I feel it’s necessary to create and build the bond I want with my partner.” She is in a predominantly monogamous relationship that has recently gone long-distance – which means she’s having less sex than usual.
“I’d like to have sexual freedom while my partner is gone, but we don’t always see eye to eye or subscribe to the same sexual ethics,” she says.
This kind of openness and reference to negotiation around sex seems common. “I think sex is less of a sacred act than it once was,” says Ben, who is 19. “I have so many friends who are in open relationships and the idea of that would totally spin out my parents.”
Ben is having sex at least once a month these days, after losing his virginity at schoolies when he was 17 – “It was fun and it was silly and I don’t regret it at all.” He says in gay culture there can be “a pressure to jump into this hypersexualised world”, but the plus side is he feels totally free to talk about sex with new partners and friends. “STIs are not taboo at all, and I very rarely feel like any aspect of my sex life would be perceived with judgment.”
Nic, who is bisexual, feels the same. “[This generation is] definitely more open and proud of sexuality and sex,” he says. Notably, no one that was approached for this story turned down the opportunity to contribute. “There’s no slut-shaming. It’s quite the opposite: sex is celebrated.”
Things aren’t always so simple for women. Mia, who is also bisexual, is able to talk to her close friends about sex “openly and often”, but says “There have been countless times where I’ve seen people encourage women to open up, before almost immediately laughing at her expense or calling her a slut when she’s left the room.”
Young people are also turning to new sources to learn about sex. “Everything I know about sex is self-taught from reading, YouTube and friends,” Sophie says. She tells me that the recently released season of Netflix series Sex Education features a teen who is asexual. “We are craving some kind of information or reassurance that we’re not alone.”
They may not be in a sex recession, but young people are still trying to figure it out. Just like everyone else.