Generation Y have a reputation of being irresponsible, social media obsessed party-animals who flit away their money on avocado toast and indulge in the hook-up culture of online dating apps. In light of this, I was suitably shocked to discover a US study which told a very different story about millennials' habits between the sheets.
Published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour by researchers from three US universities, the survey of 27,000 people found that millennials are less likely to be having sex than young adults were 60 years ago. The percentage of young adults aged between 20 and 24 who reported having no sexual partner after the age of 18 increased 6% from those born in the 1960s, 12% of those born in the 1970s or 1980 to 15% of young adults born in the 1990s. While the study didn't canvas Australian millennials, the results mirror similar trends in Sweden and Japan.
My initial shock turned into a distant pang of sadness. It seems improbable that a whole generation could be losing interest in the most natural of carnal instincts: the hot-heading longing and visceral pleasures of the body that have galvanised humanity for millennia. With all the turmoil unfolding in the world, how can it be that our erotic lives are in decline too?
Many social commentators had a stab at decoding the social factors at play: a culture of overwork and an obsession with career status, a fear of becoming emotionally involved and losing control and an online-dating milieu that privileges physical appearance above all. I investigated further to find the root of our erotic impasse and uncover solutions to fan the flames of desire.
Technology and the paradox of choice
With Tinder, Bumble, Happn and the increasing use of Facebook and Instagram as a conduit for dating, millennials have a veritable smorgasbord of lustful encounters at their fingertips. Or so you would think.
Logic suggests that having options allows people to select precisely what makes them happiest. But, as studies show, abundant choice often makes for misery. In the dating world, having too much choice seems to foster an environment where everyone is looking for the 'next best thing', an omnipotent woman/man who will outshine every other and put an end to their search.
As sex therapist and author Jacqueline Hellyer explains, this abundance of choice creates a own unique brand of dating anxiety and a reluctance to settle down. "The apparent availability of so many potential partners means that people reject others for all sorts of reasons, not just appearance. It takes time to get to know someone, and it takes time to develop a good sex life with someone. But these days a lot of people move on far too quickly, before they give the relationship a chance."
"[Technology] actually makes it harder to connect. Text alone, especially the brief type of texting most people do, doesn't show emotion, so people are always trying to figure out what a text means. Sure you can 'hook up' more easily, but people who have casual sexual connections have a lot less sex than people who are in relationships."
The 'men love to chase' debate
If I had a dollar for every time I heard a friend say 'Let him chase you', I'd have far deeper pockets than I do now. I'm sure I'm not alone in saying these four tiny words have been the cause of much over-analysis and generally hanging back like a bewildered wall flower, only for nothing to happen.
There are opposing schools thought about the pertinence of this theory. Relationship expert Dr. Pam Spurr says: "Many men find the chase exciting and it strokes their ego to feel they're the one who is finally going to get her attention - and into bed. Add to this the fact that men are very goal focused and an elusive goal can seem all that much more interesting."
But with the increasing egalitarian nature of relationships and less defined gender roles, some experts think this is a thing of the past. As Jacqueline Hellyer explains, many men are confused about whether the onus of pursuing women still lies with them, which can lead to reluctance from both parties in making the first move.
"Women still expect to be 'chased'. It's a double standard which is not helpful for anyone. I think society is only just starting to really understand what a truly equal relationship could be, and how it's co-created between two people right from the start."
Juliet Richters echoed these statements, "I think men (particularly educated men) are wary of putting women off by behaving in a sexist manner, e.g. by putting the hard word on without any encouragement, or even by flirting."
Feminism and consent
A surprising thread to the debate is the impact of feminism on sexual behaviour. The women's liberation movement brought with it greater economic independence for many women, giving them the autonomy to choose their sexual partners.
Chilla Bulbeck, Professor of Women's Studies at Adelaide University said, "For me it is about the power balance in relationships. As women gain some income equality vis-à-vis men, the more able they are to have sex when they want it and not when he wants it (...)There is a kind of return to prudery which a woman who only wants 'good' sex can use to her advantage to be more selective about with whom she has sex."
Juliet Richters, Professor of Sexual Health from the University of New South Wales explained that better sex education and public health initiatives have improved the understanding of consent for both men and women.
"Socially the notion of (real) consent is much more to the fore. There appears to be less 'service sex' in relationships, with women feeling it's their duty to serve men's 'needs'."
"Remember that the average age at first marriage was lower in the 1980s than now -it's been rising since the 1970s (...) So if you married your first or second sexual partner in your teens, you were more likely to be sexually active in your 20s just because you have a spouse."
Getting back in the saddle
If the lack of coital experimentation is in part due to women being in control of their conquests, this is a feat worth celebrating rather than condemning.
But it seems that there are more complex undercurrents at play than simply women saying 'non, merci'. These include a lack of real-world communication skills, a breakdown of traditional gender roles, a reluctance to make the first move and a toxic culture of searching for the 'perfect partner', where fleeting trysts are favoured over relationships.
In Jacquelyn Hellyer's experience, unrealistic standards of perfection and an unwillingness to make themselves vulnerable are often to blame for shying away from sexual encounters.
"If young people are tired or distracted, rather than having low-key sex, they hold out until it can be 'amazing' - which generally means they're holding out a long time because generally you need to have regular low-key sex to be able to have amazing sex."
So, how do we extricate ourselves from this sexual stalemate? In short: remember that no one is perfect (including you), resist the roundabout of short-lived rendezvous, favour tête-à-tête communication and don't be afraid to be open, honest and vulnerable. They are by far the sexiest traits, after all.