Twenty-first century stresses have had a surprising effect on the current student generation

Twenty-first century stresses have had a surprising effect on the current student generation
Are the pressures of university getting you down? Source: Christian Erfurt/Unsplash

When millennial students moved away from traditional dating approaches (asking your crush on a date after having drunk too much at the student’s union), turning instead to social media and dating apps such as Tinder, there were misconceived fears that, aided by technology, student promiscuity would become rampant.

Fortunately for all those social scientists who feared hordes of sexually-voracious students, data from several global reports suggests the reality is quite different. In fact, today’s students are less likely to ‘hook-up’ than every previous generation since the sexual revolution of the swingin’ 60s!

One of the first reports to expose a drop in sexual activity among college and university students was published by New York Magazine and SurveyMonkey. The report, which surveyed over 700 students, found that almost 40 percent of respondents were virgins, and almost 50 of the male respondents considered themselves sexually inactive.

Interestingly, almost 75 percent of freshman and sophomores believed they were far less sexually active than their peers, though the data suggests most students were leading relatively inactive sex lives – they probably just weren’t telling their friends the truth.

Although the New York Magazine report was relatively small scale, its findings have since been mirrored by larger reports in North America, Europe and Asia.

According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of high school students who had experienced intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent between 1991 to 2017. This statistic indicates that most college students during the 1990s had had some sort of sexual experience – something the majority of students in college today have not yet had.

The data suggests that the reason for these changes is that young people are choosing to start their sex lives later than previous generations – something many parents, educators, and health officials are no doubt delighted to hear.

Young people are choosing to start their sex lives later than previous generations. Source: Simon Boxus/Unsplash

Jean M. Twenge, an authority on young people’s sexual behaviour, suggests that today’s young adults will have fewer sexual partners than previous generations. People now in their early 20s are more than twice as likely to abstain from sexual intercourse than previous generations.

Data from the UK reinforces these findings on the decline in sexual activity among young people. Comparing the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles reports from 2001 and 2012, researchers found that the frequency with which sexually active young people had sex each year had dropped from over 70 times to less than 60.

The drop in sexual activity among young people has also resulted in a welcomed reduction in the number of teenage pregnancies. In 1998, England had one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe. The rate of teen pregnancies has since halved and teenage pregnancies in England are at their lowest since records began.

Interestingly, over a similar period, the amount of alcohol consumed by young people in the UK has also reduced, with the percentage of 16 to 24 year olds who abstain from alcohol rising from 18 percent in 2005 to 29 percent in 2015.

According to the Health Survey for England, binge drinking has also decreased, from 27 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2015. Although simply linking young people’s alcohol consumption with their levels of sexual activity is a rather lazy conclusion, it’s a point worth keeping in mind when looking for factors influencing this phenomenon.

East Asia and Australia have also reported declines in sexual activity among young people. In Japan, the percentage of young people (aged 18 to 34) abstaining from sexual activity increased from 30 percent in 2005, to 43 percent in 2015. Interestingly, this report also found that the number of young people who intended to remain unmarried also increased.

In Australia, individuals in relationships have recorded a drop of 20 percent in the frequency of their sexual activity, from an average of 1.8 times a week to 1.4 times.

So, what has influenced this drop in sexual activity among young people? Surely it isn’t just linked to alcohol consumption?

Well, social scientists suggest that a number of factors have led to young people having less sex, including the preference to marry later; economic factors; social and environmental factors (living with parents); the internet; social media; online entertainment; and, yes, alcohol consumption.

American researchers who have been studying the Great American Sex Drought suggest that economic factors have been instrumental to this phenomenon, with 54 percent of unemployed Americans not having a steady romantic partner, compared with 32 percent of employed adults.

As the number of people who are economically insecure has grown, the number of people in steady relationships (and having regular sex) has dropped. A lack of job security and the increasing costs of accommodation also mean that more young people are continuing to live at home with their parents – a potential impediment to a voracious six life.

As Jean Twenge explains, “There are more people in their twenties who don’t have a live-in partner. So under those circumstances I think less sex is going to happen.”

Data also suggests that the internet has had a huge impact on the decline in sexual activity among young people. Researchers studying sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) found that the decline in STDs among young people correlates with the increase in accessibility to high-speed internet . Teenage pregnancy rates in the UK and the US also dropped in line with increased access to broadband.

Teenage pregnancy rates in the UK and the US also dropped in line with increased access to broadband. Source: Victoria Heath/Unsplash

In Germany, the Institute for Labour Economics (IZA) reported a correlation between the transition rates of STDs among young people and the spread of high-speed internet. The IZA report concludes that the decline could be a result of today’s teenagers being less sexually active, or being more knowledgeable of the risks of unprotected sex, as a result of internet access. The answer is likely to be a combination of both factors.

Access to broadband internet has provided young people with round-the-clock entertainment – social media, movies, YouTube, Netflix, streamed music, and online gaming. There is a lot more to keep young people occupied in the evenings than there was for previous generations.

Dr Jean Twenge’s recent book, iGen, identifies the year 2007 as the date when teen sex, alcohol consumption and drug taking among young people started to decline as a direct result of the widespread adoption of smartphones. She argues that smartphones have ultimately replaced some of the traditional teenage signifiers such as rebelliousness, independence and community.

Talking to The Guardian, one millennial explained that the “sex drought” among young people was linked to the stresses and challenges of growing up in the 21st Century.

“The truth, for many of us, is that we’re simply stressed out and at our wits’ end, with a million things on our minds that could be interfering with our libidos. We’re worried about finding a stable job, our university loan debt, moving out of our parents’ homes and more. Don’t let the colour aesthetic of our Instagram layouts fool you – we’re slightly freaking out and don’t really have it together.”

It’s most likely that the decline in sexual activity among young people is being influenced by each of these factors and for students concerned about college success and getting an education that prepares them for the challenges of the world, not being distracted by sex is likely a good thing.

Even if sexual activity is declining, sexual encounters still occur at university and it’s important to remember to always use protection (STDs and unplanned pregnancies disrupt the lives of many students), ensure sex is consensual, and if you are ever the victim of sexual abuse, be sure to report the incident to the university and/or the police.

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