Why Sex Is No Longer a Teen Commodity

Popular critiques of millennials, in the mid-2000s and beyond, ranged from “They’re too entitled” to “Technology and social media are making them superficial.” Fifteen years later, however, one complaint that millennials may side with their elders on is the value in hooking up. Or rather, the lack thereof.

See, if you started high school in the late ’90s or early aughts, sex was just a little … different. Because by the time millennials were juniors in high school, teen pregnancy rates had increased and this increase had become the norm. Back this up with college being framed by social dating apps — Tinder in 2012 — and the ensuing rush to randy earned them the possibly well-deserved nickname: the hookup generation.

Recent studies, however, seem to suggest that all of that random hooking up and sex? Old hat. Specifically, the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), which monitors health behaviors and experiences among students across the country, is finding that in 2019:

38 percent of high school students had sex compared to the half of all teens who had sex 30 years ago.

Out of all possible futures, millennials, and now Gen Z, steering away from sex seems the least likely. However, Dr. Fran Walfish, the author of The Self-Aware Parent who has appeared on CBS’ The Doctors, saw signs of this as far back as five years ago when the percentage of teens reporting sexual behavior experienced its biggest drop in the nearly 30 years that the CDC has been tracking the data.

If you look at the chart above, you’ll see that the trajectory, while generally trending downward, has a marked dip in 2015 that’s continued through to today. Walfish says the massive dip is a result of the “hookup generation” finally getting their fill.

“These young people did not learn how to develop any communication skills,” she explains. “They just leapt quickly into erotic kissing and intercourse, and those kids would come into my office moaning and complaining about an emotional emptiness and longing for more depth and connectivity.”

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, offered a different theory. Along with the association between mental health and libido, there is, as he describes it, a rise in the culture of risk avoidance — of “safetism.” Basically the mindset where there’s a much greater focus on being careful and protecting yourself. Something that, because of COVID, is unlikely to change soon.

“My sense of it right now is that it’s a very long-term shift,” Wilcox says. “We’ve seen in Japan, for instance, the dramatic decline in dating, sex, marriage and childbearing over there the last few decades, and the same dynamic could be playing out right now.”

And although economies across the globe have gradually begun to open, there’s no real proof that things will be back to normal anytime soon. For the economy, or for sex.

However, Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of the award-winning book Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, says the hookup generation was nothing compared to how it was years ago. And it’s very possible that the change should be seen as a good thing.

“We need to remember that our past is not always what we think it was. In the 1950s and 1960s, only a quarter of men and less than half of women were virgins at age 19. There are many advantages, I think, to teenagers not having sex when they are very young.”

Like? The downfall of teen mom television shows on MTV. For which America turns its desperate eyes to you, Generation Z. Don’t let us down.


Numbers and factoids — fodder for your next cocktail party.