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A New Study by Dr. Brooke Wells Contradicts Portrayals of Today’s Youth

Although our culture is increasingly more accepting of premarital sex, a new study released today shows that Millennials born in the 1990s are twice as likely than Generation X to have no sexual partners in young adulthood. 

The increase in adult sexual inactivity – or abstinence - is most significant among women. The percentage of women who were sexually inactive as young adults tripled between the Gen X 1960s-born cohort to the Millennial and iGen 1990s-born cohort, increasing from 5 to 16 percent.

“The results of our study were surprising as popular media often suggests that young people are having sex earlier and engaging in more casual sex with the growing popularity of Tinder and other dating websites and apps,” said researcher Brooke Wells, an associate professor at the Center for Human Sexuality Studies at Widener University (Chester, Pa.).

Wells worked in coordination with Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Ryne Sherman of Florida Atlantic University to analyze data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey of more than 30,000 U.S. adults that has gathered information about sexual partners since 1989. They published their findings today in Archives of Sexual Behavior.

The data shows that among those aged 20-24, more than twice as many Millennials born in the early 1990s (15%) reported having no sexual partners since age 18 compared to GenX’ers born in the late 1960s (6%). Even when researchers controlled for age and time period effects among all respondents, higher rates of sexual inactivity among Millennials and iGen’ers still appeared. Americans born in the early 20th century also showed elevated rates of adult sexual inactivity, which the researchers suggest could relate to stricter adherence to mores around sex and marriage in these earlier generations.

“While we think of young adults today as being at the epicenter of hookup culture, that may be more perception than reality. It may also be that hookup culture involves a broader range of sexual activity that today’s youth do not define as sex,” said Wells.

An increase in sexual inactivity did not occur among black Americans, but jumped significantly among white Americans. Furthermore, the increase was larger among women than among men.

“More ‘conservative’ behavior may speak to a rise in individualism,” said Wells. “While acceptance about a variety of sexual behaviors grows, individuals feel less pressure to conform in their own behavior. This may help explain why more young adults are abstinent, but it certainly does not tell the whole story. Maybe today’s youth simply have more to keep them entertained, including a wider range of sexual outlets, such as access to pornography. It may also be that sexual activity is delayed as a result of them delaying other milestones like marriage and living away from their parents.”

Wells and her research partners say that studies such as theirs are important as increased understanding of temporal and generational changes in sexual inactivity can help inform public health efforts to address a range of sexual behaviors and outcomes.

Widener University is a private, metropolitan university that connects curricula to social issues through civic engagement. Dynamic teaching, active scholarship, personal attention, leadership development and experiential learning are key components of the Widener experience. A comprehensive doctorate-granting university, Widener comprises eight schools and colleges that offer liberal arts and sciences, professional and pre-professional curricula leading to associate, baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees. The university’s campuses in Chester and Harrisburg, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., are proud to be tobacco-free. Visit the university website, www.widener.edu.