Millennials Don't Think They're In A Sex Recession, Study Finds

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Millennials Don't Think They're In A Sex Recession, Study Finds

Image by Leandro Crespi / Stocksy

Although many studies over the course of the last few years indicate people across age groups, countries, and relationship statuses are having less sex than in generations prior, not everyone is convinced there's a so-called sex recession plaguing our bedrooms right now. One group, in particular, that's apparently not buying it? Millennials.

According to a new, nationally representative survey conducted by Cosmopolitan on over 1,000 people ages 18 to 34, millennials don't at all seem to think their generation is having any less sex than usual: 68 percent explicitly say we're not in a sex recession, 71% feel "personally satisfied" with how much sex they're having, and 62% also think their friends are having "plenty of sex" as well.

As Cosmo writer Julie Vadnal points out, the whole idea of a "sex recession" is somewhat moot if it doesn't take into consideration how people actually feel about their own sex lives—and clearly according to this data, millennials at least are feeling pretty good.

Are people really having less sex?

This study couldn't capture the generational data needed to answer this question, but here's a random spattering of other recent studies' findings: Nearly a quarter of Americans between ages 18 and 29 had no sex in the past year, a rate that's doubled in the last decade; among men that age, sexlessness rates actually tripled. Between 1991 and 2017, the number of high school students who've had sex dropped from 54% to 41%. In 2001, 38% of British women in serious relationships had no sex in the past month; in 2012, that number jumped to 51%.

This paints a bleak picture, but Vadnal does call into question the validity of studies stemming from one particular data set called the General Social Survey, which fueled that big investigation on young people's sexlessness from the Atlantic at the end of 2018 and many of the recent reports about America's supposed sexual drought in particular. Namely, the GSS is a gigantic survey that's not geared toward analyzing sexual experiences in particular, as it has only asked about how much sex people are having but not "whether you're having good sex or even whether you're cool with the amount of sex you're having."

Her point: If a generation is having slightly fewer but overall better sexual experiences, is it really a "sex recession"?

As far as millennials are concerned, the Cosmo survey found an impressive 92% of millennials think quality is more important than quantity when it comes to sex.


Millennials are having more diverse sexual experiences.

Another big problem with much of the research on sexual activity is baked into the way the studies themselves define sex: Often they're only looking into heterosexual intercourse, i.e., specifically when a man and woman have penetrative sex. Some analyses of GSS data, for example, explicitly only look at men's number of times having sex "with a female partner," and the GSS and many other studies don't actually specify what they mean when they ask a person about how much "sex" they're having.

This means sexual experiences between people of the same gender are often erased, which Vadnal points out is particularly a big deal when you're studying millennials and younger generations, who, research shows, are more experimental and open to queer sexual experiences. Last year Gallup found the number of millennials who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender jumped 40% between 2012 and 2017 (from 5.8% of millennials to 8.1%), and the percentage of men and women who've had same-gender sexual experiences has doubled between 1990 and 2014. A 2016 CDC study found 17% of women have gotten it on with another woman.

Everyone's genders aside, ambiguous or narrow definitions of sex as intercourse also leave out other forms of sex like oral, manual stimulation, using sex toys, mutual masturbation, and solo masturbation. All these pleasurable acts absolutely count as sex, but unless researchers specifically ask about them, it's hard to determine whether respondents of any gender included these experiences in their tallies of how much sex they're having.

"Would the results of research on sexual activity trends look different if we specifically asked about sexual acts other than heterosexual intercourse? It's possible," certified sex coach Gigi Engle writes at mbg. "After all, if our fear is about people connecting, shouldn't we acknowledge that a couple giving each other pleasure through oral alone regularly is just as connected as a couple that has intercourse regularly?”

They're also having more pleasurable sexual experiences.

Research from Indiana University's National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, a nearly annual study that does ask about diverse sexual experiences and acts, indicates sexual pleasure is on the rise, Cosmo reports. The magazine's own survey clearly concurs. Vadnal nods toward the #MeToo movement as one possible reason sex has become a more empowering, if selective experience—people are more willing to say no to sex they don't want, and if less bad, painful, or unwanted sex means less sex overall, that's something to celebrate.

These results show the vast majority of millennials seem to be happy with their sex lives, whatever that might involve, so why talk about them and this moment in history in a way that implies something's wrong?

We're sure to see more research and reports trying to suss out whether people are or aren't doing the deed less, but if quality over quantity is what matters when it comes to sex, maybe there's no need to sweat the numbers.

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