Generations and the Subject We Don’t Discuss

by Honolulul Mother

Yes, it’s an article on sex! This Pacific Standard article by Malcolm Harris looks at the trendline showing that millenials are waiting longer to become sexually active than earlier generations, and reframes the question:

Instead of asking why Millennials are having less sex, we could also ask why Boomers and Gen-X had more. Rather than asking why Millennials are so weird, we could compare birth cohorts in a way that doesn’t assume any of them as the baseline. Sexual norms and practices are in constant flux, and we ought not treat them as fixed.

The author has a theory:

One possible explanation based on the data, and on what we know about gender and power in America, is that young women who don’t want to have sex (or aren’t sure) are having their wishes respected at a greater rate. This explanation also fits with the crime data we do have on teen sexual assault victimization, which has declined significantly over the time in question.

Do you think his theory has merit? (I do.) Do you think the trendlines are showing a real change, or a blip? And do you agree with his reframing of the question as why the two previous generations had more sex, instead of why millenials are having less?


85 thoughts on “Generations and the Subject We Don’t Discuss

  1. “One possible explanation based on the data, and on what we know about gender and power in America, is that young women who don’t want to have sex (or aren’t sure) are having their wishes respected at a greater rate.”

    Well, this one’s going to go right to the Election page. . . .

  2. Anon for this:

    A millennial relative just posted on FB (!) that she was raped a year ago. Underreporting of rape and sexual assault still greatly skews people’s view of reality.

  3. I would suspect that the lower numbers of sexual activity among millennials correlates with lower levels of drinking among teens and young adults over this same time period.

  4. “54.1 to 46.8” percent.

    Who cares? That’s such a minor shift. It’s slightly more than half to slightly less than half.

  5. “a generation of women who were raised at a time when most didn’t have the right to say “no” changed their culture, and, as a result, their daughters and grand-daughters are growing up in a different kind of society.”

    Yes. But I also wonder if the author’s “girl power” focus leads him to miss some points, e.g., the apparent (i.e., “looks like it to me”) rise in fundamentalist religions that focus on female “purity.” From my own limited perspective, for many decades the MC societal expectation was that “good girls don’t” — it was a pretty basic religious tenet in a world where religion was an expected, significant part of daily life.

    Then you have the “free love” pushback against that, which also came at a time where even some mainstream denominations were adopting more liberal interpretations. Which on the one hand provides more freedom, but on the other hand, if you’re a teenage girl and you’re not-sure-wanna-don’t-wanna and under pressure, you don’t have that clear backstop and social backing to say no. And if you’re a teenage boy, you have equivalent pressure to score, so even if you have moral concerns, in the culture you come off as weird/different and risk being mocked for not being suitably masculine. The social backstop was, by and large, “only weirdos and prudes don’t.”

    But then over the last decade or two, even while our media continues to hyper-sexualize everything, the pendulum seems to have swung back, with a push towards “purity” movements on the right and “female empowerment” on the left. Both of which, in their own different ways, give girls the voice and the power to say no if they don’t want to have sex, and boys a little more room not to feel like they have to without being ostracized. And our current cultural focus on diversity at least holds out the promise that being different is ok and doesn’t make you a weirdo.

    Of course, I could have the history wrong, too, because this is all just based on my interpretation of what I saw/heard from the ’70s-onward. I can’t speak to what has happened in Oklahoma, or Manhattan, or Iowa, or California. But it is interesting that, while I lived in different parts of the country for a bunch of my life, I attended the same HS that my daughter now does, in a community that has always been sort of middle-of-the-road, left-of-center, upper-side-of-MC. And the attitude toward sex just seems very different nowadays — and *wow* is it a lot safer (socially) for kids who do not hew to the norm.

  6. “A 13.5% decline is statistically significant, is it not?”

    Not really, especially when you’re taking a percent of a percent.

    Far, far less significant than the violent crime rate drop you compared it to:

  7. Maybe the easier availability of porn? There is a pseudomovement identified by Newsweek (or Time) to encourage young men to stop looking at porn so they are more interested in sex.

  8. It also seems like high school and college kids don’t date seriously anymore. Totally anecdotal, but my friends from high school were all having sex, but it was with their longtime boyfriends.

  9. The topic was sex in general

    I though it was about kids being much more responsible concerning sex.

  10. “I though it was about kids being much more responsible concerning sex.”

    No. You would have gotten that SAT question wrong.

  11. In my experience, birth control hasn’t really improved much since 1990, nor has it really become more available.

    I definitely think that the trends show that teens are having less sex, drinking less, and doing less drugs than InMyDay. Some interesting theories here as to why. LfB’s theories about sex at least make a lot of sense.

  12. None of them have time, because they’re all studying for the blasted SAT. And they are in constant contact with their parents via text. Cools the ol’ libido to know Mom’s going to text you any minute. And they’re so massively overscheduled, AND they don’t have driver’s licenses! You can’t really do it in the back of an Uber.

  13. One birth control thing that is mentioned in the link that Rhett attached is AIDS. This paragraph mentions something about condoms that was true for me as a NYC teenager in the 80s. No one wanted to use condoms when I was in high school. It was just a cheap and easy form of BC, but no one wanted to use them, so most girls would try to get the pill or a diaphragm. By the time I was in college, it was dangerous to have sex because of AIDS. People were no longer afraid of getting pregnant, but they were afraid of dying. The difference between high school and college in the 80s was all about AIDS.

    There were suddenly free condoms every where in big bowls. They went from an unwanted form of BC to being the only form that could potentially protect your life. I lived through this time, and everything changed because of this disease. I think that this definitely lingered into the 90s, as I became a single adult in NYC. I know that most of my girlfriends kept their own condoms in their homes.

    I agree that there were very few changes to birth control between that period and now with the exception of Depo-Provera. The article mentions that the perception about the use of condoms changed, and i think this is still some what true today.

  14. I agree with Laura about the empowerment thing. In the 70s the guys all told us that girls’ sex drives and wants were exactly like men’s, because someone in the 60s said so. I think it’s a little clearer to the kids now that that’s not entirely true, and it’s certainly clearer that while a guy can have a good time with an unconscious girl, girls typically need a little more talent, skill, and activity in their boyfriends.

  15. One big innovation in birth control in the past few decades is the increased use of IUDs. A friend (physician) wanted an IUD at age 22 in the early 2000s. It was very difficult for her to find a practitioner who would place one – probably would have been impossible if she wasn’t connected to the health care universe. Now, IUDs are a preferred form of birth control for many populations, including teens, including women who have never been pregnant, including women who have had recent STDs. It is a tiny percentage overall, but I think it is making a big difference in unintended pregnancy.

  16. My observations – (1) Teens tend to interact more electronically than in person. InMyDay – we were always going to each others houses, (2) Teens tend to be driving later and in my town public transportation is poor and the geographic area covered by a high school is greater than walking distance. (3) Parents helicopter more and use electronic leashes more. (4) Schools tend to discourage “couple” behavior on the campus – walking in the halls holding hands, etc. (5) A trend in our area to go to events in larger groups vs. as a couple or two couples going. (6) A push – school curriculum as well as faith based choice – to abstain from sex.

    In contrast, we hear more about online porn and sexting.

  17. Perhaps being bombarded with commercials, print ads, info in dr.s office, schools addressing the subject on STDs scared some straight. Sort of like the films shown by the services though I understand they were very graphic.

  18. I agree with Austin’s summary. I see all of these trends with my DS and his friends, as well.

  19. I agree with Lauren about the impact of AIDS. That epidemic made it much more OK for females to say no to sex without condoms, and put the responsibility for safe sex more on the males as compared to the responsibility for birth control being primarily on the females before that.

    But WRT the millennials, I think it has a lot to do with kids just spending less time in the same physical location, and more specifically, less time alone.

  20. There seem to be a lot of girls who feel that they need to provide sexual services for the young men in their lives in order to keep them interested. When DS was in public middle school (and the most Totebaggy school in the county) we heard some really horrific stories from the school itself about such servicing taking place on school property. And these were only the ones who got caught. Those kids are 25 now.

  21. Not looking at any data, I’m thinking this might be about adjustment to later marriage ages over decades. If the age at marriage is young, then so is the date of beginning sexual activity for people who wait til marriage. Didn’t the age at marriage move up in the 60s and 70s? That would’ve meant an increase in premarital sex, if kids started at the same age as earlier generations. And now a return to the norm of waiting top marriage means becoming sexually active at an earlier age.

    My son is heavily inclined to wait, because he is very cautious about getting close to anyone, and thinks of sex as involving intimacy. I support him in this. I don’t stress marriage as he thing to wait for, just maturity and readiness to be intimate before the physical intimacy.

    Milo, can you add a couple questions about number sexual partners and age of first sex?

  22. Scarlett – I remember articles in e.g. Time from around then talking about that and rainbow parties. Not clear to me how much of the latter was true.

  23. What I see with my kids is that healthy living is a huge message. That includes everything from brushing teeth properly, eating healthy foods, exercising, no smoking and also probably covers no drugs and no early sex.
    All under one umbrella.

  24. What I see with my kids is that healthy living is a huge message.

    Makes one wistful for the middle school smoking areas of yore.

  25. “Scarlett – I remember articles in e.g. Time from around then talking about that and rainbow parties. Not clear to me how much of the latter was true.”

    I was just going to say that when my 25 year old was in middle school, Oprah stirred up a big deal about such things, and the rumor amongst horrified parents was this was happening All The Time in our Totebaggy middle school. I too wondered if it was true.

  26. Edit

    Deborah Tolman, director of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University, writes: “This ‘phenomenon’ has all the classic hallmarks of a moral panic. One day we have never heard of rainbow parties and then suddenly they are everywhere, feeding on adults’ fears that morally-bankrupt sexuality among teens is rampant, despite any actual evidence, as well as evidence to the contrary.” Tolman finds that several features of the story ring false. She was skeptical that many adolescent girls would be motivated to engage in such activity in the face of the severe social stigma still attached to sexual activity, and rejected the idea that adolescent boys would examine each other’s lipstick marks. However, the urban legend was widespread; an informal survey taken by The New York Times in 2005 found that most teenagers between the ages of 13 and 16 were familiar with the rumor.[1]

  27. We’ve got 17 responses. I don’t think there are any big surprises:

    5+ per week: 0
    3/4 per week: 2 (12%)
    1/2 per week: 6 (35%)
    Once every two weeks: 4 (24%)
    Monthly: 1 (6%)
    Quarterly: 2 (12%)
    Clock change: 1 (6%)
    Yearly: 0
    It’s been longer than a year: 1 (6%)

    If it gets more responses, I’ll update it later.

  28. Milo, that’s depressing.

    Speaking of forbidden topics, how about child bribery? Do you do it? How often and what have you offered? I just offered to clean a corner of my kid’s room if he gets the dang rough draft, all five paragraphs, of that essay done in the next hour.

  29. “54.1 to 46.8” percent.

    Who cares? That’s such a minor shift. It’s slightly more than half to slightly less than half.

    That’s a 13.5 percent decrease. It seems fairly significant to me.

  30. “That’s a 13.5 percent decrease. It seems fairly significant to me.”

    Significance would depend on the distributions, e.g., standard deviations.

  31. Or from a non-statistical viewpoint, significance depends on the perception of the observer. Most people the Kennedy assassination was pretty significant without knowing the standard deviation on it.

  32. Rainbow parties may well be an urban legend but our middle school staff was unlikely to be fabricating reports, to parents, about activity they observed. Parents were sufficiently concerned that a panel was convened for further discussions, which included a high school girl who confirmed the existence of these behaviors. No idea if it was a passing phase or a real trend. We moved to private school the next year.

  33. Maybe the kid should suffer the consequences of not doing the dang essay draft. Mom needs to start butting out.

  34. “Maybe the kid should suffer the consequences of not doing the dang essay draft. Mom needs to start butting out.”

    Maybe you should keep your “helpful” advice to yourself until you (i) are asked, (ii) actually know the kid in question, and (iii) have the guts to put a name to your posts.

  35. The post actually asked several questions, and while anon’s response was very snarky, his/her point (the point, not the tone) is a reasonable reply. And given how much has been posted here about the kid in question, I think we all feel like we know him.

  36. RMS – Yes, I read that article, and it seems like there are way too few patient people to be the “preventers” of the traffic. Leaving so much room in front and letting everyone merge are contrary to my driving style, anyway!

  37. I haven’t been polled for a long time, but have come home many times to phone messagesystem indicating somebody wanted to poll me.

  38. I tend to leave room in front of me, not as much as 1 car length per 10 mph, but still MO’s than many people leave and to get pissed off when people cut into it, but that doesn’t change my driving style.

    Thanks Laura! I know it’s a fantasy to think of this group as polite or caring, but I appreciate you supporting the illusion.

    Denver, how very silly of you.

  39. Didn’t like the Anon comment.
    On essay writing, I feel it is tough to write essays when the answer format for tests and quizzes are short answers or multiple choice.
    I was used to long answer writing in school so essays were not daunting. We were used to writing an essay as part of every English exam.
    Secondly, writing while following a rubric means more focus and worry on whether the rubric is satisfied vs. just plunging into writing an outline any way you wish, building on it, reading it over and then revising it.

  40. I didn’t like the Anon comment either. Lots of us come on here and stress about how much/how little help to give our kids.

  41. Secondly, writing while following a rubric means more focus and worry on whether the rubric is satisfied vs. just plunging into writing an outline any way you wish, building on it, reading it over and then revising it.

    If a rubric is done right, it should provide guidance in developing the outline. A lot of the issue kids have with writing an essay is figuring out how to start and what they need to include. A good rubric will help with this.

  42. I haven’t bribed, but I’ve rewarded exceptional effort with cash. Especially in middle school, it’s a good way to show that hard work in difficult subjects is appreciated and recognized. I don’t announce it before-hand, and it’s always a surprise.

  43. I have on occasion done what you described, typically if the kid was sick or the volume of school work was keeping them up too late at night. For normal, run of the mill life, you have to do your job and run your home life, so I don’t see any reason to lighten the load then. If they are in a time crunch because of playing video games or goofing off with friends longer than they should have, then no. Because I would help lighten the load for anyone in my family who had something unusually time-consuming come up, I don’t consider it bribery in that circumstance. I don’t think it’s going to hurt anything if you help him with his room, but I probably wouldn’t frame it as a bribe. I’d go with something more along the lines of it’s easier to work when people around you aren’t getting to goof off, so I’ll be productive too while you work on your paper – I’ll start over here in this corner of your room

  44. Sunday rant: I’m going crazy with my hoarder husband. Cleaning out closets and we found at least a dozen windbreaker/rain jackets stashed away. But he decided he could not get rid of a single one. Part of the reason he has so many is that he’s acquired them on trips when he forgot to pack one or as giveaways during conferences or golf outings. Some of them are quite nice, so it’s a shame not to give them away. He should keep 2 or 3 and get rid of the rest!

  45. Evil Twin, ask him to touch each windbreaker one at a time and ask if it sparks joy.

    In other news, my niece that we’re trying to help got accepted to the state flagship, so yaaay! She also got accepted to a private college in the state capital that has a 6-year physical therapy program, and she’s considering that too. My understanding is that physical therapy programs are brutally competitive, but I’m keeping my rosy nosy nose out of it.

  46. That’s awesome Rocky! Both seem to be excellent options. Congrats!

    Evil Twin: Sorry to hear that. I’ve learned to declutter when DH is not around, but I don’t touch his stuff. There is plenty of family junk that I need to deal with first. My only suggestion is to put the unwanted jackets in the back of his closet and let him deal with the clutter.

  47. RMS, congratulations to your niece. From the private school with a PT program here, I suspect that having gone to a private college with a PT program gives you an admissions leg up compared to “equally qualified” (subject to definition) students from a state university.

  48. Evil Twin: Sorry to hear that. I may never be able to declutter again. DH is going out state hunting and needs his hunter’s safety certificate from the early 1970s. Since there is no way to locate it, he has to retake the course. I’m not seeing the likelihood of getting him to part with anything in the future.

  49. As the partner who is less willing to let things go easily, I actually found reading the blahblahblah Magic Tidying book to be helpful. It seemed to give permission to get rid of stuff that I shouldn’t have bought, haven’t used and don’t need. I doubt that is helpful for you, Evil Twin, but I’m sure the book makes an excellent Christmas gift….

  50. Evil Twin – sorry. My DH is like that too. I suggest revisiting the rain jacket issue every 3-6 months. With enough repetition sometimes it sinks in!

  51. Morning annoyance-at-inefficiency kvetch: went to Fleet Week Sat, which was great fun. Also turned out it was the same day as the Baltimore Marathon (now there’s some planning for you). So we followed instructions and took light rail – there’s a station north of BWI, maybe 10 mins from house, fine. Missed a train by a minute, oh well, got another 10 mins later, all good.

    Way home, we see a train about to pull in to station, so we sprint, only to hear the guy say it’s an express to BWI. Ok, there will be another train in a few – based on the published schedules, that should have been a local, but there is another coming in 5 mins. Except then the board says 42 minutes. WTF? Check their “check train status” update – yep, now down to 38 mins. And zero notifications on the MTA website about schedule changed in response to all of the events.

    So, just to be clear: at 4:30-5:00 on the afternoon of probably the busiest tourist day all year, and following multiple pleas by the government to pleasepleasepleasefortheloveofGod take light rail, the brilliant folks at MTA modified their “every 15 minutes on weekends” service to “eh, maybe once an hour, if we feel like it.”

    I called for an Uber and we had retrieved our car and returned home before the damn train even hit the station.

  52. LfB – We went to the Annapolis Powerboat Show. Parked at Navy stadium for $10 and immediately hopped on a school bus to take us to the docks (a distance that I’ve walked plenty of times, but wouldn’t want to make kids do that in addition to the show). On the bus, my kids had us use the seats corresponding to the ones they’re assigned.

    A lot of boat vendors, by Sunday of a 3.5-day show, I think are fed up, and maybe just about all of the serious buyers have already come through, and now they’re just supposed to smile for the dreamers. But Lordy some of them sure made you feel like they were doing you quite a favor letting you look around. The people on the Fleming 55 that I wanted to show DW were the worst.

    When we got to my favorite Rangers, it was a totally different atmosphere. “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t have to take off your shoes! It’s a boat! Just go, enjoy!”

    I was in love.

  53. RMS, another comment on physical therapy- my cousin’s daughter just finished a physical therapy assistant program at a community college, which is a less expensive but almost-as-competitive option (depending on the community college) for people aspiring to careers in physical therapy. To me, being a PTA is comparable to being a nurse with better hours. Having been a PTA is advantageous for PT admissions, I think, for people who want to progress. She’s 21 and not ready to commit to $200k in debt for a PT degree. (And possibly not that academically inclined, I don’t know her that well)

  54. RMS please correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like the PT program is a direct admission complete undergrad and PT program. Otherwise why would it be 6 years?

  55. Thanks, WCE. I would be a little surprised if she made it through a physical therapy 6-year program. She’s a nice girl, bright enough, but not very driven. I’m taking a wait-and-see approach.

  56. And depending on whose numbers you believe, the pay difference between PT and PTA is around $35,000 a year.

  57. And I agree with Denver Dad that the pay gap between PT’s and PTA’s doesn’t necessarily justify $200k in debt- that was part of the decision to go to community college and live with her aunt/uncle during her big city internship (in Des Moines)

  58. LfB, is that the same train system that serves the Nationals games? I read something about a lot of fans leaving the playoff game early because they needed to catch the last train.

  59. Thanks Louise and Cordelia!

    MBT, I do the “we are all being productive” thing a lot. This wasn’t that. It was a rare desperate attempt to motivate a kid who was feeling really cruddy–if you do x, you get y in return. I know most people do it, and many consider it normal or good parenting. I almost never do.

    Louise, I agree with you that pushing one version of an essay so hard really handicaps students’ abilities to come up with an outline and format on their own. Being able to come up with that is akin to coming up with a good research question–that’s where mastery of the topic and ability to think creatively and agilely come into play. Plonking out something in a pregiven format is lower value

    Rocky, you are funny with your “Magic” reference, but that’s honestly what I’d do–pull them out a couple at a time, and sort according to the reaction each one brings.

    Denver, I was referring to your assumption, not the article.

  60. LfB,
    Grrrrrr! We need more mass transit, and that requires more mass transit riders, which in turn requires plentiful and reliable transport.

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