Gen Z Aren’t Having the Sex You Think: Here’s Why

by Dr. Justin Lehmiller

on Jun 26, 2022

Contrary to popular belief, research shows that Gen Z is actually having less sex than previous generations. So what's causing this change in sexual behavior?

Are younger or older adults having more sex? Most people would probably put their money on youth. After all, raging hormones plus college hookup culture would seem to be a potent combination. Also, in an era where sexual attitudes are the most liberal on record and there are a panoply of apps that make it easier than ever to connect sexually, the conditions seem ripe for a sexual free-for-all among the younger generation.

There’s just one problem with this reasoning: it’s not true.

Today’s young adults - specifically, those under age 25, popularly known as Generation Z - are less sexually active than adults in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s. And a surprisingly large number of them say they’ve never had sex at all.

A nationally representative US survey of 2,000 adults conducted by the Kinsey Institute and Lovehoney reveals that 1 in 4 Gen Z adults say they have yet to have partnered sex.

Paradoxically, Gen Z is also the kinkiest generation. They're the most likely to report fantasizing about BDSM and are the most likely to say they’ve tried it in real life. While they’re having less sex, the sex they are having is different compared to older adults.

What’s behind this? Why does sexual activity seem to be receding for young adults? A deep dive into our data offers some intriguing insights.

Why Aren’t Gen Z Having As Much Sex?

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Although Gen Z has the least experience with in-person sex, they actually have the most experience with online sexual behavior. Specifically, nearly half (46%) of young adults say they have engaged in some type of virtual or online sexual activity. However, they do not appear to count this as “having sex.”

Of the 1 in 4 Gen Z adults who say they’ve yet to have partnered sex, nearly one-third of them (31%) reported having engaged in sexting or cybersex. So when young adults say they aren’t having sex, this does not necessarily mean that they are sexually inexperienced; rather, many of them seem to be expressing their sexuality in a different way - and, increasingly, that’s through an internet connection.

Reason #2: Stress and anxiety are through the roof, especially for young adults.

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Compared to Millennials and Gen X, Gen Z adults reported the highest levels of stress and anxiety. And the more stressed and anxious people said they felt, the less sexually active they were.

Why is Gen Z the most stressed generation? It's hard to list all of the possible reasons, but noted contributors include student debt and other financial challenges, constant exposure to toxicity on social media, growing anxiety about climate change, and a world that seems to grow increasingly violent by the day. Plus, when you consider the rise of helicopter parenting coupled with years of pandemic-related restrictions, Gen Z has had far less freedom than generations past to explore the world, sexually and otherwise.

Gen Z adults in the United States are also now facing a unique sexual restriction that no other American generation has experienced in the last half-century: the overturning of Roe v Wade, which previously guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. In a new nationally representative survey of American adults conducted by Lovehoney in the wake of this Supreme Court ruling, we found that Gen Z continues to be the most-stressed generation and that their stress levels are even higher now than they were last year when we were still in peak COVID.

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This is not surprising when you consider that Gen Z is the most supportive of reproductive rights (77% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 67% of the general population). Furthermore, Gen Z adults have decades of reproductive capacity ahead of them, which makes them the most likely to be personally affected by access to reproductive healthcare.

Reason #3: Young adults are increasingly risk averse when it comes to sex.

While we often think of youth as having a tendency to be pretty carefree when it comes to sex, our data point to precisely the opposite conclusion: young adults are actually the most sexually cautious and risk averse.

Young adults were the least likely to characterize themselves as sexual risk-takers and sensation seekers. Further, they also reported the most distrust and suspicion of sexual partners. For example, they were significantly less likely than older adults to say that they believe that what a sexual partner tells them about their health is true.

This combination of being cautious and not having a lot of trust in others can make sex itself feel dangerous - and that it’s not worth the risk.

Restrictions on reproductive rights appear set to make Gen Z even more sexually cautious. In Lovehoney’s post-Roe survey, we found that 40% of Gen Z adults say they are less likely to hook-up and that 15% are less likely to engage in sexual intercourse.

Gen Z women appear to be particularly cautious about sex in the wake of restricted reproductive rights:

78% report being worried that this will negatively impact their personal health

68% report being worried that this will negatively affect their ability to have pleasurable sex

37% report being afraid of becoming pregnant

19.5% report being afraid to have sexual intercourse

Reason #4: Young adults tend to see sex and love as going together.

Finally, our data also reveal that younger adults have a more restricted sociosexual orientation, meaning they are more likely to feel that they need to be in love with someone in order to have sex with that person.

Compared to Millennials and Gen X, Gen Z reported the lowest level of interest in casual sex and the most interest in having a long-term relationship. Young adults were also the most likely to consider sex on the first date to be a relationship “dealbreaker” (nearly half - 48% - reported this).

Despite all the talk of college hookup culture, this doesn’t appear to be what Gen Z wants. Emotional connection first, sex later.

The Implications of Less Sexually Active Young Adults

Now that we have some sense as to why young adults are having less sex, let’s consider the implications.

Implication #1: Will we see fewer STIs and unintended pregnancies?

A potential silver lining to young adults being less sexually active and feeling more cautious about sex is that fewer of them are likely to contract STIs or experience unintended pregnancies. We are already seeing this to some extent with teen birth rates hitting record lows.

Implication #2: Will delaying sex creating more opportunities for sex ed?

We all know that the sex education adolescents receive is woefully inadequate. So if younger folks are waiting longer to have sex, this creates more opportunities for them to learn more about sex before they do it. It also allows more time to think about what you actually want from sex (as opposed to making an earlier leap out of peer pressure). Through this lens, waiting longer to have sex isn’t necessarily a bad thing - it might just reflect waiting to have sex on your own terms.

Implication #3: Are young adults missing an important opportunity to practice relationships?

With most everything in life, practice makes perfect. And this is true for both sex and relationships. We need actual experience to know what we want and enjoy. Early experiences have a tendency to be a little awkward because we don’t know what we’re doing. You can certainly delay this awkwardness, but you can’t avoid it entirely. Some learning period is usually necessary, so in delaying this, that may inadvertently delay other things you might want in life (e.g., marriage or a long-term relationship, children, et cetera.).

Implication #4: Are young adults missing out on the benefits of sex?

We know from research that sex is linked to many benefits - both physically and psychologically - and young adults might be missing out on them. Part of the reason (but certainly not all of the reason!) why Gen Z has higher rates of stress and anxiety could potentially be because they aren’t as sexually active. This isn’t to say that everyone necessarily needs to have sex in their lives in order to be happy and healthy, of course. It’s just that if you’re not having sex, you need to find other effective outlets for stress relief and ways to boost psychological well-being, which are among the many established benefits of sex.

How Gen Z Can Improve their Sex Lives

Tip #1: Find ways to manage stress and anxiety.

Stress is one of the biggest libido killers - and it can also undermine sexual performance. So in order to have good sex (and even be in the mood for sex), it’s important to find ways to relieve stress and be in the moment. This is essential for orgasm. For many people, being able to “let go” is crucial for climax. One sexual difficulty that distinguishes Gen Z from older adults is that Gen Z reports more difficulty orgasming. So, for young adults, exploring relaxation, mindfulness, or other stress-reduction techniques may be especially important for getting to the peak of pleasure.

Also, if you’re engaging in sexual activities that have the potential to result in unwanted pregnancy, it is important to take sufficient precautions to set your mind at ease. For some, this might mean starting on a long-lasting, reversible contraceptive, such as an IUD or contraceptive implant. For others, it might mean combining multiple contraceptive methods to increase effectiveness and provide back-up protection, such as using both condoms and birth control pills. Short of complete sterilization, no method of birth control is 100% effective; however, by choosing highly effective methods, applying them correcting and consistently every time, and combining hormonal and barrier methods, you can dramatically lower the risk of unintended pregnancy.

Tip #2: Explore your body - and maybe get some sex toys.

While Gen Z may be less experienced with partnered sex, they are actually no less experienced with masturbation. Capitalize on self-pleasure! Masturbation can help you to better understand your own body and what does and does not feel good. This can help to ensure that when the time does come for partnered sex, you’ll know what you want. This is where exploring sex toys can help. Toys can help you to experience different kinds of sensations, and can even mimic the experience of partnered activities.

Tip #3: Get some Lube.

In our data, young adults - particularly those who identified as women - reported more difficulties centering around sexual pain than older adults. Sexual pain is multifactorial and, if it’s something you’re experiencing, it’s important to consult with your medical provider to determine the cause. That said, there are a lot of self-help strategies for dealing with this kind of pain. Start with Tip #1: stress reduction and relaxation. Being stressed and tense can inhibit arousal, thereby reducing natural vaginal lubrication. But if pain is still an issue, consider adding a supplemental lubricant, because this is one of the most well-established ways of reducing sexual pain. Don’t skimp on the foreplay, either - research shows that the longer you spend building up arousal prior to penetration, the more pleasurable sex is.

Tip #4: Embrace your kinky side.

Compared to Gen X and Millennials, Gen Z is kinkier - and that’s not a bad thing at all! Kink/BDSM is a convenient way of changing your headspace and being more in the moment during sex. Leaning into your kinky side can therefore offer some of the same benefits as stress reduction by allowing you to focus more on pleasure and sensation, rather than getting lost in distracting thoughts.

Conclusion

Gen Z adults aren’t having as much sex as older generations, and there are plenty of reasons why this might be the case. However, it’s not yet clear what the implications of this are - and there are potential upsides and downsides, depending on your perspective. We just won’t know until we have more data. That said, for Gen Z adults who want to have more - and better - sex, there are plenty of things worth trying.

Survey Data Info (Methodology, Sample Size, etc.)

Methodological Notes:

The Lovehoney Summer of Love Survey was conducted by Prodege (www.Prodege.com) among a nationally representative sample of 2,000 U.S. adults aged 18-45, with an oversample of 200 respondents who identify as LGBTQ, via an online survey, from May 27, 2021 to June 5, 2021. The sample was balanced to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the U.S. population on age, gender, household income, region, and ethnicity. Results of any sample are subject to sampling variation. The magnitude of the variation is measurable and is affected by the number of interviews and the level of the percentages expressing the results. For the interviews conducted in this study, the chances are 95 in 100 that a survey result does not vary, plus or minus, by more than 2 percentage points for the main sample, and more than 6.9 percentage points for the LGBTQ sample, from the result that would be obtained if interviews had been conducted with all persons in the universe represented by the sample.

The Lovehoney Post-Roe Survey was conducted by Prodege (www.Prodege.com) among a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. Adults age 18-91, from July 6, 2022 to July 11, 2022. The sample was balanced to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the U.S. population on age, gender, household income, region, and ethnicity. For the interviews conducted in this study, the chances are 95 in 100 that a survey result does not vary, plus or minus, by more than 3.1 percentage points from the result that would be obtained if interviews had been conducted with all persons in the universe represented by the sample.

Dr. Justin Lehmiller

Written by Dr. Justin Lehmiller.
Justin Lehmiller is an American social psychologist, author and Lovehoney Sexpert.

Originally published on Jun 26, 2022. Updated on Jun 27, 2022
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