There are many reasons why people might not be in the mood for sex: having to wake up through the night to a crying baby, a long day at work that only a glass of wine can fix, stress about lack of money or your parent’s declining health. And for those in the millennial generation – aged from late twenties to early forties – who bear the brunt of today’s “always-on” culture, those may be legitimate reasons.
Gen Z-ers like me (born between 1996 and 2012) are different. Many of us don’t have kids, we’re younger and full of energy – and yet we’re still opting out of sex in droves.
According to the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle, the average number of sexual partners in 1990-91 was 8.6 for men and 3.7 for women. In 1999 it rose to 12.6 for men and 6.5 for women and it rose again for women in 2010-12 at an average of 7.7.
But for Gen Z the picture looks different: one large-scale study published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour found Gen Z were more likely than older generations to report having no sexual partners. And according to a 2022 study of US teenagers by LoveHoney, one in four people aged 18 to 24 has never had sex at all. The label ‘Puriteen’ has even trended on social media, alongside TikTok videos about celibacy.
Recent YouGov data revealed the average number for people in the UK is now three for women and five for men. Many people were shocked to learn these figures were lower than expected, but for me and many of my fellow Gen Z-ers, the numbers seemed closer to the truth. But why are we opting out?
“Social media has undoubtedly fuelled changes in sexual attitude and behaviour,” says UKCP psychotherapist Mark Vahrmeyer. “This is a generation that has grown up with high-speed internet – the ubiquitousness of porn, smart phones, social changes around how gender is conceptualised, and has spent 10 per cent of their lives under the spectre of the pandemic.
“The latter has possibly enforced both a need for safety and a caution to move into physical intimacy with others. Safety is derived in human-to-human interactions, sexual included, through trust and empathy. These can really only exist once we have taken the time to know someone.”
Vahmeyer also says a general decline in younger people’s mental health could be a reason more in Gen Z are choosing not to have sex. “The same generation who are having less sex are also reporting significantly higher mental health problems than Generations Y [Millennials] or X [people in their forties and fifties]. Mental health problems have an inverse correlation to sexual activity,” he says. “If we are anxious or depressed, we generally don’t feel like having sex.”
For some young women, it’s a matter of realising that casual sex does not always benefit self-esteem. Anna Palmer*, 19, now chooses to be celibate when not in a relationship, though she has previously had her share of brief encounters. “I do not date, kiss, or participate in any sort of sexual activity, including intercourse,” she tells i. “I have had casual sex in the past and I did not find it emotionally fulfilling.
“The act of sex in the moment was pleasurable and gave me that instant feeling of gratification but after the act of sex was done, I felt like the person I shared my body with was undeserving. Having somebody who is deserving of sharing my body is extremely important to me.”
Palmer chooses to only have sex with people she is in a relationship with, even though this has sometimes meant long periods of having no sex. “I found that it gave me a lot of clarity. When I do end up having sex with a partner, it is more intense.
“I choose to have sex with people who I am in a relationship with because there’s a lot more commitment, and if something were to happen like an unwanted pregnancy it can be dealt with with my partner instead of worrying about it on my own.”
Although she knows plenty of others who have casual sex, Palmer has found that people often understand her stance. “Usually when I share with people my views on sex and the importance of being selective in your partners, they tend to agree with my opinions,” she says.
Gen Z are also less likely to drink alcohol: a report from Berenberg Research in January 2023 showed Gen Z drinks 20 per cent less alcohol per capita than millennials. With less alcohol in the picture, casual sex might seem further out of reach or less appealing than to previous generations.
Some younger people – like many generations before them – also worry about judgement, which is put into overdrive with the reach of social media. Layla Reece*, 21, worries about her “body count” and is conscious of the number creeping higher and how her boyfriends will feel about it. The rapid spread of gossip on social media doesn’t help. “Everyone knows everyone’s business nowadays. If I have sex with Jim, everyone in my town will know,” she says.
The spread of gossip, the dangers of having sex with people not known very well to us, and the fear of being labelled “slutty” – these are all things that are turning us away from casual sexual encounters.
But opting to have fewer sexual partners doesn’t have to mean swearing off sex though, says sex and relationship therapist Cate Mackenzie. “Sex doesn’t have to be intercourse,” she says. “It can be flirting, massaging, dancing, mutual masturbation and many other different ideas.”
The decision to have casual sex, she says, is down to personal choice, and the important thing is to ensure you are safe and feel in control. “Everything depends on your embodiment and your ability to express what you want and don’t want… If you feel comfortable to say yes or no warmly, and feel confident to handle yourself, then you know that you can stay or walk away from whatever you don’t want.”
*names have been changed