Contemporary American popular culture — from movies to television shows to colloquialisms — is inundated with sexual references and imagery, leading parents, scholars and ultimately millennials to believe that there’s a massive generational disparity in our collective attitudes towards sex.
Coined as the pervasive “hook-up culture” that’s undermining the sanctity of love, teenagers and young adults today are being told they’re oversexed and morally promiscuous. The general assumption is they’re having a lot of sex with a lot of people.
But hold on — have attitudes about sex really changed over the past 30 or 40 years and, if so, does that mean actions have changed, too? It turns out it’s slightly more complicated than you might think.
Americans are becoming more accepting of premarital sex
Attitudes toward premarital sex have definitely shifted: According to this General Social Survey, in the early 1970s, 29 percent of Americans (35 percent of men and 23 percent of women) believed that premarital sex was “not wrong at all.” In the 1980s and 1990s, the percentage rose to 42 percent, and most recently (2010s) it’s reached 55 percent (59 percent of men, 52 percent of women).
Most millennials think premarital sex is OK
Among the younger sexually active generation of each time (18-29 years old), 47 percent of Baby Boomers in the 1970s believed premarital sex wasn’t wrong, compared with 50 percent of GenX’ers in the 1990s and 62 percent of millennials in the 2010s, according to the same study.
Men have an average of 18 sexual partners
The number of sexual partners has also increased: From age 18, the average number of partners was 7.17 in the late 1980s (11.42 for men, 3.54 for women). In the 2010s, it was 11.22 (18.22 for men, 5.55 for women).
People are having more casual sex
Rates of casual sex have also increased: Among 18 to 29-year-olds who had sex outside of a relationship, 35 percent of GenX’ers in the late 1980s had sex with a casual date or pickup (44 percent of men, 19 percent of women), compared with 45 percent of millennials in the 2010s (55 percent of men, 31 percent of women).
College students probably aren’t having that much sex
The average number of sex partners for college students is three to four, according to “The Sex Lives of College Students: A Quarter Century of Attitudes and Behaviors,” a book written by University of Maine professor Dr. Sandra Caron that highlights the results of a survey of nearly 6,000 college students from 1990 to 2015.
Also, love as an important factor in sex has declined in the past 25 years for college students. In the early 1990s, 70 percent reported that love was an integral factor to having sex. Today, less than 50 percent see love as an important factor, according to the book.
It’s common for teens to start having sex at 16 or 17
Teens still start to have sex at age 16 or 17, despite the assumption they’re having sex at an earlier age than past generations, according to Caron’s findings.
No recent changes in ‘hooking up’ rates
Finally, and what may seem contradictory to the first few facts from the General Social Survey, Caron found that the rate of having five or more partners in college, or “hooking up” hasn’t changed in the last 25 years. Back then it was just called “casual sex.”