Let’s talk about sex: a conversation about sexuality in the millennial era

As Ottawa and Carleton get ready to welcome winter, the cold and the constant indoors has more than a few of us wanting to hunker down with someone special.

While many of us crave the security of being in a relationship, many millennials would prefer to stay single. However, this doesn’t mean they’re having more sex.

Are millennials really having less sex?

From the New York Times to Vice, recent articles on sex in the 21st-century are suggesting that millennials are having less sex and fewer sexual partners than previous generations, with little explanation as to why.

Harar Hall, co-ordinator of Carleton University’s Womyn’s Centre, debunked the idea that millennials are less sexually active than previous generations by looking at the stats.

“The reason that young people are having less sex isn’t because they are less sex positive, it’s because people are getting married a lot later in life. Generally, young married people have more sex than unmarried people,” Hall said. “Similarly, people are having children later on in life because they go to school longer, and are less fiscally solvent than young people have been historically. All of this has to do more with demographics and trends in human populations.”

Susan Murphy, professor of digital communications at Algonquin College, said that the broadening of this dialogue between millennials has much to do with the increased diversity of early sexual education.

“Millennials have been educated and exposed to sex from a much younger age,” Murphy said. “Sex education is regularly taught in schools, and I think parents in general are just more open about talking about sex to their kids.”

Kathryn LaRoche, a PhD candidate in public health specializing in sexual and reproductive health— who also works part-time at an adult shop on Rideau Street—said that she thinks people are more open about sex now than ever before.

However, she also said young people are having new problems when it comes to dealing with sex and sexuality that are different from their parents’ generation.

“I feel like in general, people are a lot more open about talking about sex compared to my parents’ generation, which is no surprise . . . but we’ve also grown up with these very hetero-normative ideas of what sex is,” LaRoche said.

Through her part-time job, LaRoche said she sees a distinct divide between how millennials are engaging in conversations about sex and sexuality, but in the end, the biggest problem in the bedroom is the same among most demographics.

Communication outside the bedroom

“I think that young people come [to adult shops] with their friends a lot which is interesting. People will come in with their opposite or same-sex friends which generally is something you don’t see with older people,” she said. “I think this indicates that there is more of a discussion about sex and sexuality among peer groups.”

Kent Reeder, an international speaker who works with organizations to educate on the topics of pornography, sex, and culture, said that he finds millennials to be far better at talking about sex than their parents’ generation.

“Millennials are better at talking about sex, even when they think they aren’t, they run circles around previous generations,” Reeder said in an email. “They seem more focused on having interpersonal relationships alongside of sex, they are more aware of safe sexual practices, and they are more considerate toward those whose sexual practices differ from their own.”

Even though millennials are more open about engaging in sex talk among their peer groups, LaRoche said they still have a long way to go in communicating their needs in relationships.

“Regardless of generation, you just need to talk to your partner and communicate your needs, and I don’t think that’s any different than things I see with any demographic,” she said.

Along with these issues millennials are facing in their relationships, LaRoche said that consent is a big problem that can stem from a lack of communication between partners.

The open dialogue on consent

According to Statistics Canada, sexual assault is still considered the most under-reported of crimes.

In a 2014 survey by Statistics Canada, there were 22 incidents of sexual assault for every 1,000 Canadians aged 15 and older.

In the same report, a higher risk of sexual assault was noted among those who identified as women, young, Indigenous, single, and homosexual or bisexual, and those who had poorer mental health.

“I think consent is still a huge issue, and I think we’re starting to have a broader cultural conversation about it, but I think people on an individual level are still very reticent that they actually have to engage in these conversations,” LaRoche said.

Kelsey Gilchrist, the vice-chair of the National Our Turn Committee, a student-led initiative to end sexual violence on campus, shared her thoughts on the conversation of consent in the millennial era.

“I think our generation is more aware of the concept of consent than previous ones, but we still have a long way to go—two thirds of Canadians don’t know what sexual consent is, and that’s not okay,” Gilchrist said.

The impact of social media on love and relationships

While sexual violence remains just as prevalent today as previous generations, the conversation about it, along with the conversation about sex and sexuality, has dramatically changed with the rise of social media.

“Millennials are already the most educated generation when it comes to sexuality, so I don’t think social media is the reason for this exclusively, but it does play a part,” Murphy said. “Social media and dating apps have done something to “normalize” the discussion around sex . . . and are key drivers in moving that conversation forward.”

Whether dating apps such as Tinder have an impact on the amount of sex millennials are having is not certain, but according to Murphy, it is making it easier for millennials to engage in hookup culture.

“Hookup culture has always existed, in the same way romantic relationship seeking has always existed, but I don’t think social media has an impact on what people choose to do,” she said. “It does make seeking either a hookup or a relationship vastly easier than it was before dating apps.”

Kaylee Goldman, a first-year journalism student at Carleton, said that she thinks dating apps like Tinder could also be a response to millennials’ fear of commitment.

“I feel as though hookups are rationalized as a way of avoiding commitment, which in today’s society, is feared by many,” Goldman said. “I suppose this may be due to the fact that there is a high variety of stigma and expectations surrounding relationships, and many may not find interest in putting in effort.”

Along with making it easier to find a compatible significant other, LaRoche said that online dating apps are probably a response to young people’s higher dating standards.

“It’s really hard to meet people, especially as you get older, so I think it’s definitely a response to the times,” she said. “I think people have higher standards for compatibility in some ways, so they want to look outside their friend groups, or look outside people that they work with and people they see day to day—especially when you’re out of school, there’s just no [dating] pool any more.”

As for Reeder, he credits technology with millennials’ openness regarding sex and sexuality.

“It is harder to be narrow-minded or ignorant in the internet and media age. In many cases, simply being informed when it comes to sex and sexuality is the big difference,” he said. “Compared with those of previous generations who were more attuned to the sexual landscape, millennials seem to have higher standards and yet, simultaneously, have less faith in the possibility of meeting them. As such, compromise or escape are far more prominent parts of the millennial sexual experience.”

Gilchrist agreed that millennials are beginning to engage in vital conversations about sex and consent.

“I’m hopeful because our generation is beginning to engage is real conversations about sex . . . in a way that really didn’t happen in our parents’ day,” she said.

Whether you’re in a relationship or gearing up for another winter as a single millennial, there’s one thing that LaRoche said people need to stop undervaluing in their sexual experience.

“I feel like people have a very negative connotation of lube,” LaRoche said. “Actually, lube can make things a lot better.”


Graphic by Manoj Thayalan