the hookup culture that wasn’t there

American seniors are convinced that millennial life is just an orgy of constant casual sex. But research into the matter shows absolutely no evidence of this.

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Yesterday’s trip into world of bleeding edge physics and what makes up the fabric of space and time may have been a little out there, so why don’t we take a stroll right back into exploring our more base, human appetites? Just two days ago, we took a look into the world of sex-obsessed fundamentalists who are taught that premarital sex causes cancer, and it’s their job to bring all the fallen whores and heretics into God’s good grace with offensive, demeaning metaphors for their sexual pasts. Now, of course we’ve long known that more than 9 out of 10 adults who live in the real world had premarital sex, so obviously society is doomed according to them because all these lustful sinners do is exchange detailed notes about their previous partners, spending a hedonistic lifetime in a state of perpetual disappointment. Or something like that. But my snarky skewering of hot and bothered zealots aside, this does raise an interesting question. How many sexual partners do people actually have through their lives, and has this changed with the dawn of what the media trumpets as “the hookup culture” it blames for the death of relationships?

Now, it’s at this point that we would be expected to whip out some averages and should most of the media be correct, we’d find that from the Boomers, to Generation X, to the Millennials, more and more partners are being registered. But surprise surprise, that’s actually not at all what we see from the data. In fact, the number of average lifetime sexual partners has been declining in the last half century. With the unmistakable help of the 1960’s sexual revolution, baby boomers more than doubled their parents’ tallies to 11 partners, Generation X had one partner less than that, and the over-sexed youth of today tops out at 8 sexual partners on average. Contrary to a constant hysterical screech in the media, we’re not having more sex than ever. In fact, we have something like 27% less of it, having it later, and using protection more and more. Again, unlike we’re constantly told by the morality police, the real world results of comprehensive sex ed are very clear; those exposed to it delay sex, stay healthier, and have fewer partners.

But even that’s not the whole story. Should you actually look at some of the raw data from both formal sexual behavior surveys and casual opinion polls on the web, you’ll find that the average number of partners is actually a very misleading statistic. In reality, “kids” today are having even fewer sexual partners than they appear to from the macro picture. When raw data is plotted on your typical bell curve, putting the number of reported partners on the Y axis and the number of respondents who gave this number on the X axis, you’ll find that the curve peaks quickly and its right side has a long asymptotic tail. In fact researchers who looked into data for 33,000 people to measure our attitudes about certain sexual norms and acts, noted this rather prominently as evidence that most people actually have relatively few partners. If you’ll play around with Slate’s handy little sexual history calculator, you’ll find that the typical 25 year old has just 6 partners or so, just slightly more than his or her grandparents back in their sexual prime.

When you explore the available stats, for all their minor flaws, far from the world ending not with a bang, or well, too much banging, the only change has been that we have become much more open about sex. The media, religious zealots, and helicopter parents are mistaking the youth’s more liberal attitude to talking about sex for their interest in having more sexual partners, when in fact more of them are having sex in the context of relationships, and hooking up less. There’s no hookup culture, no college sex clubs with weekly orgies on every campus, and experiments with the likes of Tinder or hookup sites are over after just a few encounters for the vast majority of Millennials. The scandalous, shameless hooking up right and left is mostly in the minds of the media and the self-appointed, attention-starving morality police, which has a talent for creating salacious and ridiculous rumors about teenage sex that a media hungry for clicks and ratings at any cost is eager to splatter everywhere without even the simplest fact-checking.

Certainly, none of this means that there are no young swingers or millennials who had so much casual sex, they have to make full blown spreadsheets to calculate their final sexual tallies. But they’re a very small minority. In fact, the aforementioned 25 year old today with 50 partners will find him/herself in the 95th percentile, and no one in that age group reports triple digits. While I admit this is totally anecdotal, I have met several people who could credibly claim between 100 and 200 sexual partners, and all but one of them were Gen Xers. And even in an environment where such matters can be discussed freely, this is still rather uncommon and requires a rather long-term dedication to hooking up since the majority of their potential partners would not want to have sex outside the context of some kind of relationship. So with all this considered, can we please drag the myth of an anonymous hookup culture ensnaring young adults through its evil social media and smartphone tentacles behind a shed and put it out of its misery? Please?

# sex // media / millennials / moral panic / research


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