Maybe it’s just because I write and, as a result, read about sex for a living, but sex-related statistics seem to have popped up more times over the last few years than ever before. Sure, young people’s sex lives have always been a source of fascination for those whose own have started to dry up, but lately, it feels as though the internet can’t go a day without being inundated with new, usually conflicting data about the supposed sexual habits of Gen Z.
Apparently, most of them are celibate, sex-negative “puriteens” who don’t want kink at Pride, nor sex on screen, who are anti-age gap relationships, and who’ve plunged their generation into a “sex recession”. But then they’re also the kinkiest generation yet, who use memes as a love language, ghost less, and are more sexually fluid and open to non-traditional relationships, such as polyamory and ethical non-monogamy, than their Millennial or Gen X counterparts. So which is it?
While there’s some truth at both ends of the spectrum, a lot of sweeping generalisations about the sex lives (and lives in general) of under-26s don’t actually ring true for those living them. Social media trends, like tradwives or the recently-dubbed “beige-fluencers” and the resulting hysteria about Gen Z conservatism, perpetuates a broad and often false narrative about how young people are living their lives, particularly when it comes to sex. Young people aren’t one homogenous mass; for everyone dressed in beige and taking a vow of celibacy, there’s a girlie in a neon co-ord embracing hot girl summer. Besides, it’s also worth taking these claims with a pinch of salt, considering the same headlines dominated the internet back in 2016 – only then, Millennials were the target.
The latest stats doing the rounds – which are, at least, more factual than postulated – relate to STIs; specifically that they’re on the rise, mostly among those aged 15 to 24. Not that any country wanted to tick this milestone off their list, but last year saw England report its highest number of gonorrhoea diagnoses since records began. Meanwhile, the number of syphilis diagnoses was the highest reported since 1948. So much for the so-called sex recession, eh?
Obviously a rise in STIs isn’t a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean young people are having more reckless sex than previous generations. Some of these results are down to an increase in testing, which rose by 13 per cent between 2021 and 2022. Not to mention we’re still pretty freshly recovering from a global pandemic, during which sex was off the cards for many people. At one point it was actually banned by the government – so it makes sense that, as people have started to fuck again, more have been exposed to sexually transmitted infections.
Government inaction, cuts to sexual health services and widening inequalities are also largely to blame for such a troublesome rise in STIs. But could we simply be experiencing increased carelessness towards sex regardless, especially in the post-pandemic glow of the “whoring ’20s”?
Despite growing up with dire sex education, most people I know have come away with a good grasp on how to have safe sex. Communication, condoms, contraceptive pills, patches and coils – we get it. But that doesn’t always mean abiding by the rules. There’s a thrill to spontaneous sex, which by definition can be riskier. We’ve never had to live without the contraceptive or morning after pill, and have easy access to medication like PrEP. In England, at least, abortion has always been largely available.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t have safe sex, but maybe young people are simply more clued up about getting tested these days, rather than being particularly careless. Maybe this is a tale as old as time, and young people, who tend to have more sex than their elders, are simply more likely to contract STIs, particularly under a government that doesn’t prioritise sexual health? Well, I asked three of them about their sex lives to find out.
“I don’t currently practise any kind of safe sex. I was monogamous in two different relationships, and we never used condoms. I’m now having frequent casual sex and still don’t use condoms. I do have brief conversations [with partners] surrounding contraception, but they’re usually more geared towards testing and being STI free. I do feel like there’s a slight pressure not to use condoms, both when topping and bottoming. A common thought process among my peers and partners is that it doesn’t feel as good or isn’t necessary if both parties have been tested.
“There isn’t a lack of knowledge about safe sex, especially in the queer community, but there’s definitely a recklessness, or an energy of ease, pleasure, and closeness when not using condoms. The general attitude in conversations with my friends is usually geared towards encouraging safe sex, but in the moment that reality doesn’t always come to fruition. It’s the same for most of my queer and straight femme friends.
“I do think there tends to be encouragement of reckless behaviour in our generation. A lot of people my age use sex as a way to identify themselves and to be seen. Sex – [and therefore recklessness surrounding it] is very ingrained in partying and queer culture.”
“I mainly use condoms, but like everyone, I’m guilty of using the pull-out method from time to time. I have had to take the morning after pill a few times after some reckless decisions, or even because people have told me they’ve put a condom on and then they’ve removed it, or they haven’t put it on at all. I’m now hyper-aware of being safe after catching STIs in the past; people think it’s embarrassing to talk about, but if you’re a sexually active person, realistically you might pick things up.
When I was younger, I used to be really naive. I’d let people tell me what to do with my body, like not using a condom if they didn’t want to. That’s definitely taught me to take control, not only in regards to using contraception, but during sex, too. Now I’ll say I’m not having sex unless we’re being safe. A lot of my friends are quite reckless, but we do all talk about getting tested, which is the most important thing: staying on top of your sexual health, [no matter what, if any, contraception you use].
It definitely feels like young people are having more sexual partners, one-night stands, or polyamorous relationships than previous generations, and I think that’s because sex is a lot more free now. You aren’t expected to get married and have kids, like you might have 30 years ago. Young people are more keen on the idea of open relationships or friends with benefits, so maybe this means that they’re caring less about safe sex. In the past few years, things have shifted dramatically in that people who catch STIs are no longer shamed, though, which I think is helped through social media.”
“I usually use the pull-out method, but my girlfriend is on birth control. In the past, I’ve always made it an open discussion, though. I ask about the last time they got tested, I tell them [about] my last test, and the conversation [about contraceptive methods] carries on from there. It’s one of those things that has to be done for peace of mind. I do tell them I prefer sex without a condom – because I can’t come with one on – but if they’d prefer to use one after the chat, then I will, no problem. Having that discussion before sex in a neutral environment [is best because] there’s no pressure for sex to happen after we talk.
We look at sex now in our early twenties as something we want to be completely present for rather than rushing into things, so there’s way more dialogue between people. There are still pregnancy scares, so when it comes to one night stands, it’s standard to have a chat and use a condom. But ifit becomes a regular thing, the condom comes off.
If reckless sex is about no communication and no condoms, then I don’t think Gen Z is having reckless sex. But I do feel that, as a generation, we are taking risks while we’re in relationships or situationships. The best contraception is communication and honesty.”