NASHVILLE (BP) — People born in the 1990s are less likely to be sexually active in young adulthood than were their counterparts born in the three previous decades, according to research published this month in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Analysts are divided on whether the data indicates a rise in intentional commitment to chastity.
University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, whose book “Premarital Sex in America” was cited in the research, told Baptist Press the findings do not justify the conclusion “that intentional chastity is on the rise.” Meanwhile, Ascend, the organization formerly known as the National Abstinence Education Association, lauded the data as suggesting young adults “recognize that casual sex can compromise their life goals.”
Drawing on self-reported data collected in the General Social Survey from 1989-2014, researchers Jean Twenge, Ryne Sherman and Brooke Wells found that 15 percent of 20- to 24-year-old Americans born in the 1990s reported having no sexual partners after turning 18. In contrast, just 6 percent of individuals born in the 1960s gave similar reports when they were 20-24.
When researchers controlled the data for age and time period studied, they discovered young adulthood sexual activity decreased progressively for persons born each decade between the 1960s and 1990s.
Young adults born in the 1990s were “more than twice as likely to be sexually inactive as adults than 1960s-born Gen-X’ers, and 41% more likely than 1980s-born Millennials,” the researchers wrote.
The percentage of young women who were sexually inactive as young adults tripled between the 1960s-born generation and the 1990s-born generation, from 5 percent to 16 percent. The percentage of sexually inactive young men nearly doubled from 8 percent to 14 percent.
Regnerus, a speaker at the 2014 Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission National Conference, said he doesn’t “think one should read a great deal into” the findings, “especially since we are largely left to speculate about reasons” for the apparent decreased sexual activity.
“Since women are more apt to report no partners than men, it could signal that an increasing share of them are opting out of the mating market, or delaying entry,” Regnerus said in written comments. “I doubt this [data] has anything directly to do with religion or religiosity, but rather with a delayed approach to mating market activity.
“And since lots of people are declaring the traditional ‘date’ an endangered species,” he said, “it shouldn’t really surprise that an increasing share of young adults are not having sexual partners, since ‘opportunity’ is a key predictor of paired sexual activity and plenty of people aren’t being asked out.
“You should not, however, make the leap to presume that intentional chastity is on the rise, at least in a religiously-motivated sense. (I think that’s been steady but modest in scope.) Unintentional chastity perhaps is rising,” Regnerus said.
The report’s authors offered a variety of potential explanations for their findings. Among them:
— Young adults are living with their parents longer and delaying marriage until later in life, “both of which may delay sexual activity.”
— The so-called “hookup culture” may be leading young adults to engage in forms of sexual contact other than intercourse, which they are not reporting to researchers who ask about “having sex.”
— “The HIV epidemic and associated public heath messaging may have impacted later generations more, with more delaying sex and/or reducing their number of partners as a safety strategy.”
— Abstinence-focused sex education and virginity pledges, like the one associated with the True Love Waits sexual purity campaign, may delay young adults’ initial sexual experiences.
Ascend President Valerie Huber celebrated the data as a step in the right direction.
“We know that early sexual behavior tends to set a pattern for later behavior,” Huber said in a news release. “The fact that more and more emerging adults are avoiding sex suggests they recognize that casual sex can compromise their life goals.”
The research additionally suggests teenagers “have caught a positive and healthy vision for their futures. It also means that we must, as a society, be more intentional on reinforcing this same healthy behavior for young, single adults,” Huber said.
The research was published online Aug. 1 under the title “Sexual Inactivity During Young Adulthood Is More Common Among U.S. Millennials and iGen: Age, Period, and Cohort Effects on Having No Sexual Partners After Age 18.”