Good News and Bad News on Teens and Sex
“These should be boom times for sex.”
Thus began an article in The Atlantic titled, “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” The idea is that, in light of current cultural conditions, they should.
“The share of Americans who say sex between unmarried adults is ‘not wrong at all’ is at an all-time high. New cases of HIV are at an all-time low. Most women can—at last—get birth control for free and the morning-after pill without a prescription.
“If hookups are your thing, Grindr and Tinder offer the prospect of casual sex within the hour. The phrase ‘If something exists, there is porn of it’ used to be a clever internet meme; now it’s a truism. BDSM plays at the local multiplex—but why bother going? Sex is portrayed, often graphically and sometimes gorgeously, on prime-time cable. Sexting is, statistically speaking, normal.
“Polyamory is a household word. Shame-laden terms like perversion have given way to cheerful-sounding ones like kink. Anal sex has gone from final taboo to ‘fifth base’—Teen Vogue (yes, Teen Vogue) even ran a guide to it. With the exception of perhaps incest and bestiality—and of course nonconsensual sex more generally—our culture has never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation.
“But despite all this,” the article baited, “American teenagers and young adults are having less sex.”
This, it would seem, would be the “good” news. At least for those who feel that sex outside of marriage is not God’s plan for sexual expression, much less fulfillment.
The bad news?
After a lengthy examination, several suggestions were put forward as to why. None of them encouraging. But two were deeply disturbing.
First, what the writer calls “sex for one.” In short, the ubiquitous nature of porn has led to a retreat from sexual interaction with other people. In short, we’ve traded sex with others for masturbation to a digital image. As one observer put it, this is “a generation that found the imperfect or just unexpected demands of real-world relationships with women less enticing than the lure of the virtual libido.” This is not mere conjecture. Studies have shown that from 1992 to 2014, the share of American men who reported masturbating in a given week doubled, and the number of women tripled. Why? Pornography.
A second concerning reason was simply called “bad sex,” and it, too, was porn-related. As one leading sex researcher at Indiana University has had to counsel her students: “If you’re with somebody for the first time, don’t choke them, don’t ejaculate on their face, don’t try to have anal sex with them. These are all things that are just unlikely to go over well”—all things prominently featured in pornography. Young people today are simply more likely to engage in sexual behaviors prevalent in pornography. “All of this might be scaring some people off… and contributing to the sex decline.”
This is worth quoting at length:
“Painful sex is not new, but there’s reason to think that porn may be contributing to some particularly unpleasant early sexual experiences. Studies show that, in the absence of high-quality sex education, teen boys look to porn for help understanding sex—anal sex and other acts women can find painful are ubiquitous in mainstream porn… In my interviews with young women, I heard too many iterations to count of ‘he did something I didn’t like that I later learned is a staple in porn,’ choking being one widely cited example.
“If you are a young woman, and you’re having sex and somebody tries to choke you, I just don’t know if you’d want to go back for more right away.”
All to say, we’re beginning to see ever more clearly what the first generation raised on porn is having that exposure do to them.
Good news? Teen sex is down.
The bad news?
James Emery White
Kate Julian, “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?,” The Atlantic, December 2018, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.