The New Generation

Millennials are having sex differently than previous generations, and it's freaking some adults out. What's going on?



K:Kuvat: Aliina Kauranne

Translated by Kasper Salonen

If you gave up your smart phone for one year, you could have sex 16,000 times.

That’s the glib line the New York Times ran on New Year’s Eve. But they didn’t mean it as a joke: author Paul Greenberg – whose previous publications are mostly about fishing – was trying to make a point about American smart phone addiction.

Sixteen thousand times! That’s more than 40 sessions a day!

Greenberg did not go on to justify why that’s a figure anyone should aspire to, but it was clear he was worried about the relationship between sex and phones. And he isn’t the only one.

The year 2016 was bleak in sex-related news. Several Finnish and international studies came out at the time with the same message: young adults are less keen to have sex than before.

The leaders of this country, with their anxiety over society’s so-called dependency ratio, reared up at the news. No sex, no babies. An editorial in regional daily Aamulehti even asked whether this ”nation of masturbators” has any hope for the future at all.

But there are other ways of looking at the stats. Newspaper Le Monde offered a fresh perspective in June: what if the sexuality expressed by young people is so new that it doesn’t show up in the research?

What if millennials are being asked the wrong questions, and then having their answers touted as true facts about their generation? Nude IMs and discussions about sex on Jodel (the Finnish @seksi channel engages more than 50,000 users) don’t make it into research papers, but aren’t they a part of sexual expression just like traditional intercourse?

Needless to say, a slew of vague assumptions surrounds the issue at large. We asked some experts to help us figure out what’s actually going on.

Assumption 1: Millennials aren’t f*cking.

Let’s start with the cold facts. It’s true that young adults no longer engage in intercourse in the same way as before – but neither do their parents.

The Finsex survey provides the most comprehensive data on the subject. The last poll three years ago found that the people of all ages in Finland were having intercourse less frequently than in 2007, the year of the survey before that. 

However, the change is smaller for young adults than in any other age group. Sex hasn’t stopped happening: 18–24-year-old women report having sex six times a month on average, while men report just over four sessions per month. 

But even small dips in the figures can rile people up, based on the impression that young people simply should be horny and hump each other whenever they can – despite being taught in school that sex is mostly a hazardous activity.

Executive director Tommi Paalanen from the Sexpo foundation for sexual welfare says that talk of a crash in sexual activity is completely unfounded.

”The research does indicate a shift of sorts,” says Paalanen. ”But we have to look at what questions the studies are actually asking.”

The Finsex survey was first conducted as early as 1971 – that’s ten years before homosexuality stopped being considered a disease. Many of the questions in the survey are also from this time period.

It explains why the questions are so focused on counting how many times people are having penetrative intercourse. These days respondents are also asked about handjobs and fingering as well as oral and anal sex, all of which have become far more common. Regardless, coitus continues to make the most significant headlines.

A great deal of sexual conduct gets left out, including lesbian sex, cyber sex (Facetime sessions, dick pics, sexting, you name it!), or really any kind of non-penetrative sex.

All of the above is part of modern-day sex, whether everyone knows it or not.

Assumption 2: Smart devices have destroyed intimacy.

Let’s think for a minute about the possible threats to young people’s sexual appetites.

Paalanen raises a claim common in tabloid news items: young adults prefer staring at their phones over interacting with another person’s sweaty body.

”If your friends, hobbies, and contacts are all online, getting off the couch can be tough,” Paalanen says.

The thing is, you don’t actually need to get off your couch if you want to get laid. 20-year-old Hanna says Tinder is her app of choice. After swiping away on the dating program, she says she has had more sexual partners in her life than her coevals on average: ”somewhere between 20 and 30”. She doesn’t know the exact number.

First there was her boyfriend as a teen, then some one night stands or ”brief encounters”. She found most of them on Tinder, where you can ”chat for a few weeks, date for a week, fuck, and then that’s that,” Hanna says.

Sex is almost automatically involved, she continues. Not that it’s necessarily that great.

”It feels like there’s not much time to get to the real stuff. You can’t get into what you really like because it all just lasts one night at a time.”

Hanna says she gauges herself to be a little more active sexually than her friends generally. She enjoys adventure, even though experience has shown her that sometimes hookups don’t actually offer her much at all.

”I’ve never taken it too seriously. If things go sideways, at least it’ll be a funny story,” Hanna says.

Needless to say, it isn’t quite as simple as that for everyone. Sexual therapist and psychologist Marjo Tossavainen from the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS) says the same classic question pops up again and again: am I good enough?

”Some people come in feeling really helpless and clueless about things that are a natural part of sexuality and having a body. Many are extremely anxious about being normal or being allowed to feel a certain way.”

Any young person who walks up to the health center reception desk is on the right track, though, because asking for help is always worth it. And that’s something young people seem to have understood.

Over the 12 years that Tossavainen has worked for the FSHS, the number of students with queries about sexuality has gone up dramatically. She says that young adults bring up issues of erectile dysfunction, sexual reluctance, and questions of sexual identity straight away, instead of coming in on some less intimate pretense.

It’s likely that this forthcoming approach is thanks in part to smart devices and access to the internet.

Assumption 3: Young people would rather masturbate to porn than have sex with someone. 

Do you jerk off often? 

This is a question that 23-year-old Kasper Kamppuri has asked several of his friends. The responses have caught him off guard.

”Many times people say no, not really, I have a boyfriend who I have sex with. What, why not? They’re not mutually exclusive,” Kamppuri says.

”Masturbation is such a different experience. You can experience things you would never experience with another person. And yet there’s a lot of baggage that comes with talking about it.”

Kamppuri is a producer at the annual Wonderlust summertime sex festival. Speaking about sex is his job, so he isn’t ashamed to use his real name in this article.

”I wank almost every day, because I think it’s really fucking fun and it’s a big part of maintaining my wellbeing.”

Talking about masturbation is still difficult for many people. Even though, as Kamppuri points out, there is nothing to be ashamed of: self-pleasuring is taking care of oneself just like showering, eating, or meeting with friends.

Keeping one’s jacking-off habits a secret is especially unnecessary when you look at the Finsex survey results: masturbation has increased among respondents in all age groups. It seems that the decades-long culture of shame and fear-mongering has finally broken, and people in Finland are fapping with clear consciences.

Nearly 80 percent of women aged 18–24 report having masturbated in the month prior to the survey. The number among men the same age was as clear as can get: 100%. The poll did not find any young adults who had never tried masturbation.

The Family Federation of Finland takes a critical view of the trend, saying that ”masturbation has compensated the concurrent fall in sexual intercourse” and that ”in many cases an increase in masturbation has resulted from having a reluctant long-term sexual partner.”

News stories on the topic have also often brought up this view. Supposedly, Finns just stare at online porn and touch themselves instead of making love, leading to a ”death grip” desensitization of their privates.

Kamppuri says this attitude is bonkers.

”I think it’s a really weird and harmful way to understand masturbation. It gives the idea that wanting to jerk off for my own pleasure somehow stems from a lackluster or or empty sex life.”

Tossavainen from FSHS agrees: making love to oneself is important.

”I always encourage people to masturbate, it’s one of the main forms of sex,” says Tossavainen. ”Rubbing one out is like hormonal maintenance therapy for your own sexuality.”

Even watching pornography – heaven forfend! – can be A-OK, despite adults deeply resenting teens especially for checking out dirty vids. Porn is not the same as sexual education, but in moderation it can help maintain an erotic sensibility and even spice up intimate relationships, Tossavainen says.

The doctor is also certainly familiar with students for whom watching porn has become a problem. Tossavainen’s advice to them is to try alternate methods of arousal: reading or listening to erotic stories – anything that engages the imagination.

”You know you’re in trouble if the material is what drives you along, instead of the person themselves deciding the right time for stimulation. Or when porn is no longer merely a function of sexuality, but a way to actually relieve anxiety.”

Assumption 4: Earlier generations did it better. 

A study published in the United States in 2016 caused uproar for showing that Americans born in the 1980s and 90s reported far fewer sexual experiences than the previous generation.

The survey asked 20-24-year-old young adults how many sexual partners they have had since their 18th birthday. The results made researchers practically panic: some 15 percent of millennials reported never having sex, when the corresponding figure for those born in the 1960s had been just six percent.

The discrepancy seemed to be even more radical in Japan. According to a BBC poll, more than 40 percent of 18-34-year-old Japanese respondents said they had never had sex in their lives.

Compared to these countries, Finland’s downward trend is still moderate. But are we on the same road as Japan’s youth, and will it become an issue?

Hanna answers this question with a question:

”If people used to have more sex, was it good sex or just a man doing things to a woman while she just lies there?”

”The message I think technology, Instagram memes, and Youtube videos are more frequently sending is that sex should be fully enjoyable for both parties, and that either partner can initiate sex.”

Hanna says she remembers sexual pleasure was barely mention in health classes at school; young people had to figure out the enjoyable parts by themselves. Even so, the discourse on consent has in fact made strides in recent years, and soon legislation may follow: more than 50,000 people in Finland signed the Suostumus2018 citizens’ initiative, which is due to be handled by Parliament this year. The campaign’s core tenet is that sexual intercourse occurring without consent should always be considered rape.

Tossavainen, with her two-plus decades of experience as a seuxal therapist, speaks about consent a lot. It wasn’t long ago that women were completely subordinate to men in sex, as well: women were expected to spread their legs whenever their husband wanted them to. Marital rape wasn’t criminalized in Finland until 1994 – exceptionally late compared with other EU countries.

Things, thankfully, are different now.

”An increase in liberal values has lead to a place now where people are allowed to choose if they want sex, and with whom,” Tossavainen says. And it’s ok to not always want sex in a romantic relationship.

”It’s good that the norm is no longer that a relationship can only be ’on track’ if it features regular sex. Couples have sex when they both want to and have the time. There are so many other things that act as markers for the health of a relationship.”

Assumption 5: Young people just aren’t into sex.

Henri, 23, says he has a forthright attitude toward sex, multiple partners, and an open mind. He has about 20 sexual experiences under his belt, but says he isn’t really into one night stands or Tinder hookups. Sex is a lot more fun with someone you know, he says.

There’s just one thing that’s bothering him: he hasn’t felt up to it recently.

”I have a worse sex drive now than I usually do. I’ve been wondering if it’s because I’m depressed or because my partners’ interest in me is fluctuating. It’s really hard to pin down,” Henri says.

He lists other possibilities: his drive might be down due to his lifestyle, his sleeping habits, or his use of intoxicating substances. Maybe being with the same person has gotten boring, or maybe the problem is that he has several partners in his life at once.

Feelings such as these are not uncommon for other people in Henri’s  age group, either. Hanna is writing her Bachelor’s thesis abroad and says she is so busy that there’s just no time for any new squeezes. Getting ahead in her studies and her career feels more important to her than investing in her sex life, she says.

And what about the pros; how often do people employed in the sex education trade get busy? Not as often as one might think, says Kasper Kamppuri, even though he has managed three steady partners and a few shorter flings simultaneously in the past.

The reason is not excessive wanking, staring at porn, or hanging around on social media: it’s simply that sometimes there’s not enough time or energy.

”Having sex with someone nice is definitely always a great investment just like a good night’s sleep, but it’s not something you necessarily understand in the moment,” Kamppuri says.

”There can be varying expectations in the air. The other person might be slightly less horny than the other, which can create pressure to join in the arousal. Also, there’s no way to tell if things will last 15 minutes or go on for five hours. It’s about gauging whether it’s worth the energy.”

The reason for having less sex is seldom simple disinterestedness, FSHS’s Tossavainen says. It tends to be other things entirely: interpersonal conflicts, study stress, low spirits, or health-related concerns. Young people are, unfortunately, well acquainted with problems such as these, and adults will not make their troubles vanish by egging them on to find a mate or start making babies.

That’s why Tossavainen says she hopes that talk of insufficient hanky-panky won’t get too out of control.

”If headlines keep blaring about a terrible problem, young people will start feeling that they should have more sex, and considering themselves failures if they don’t. People should be allowed to live their own lives, in this respect as well.”

The names of Hanna and Henri have been changed.