We’re Still Bad at Talking About Sex

Everyone has something to say about millennials. Now that the world has begrudgingly agreed to get on with the 21st century, the up-and-comers of our time are subject to the most attention and criticism. Alarmist thinking has made itself loud with countless scathing articles about how millennials fail to interact with people in the outside world, how we pay less respect to our elders, have a diminished sense of civic pride and seem to lack some of the most fundamental values of 20th century America. But I find myself most aggravated by the way they organize the conversation of sex. As usual, the older and better-established members of our society are voicing unchallenged conjecture about the sexual habits of a younger generation, and I get to watch as it contributes to harmful prevailing concepts surrounding sex in general.

The academic community seems to agree that millennials have less sex. San Diego State University and the anthropological journal Archives of Sexual Behavior have published studies to that effect, as has The New York Times. Supposedly, we’re having less sex than our Gen X contemporaries, and we’re having less sex than the Baby Boomers before them. According to one Los Angeles Times article, we’re having less sex than any generation in the last 60 years. SDSU measured it in the number of sexual partners we report having had between the ages of 14-18 and those we report having over the age of 18. Other conclusions have been based on the number of exchanges per sexual partner and the aggregate of these exchanges-per-partner and partners-per-year. So far, the no-longer-young have rather consistently chosen to interpret this phenomenon as a negative internalization of the new conditions of life that surround us. We spend too much time with technology (or porn), don’t know how to relate to other people (or hit on each other), are too distracted (or self-absorbed, or anxious and shy) to make repeat advances on different potential partners, as was more common in the past.

Now, first of all, the impulse to immediately find a hardfast answer for this, or any phenomenon, that encompasses the pattern completely and thoroughly, is erroneous. But I do think I have a more credible explanation than “all our new shit has us fucked up”: we live in an almost sexually-liberated society (the key word being “almost”, as in, “not quite”). The people expressing such touching concern for the play we get at our age are forgetting that the miasma of dismissive, hostile, oppressive and discouraging attitudes surrounding sexual interaction for all of the the 1900s has yet to be replaced by comprehensive set of conventions that reflect the values of the new society we live in. Before the sexual revolution, when sex drive was thoroughly demonized, that merely necessitated old world “discretion.” The natural psychological response to an urge your body tells you to release and your society tells you to repress is to simply seek the “appropriately inappropriate” context: do the bad thing wherever you can get away with it. With that mentality common across most sexual interactions, it’s easy to see why “less sex” is such a baffling concept to anyone who remembers a United States so viciously puritanical that people faced death for even the slightest foray from sexual convention, and a revolution/counterculture so Wild West that it made nearly as many heinous mistakes, even as it remains ultimately responsible for most of our sexual liberties.

There are people shouting on both sides of the argument, but someone local to the time should address the issue that civilization’s busybodies think they’re talking about. Of the changes we’ve made to “what’s okay” in sexual contexts these last twenty years alone, and it continues to be an ever-expanding overhaul, the fact remains it’s been largely a corrective measure with mostly negative language. “Don’t do that, it’s impolite,” “don’t do that, it impedes on a person’s free agency,” or “don’t do that, it is literal atrocity;” make no mistake, these are the narratives that direly needed to be introduced at this point in history, but people aren’t making examples out of positive sexual interaction, free from toxic subtext. For people growing up surrounded by this conversation, with higher standards and no puritanical sensibilities, it’s really quite discouraging. All the cliches of bad sexual context are being systematically overexposed in the public consciousness, that they might be burned out of the status quo forever, but just who exactly is replacing them?

In this society, it’s easier than ever for people born on the cusp of progress to look behind them at the messy practice of getting laid as an offensive, elaborate con, tangled in ideas of “giving” and “taking,” as though sex is a treasure to be offered up to an errant champion, or else stolen in the night by any scoundrel who can convince us of what we want. What room does that leave for frank, honest conversation between equals about the inherent benefits of positive sexual interaction, or about disassociating the sexes from a masculine-active, feminine-passive dynamic? Who is moving us forward? Because if anything has remained constant, roses are red, gender is performative, and sexual convention is still heteronormative.

Some are ahead of the past, helping to bring egalitarian principles to the playing field through conversation, but plenty of people in this age range still play “the game” as it’s always been played. And I see many of them getting increasingly agitated because now they have to work much harder to make it work. The threshold for tolerating unwanted attention has never been lower: “the game” gets harder when fewer people are playing, and when “the game” is no longer shiny with the veneer of the forbidden, most people quit. But what’s next? Who among us, when met with the mutual attraction of a stranger, acquaintance, or friend, are emotionally articulate enough and honest enough with themselves to say “By my own subjective taste, I find this peer of mine as favorable of figure as they are aesthetically conscious enough to flatter it. I reckon if we decide to establish a rapport, I’d be inclined to share physical intimacy in a way that we’d both feel better for having had”? And if, by some miracle, they are capable of hosting such a cordial thought process, what do they do about it? Approach their person-of-interest with the integrity to be respectful and the strength to be kind? Or do they adopt a tentative stance and flinch when they catch themselves wondering? Do they act like a look can kill? Is the thought process nothing more than a prolonged, nonverbal hesitation?

No one wants to think as though they’re entitled to people’s time or attention, and in a world that competes so desperately for both, only the most sensational interest can slow us down long enough to look. Worse, if everyone has their own very particular ideas about what sex should be and how it should be, without the perspective afforded by sharing our preferences with others, they don’t change. And that finally leaves the few with relatively open preferences trapped in the space between, unwilling to impose their interest and risk going where they’re not welcome.

Why are we having less sex? Avoiding discomfort is a higher priority than having sex. That attitude can be negotiated if it’s just stated in explicit enough terms for sincere dialog, but what if that very sincerity is incompatible with our current societal paradigm of sex? Do you think that for what we call “casual” sex, any earnest talk is, ironically, kind of obscene? The very question of “do you want to have sex” is diluted with all of the languages that people are least fluent: the language of subtext, the language of body movement, the power of suggestion, and not English, which most of us theoretically have in common. What’s more, still too many people continue to unconsciously skitter their waking minds away from the very motivations that drive them.

If we think our motives are selfish, we act like our motives are selfish, and then we have to hide our “selfish” motives from ourselves before we hide them from others. This is the stupidest thing of all. We can make no claim to be above the attitudes of the past if we continue to predicate our behavior on those prevailing concepts and behaviors. If we want to be above sexual oppression, we’re going to have to start putting more faith in the idea that people can have sex without getting hurt. All it takes is to be considerate and respectful. We need to treat sex like something we can share without placing expectations on one another, or falling into the harmful conventions of the past. Too many people are still reflexively propagating the same, ugly dichotomy of sex-shame and false indifference that leaves people in the cold, without the outlet to connect in a safe, responsible and unprejudiced way.

Ultimately, it is up to every individual to decide if they are having “enough” sex, and the purview of public opinion should not be so broad as to allow sweeping generalizations of sexual practice for an entire generation. So to those who find themselves concerned with the raw volume of millennial sex: if sex were remotely as taboo as seventy years ago, we would have more sex, but it would be worse.

To anyone who might feel the weight of these issues personally: abandon all pretense. Stop acting like sex is hard. Invest in honest dialogue with one another. Explore your intentions and motivations, and share that exploration with the people around you. As usual, silence is the enemy. Many people would rather not try than risk an uncomfortable situation. But I think for all your good intentions, you have failed. The stifled atmosphere surrounding sex as a concept just makes all our lives a little more difficult.

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