ONE in eight Millennials are still virgins at the age of 26. That's the startling figure thrown up by the Next Steps study which has been following Millennials born in the year 1989-1990. The people who would be now around 28 years old, had delayed sex more than past generations. Previously only one in twenty had not had sex at that age.

'Millennials have less sex' has now become a familiar talking point in social science. Report after report tells us that young people today are coming to sex later or having it less. An American study published in 2016, for instance, found that 15 per cent of 20-to-24-year-old Americans had not had sex by the age of 18, compared with only six percent of Generation Xers when they were that age. Research by found that less than seven percent of people in their 20s have sex two to five times per week and 49 percent of twentysomethings hadn’t had sex at all in the past year.

These are startling figures given that, in terms of attitudes, young adults today are the most sexually permissive in recent history. Whatever your sexuality, whatever you want to do, so long as it’s between consenting adults, is fine. They are also surrounded by a culture in which porn is easily accessible, sexting is common and a casual hook-up is just a Tinder swipe away. Many, however, blame this hyper-sexualised culture for the fall in sexual activity. Other theories include the fact that Millennials have stayed living with their parents for longer and have met many other life stages later than previous generations.


But there’s a danger of exaggerating the trend. Millennials, of course, have not stopped having sex. Many of them are at it regularly, whether through casual sex hook-ups or in long-term relationships. Chloe Imrie, a student at Glasgow University, for instance, observes that she thinks there is plenty of casual sex going on out there. “I think going out and having casual sex is quite a common thing for people this age – a lot more common than it was twenty or thirty years ago.”

This is a generation, she observes, in which people can be free to be more adventurous. Imrie’s own sex life has included both steady relationships and casual sex. Rather than use Tinder, she says she prefers to pick-up partners in bars or clubs. “I do really enjoy the notion of being free and being able to explore and do things I definitely wouldn't have done when I was in a relationship. Chances are I'm not going to see this person often, so I can just experiment and try new things. I think obviously for some people it's not for them and they don't want to have sex with people they don't love. That's totally fine but I've never been one to associate sex and love as two interlinked things.”

Indeed, much as this generation is one that is sympathetic to a wide variety of sexual practices, they are also equally approving of those who don’t have sex at all.


Joe Pitt, a 22-year-old student, echoes Imrie’s thoughts on how for their generation there is a lot of freedom. He currently doesn’t have a girlfriend, and occasionally uses Tinder. “I just do it for a bit of fun. It's never been a serious thing for me in terms of looking for a relationship or something. I never take it seriously.” His own biggest fear with regard to sex, since he takes the necessary precautions to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, is “performance”.

He does, however, observe that he does know some people his age who "barely have sex at all”. Why might that be? “I feel as if maybe that's because of porn and how it has influenced their sexual drive they're less likely than people in the past to go out and find someone."

But not all people are so at ease with sex as Imrie and Pitt. Pauline Brown, a Glasgow-based psychosexual therapist, says that the results of the Next Steps study echo what she has seen in her counselling. “We’ve seen more and more young virgins fearful of not just intimacy, but fearful of performance anxiety and being judged for their prowess as lovers. And feeling inadequate, feeling that they don’t know what to do and are not good enough."

The age of social media, she says, has done harm to self esteem. “They see people with perfect pouts and perfect bodies and all the other stuff that goes with that, that can’t be matched. A lot of young people just withdraw and it’s easier not to bother.”

She has also seen a clear rise in the number of young men coming to her for help with erectile dysfunction. “I’ve been doing this job for about 26 years and in the early days we never saw anybody younger than 45 with erectile dysfunction and now I’m seeing 19 and 20 year olds with it and it’s purely psychological. They’re so anxious about performing and getting it right that the body literally shuts itself down.”


She puts this partly down to the explosive rise of online pornography. “Young people are being educated by pornography and pornography is not real. We need to loosen the grip that pornography has on young people’s sexuality – and the messages that they’re picking up - and the expectations around performance and what they’re supposed to do and the belief that everybody else knows what to do, or everybody else is going to be judging them.”

The fear of being judged, and the feeling that only perfection is good enough is also damaging. “I spend a lot of time talking about the concept of good enough, rather than needing to be perfect. The concept of good enough sex is something that most therapists will spend a lot of time on as well. Sex needs to be just good enough and enjoyable, it doesn’t need to be perfect.”

The porn sector has grown rapidly in recent decades, and is reaching more and younger people every year. In 2016, 12.5 videos were watched for every person on the planet. What’s clear, when you talk to any young adult is that there is very little stigma now attached to visiting porn sites. The young people I speak to agree that porn's ubiquity is a problem. They, and the vast majority of their friends, had accessed it. Chloe Imrie, for instance, observes that it has an impact not only on how women feel they have to look, but how men feel they should perform. “I know from speaking to guys as well that they feel really nervous that they're not going to be able to recreate what they see. And for girls as well, a lot of them feel the pressure to look a certain way in terms of body hair and how big their boobs are and how skinny their waists are."

“Everyone I know has seen porn,” says Joe Pitt. “It’s so accessible. It’s very easy to start watching it.” Mostly, he observes, it has its biggest impact on expectations when people are young. “I feel as though when you’re young and haven’t yet had the proper sex education yet, you don’t know really what to expect after seeing pornography. But as you grow older you feel the effects of porn in a negative way less, just because you have actual experience."

Revenge porn has also risen over the period in which this generation came of age. A 2013 McAfee study found that ten per cent of ex partners had threatened to expose photos of their ex online, and 60 per cent followed through. Though a new law criminalising it was introduced last summer, recent figures reveal that police detection rates have been low. Some young people like 23-year-old Jenny Constable, believe that fear of having explicit images shared, or being shamed online, is also a factor for many of her age group.

She recalls how as a teenager she suffered the betrayal of being exposed in this way. “I did that high school thing of web-camming with a boy I liked in my bra. This guy showed it to all his friends, and they took images. It was shitty but in the grand scheme of things it could have been worse and I was terrified of men for so long. It definitely changed my view of what sex was. I was raised to think that sex was what happens between two people who love each other.”

Similar things, she says happened to many of her friends. “That became the norm. Something quite personal is suddenly changed to be like a public event. I was lucky that I was quite young when it happened and I managed to move on because I had my pals about me. But I think that it gave me quite a reality check when it came to what sex was, and the amount of trust you put in another person.”

Constable is now a confident 23-year-old, not in a serious relationship right now, but has a casual partner and concentrating on her career in the media. She doesn’t feel her experiences have left her with a fear of sex. “I had sex for the first time quite a few years go. So I have had plenty of years in which to learn how to look after myself, because I do think you need to look after yourself when you're having sex - there's so much that could go wrong that didn't happen before. I think even now I still feel paranoid about sending things to folk because I’m not sure how it will be used. I think we should all be a bit paranoid about putting something that personal out there. All that could have put me off sex, but it hasn’t. It was a strong reality check.”


By Jenny Constable, 23

Jenny will shortly begin writing for the Sunday Herald, after winning the Zero Tolerance writer's bursary

"I do think over-sexualisation and porn is a factor. We are living in a time when everything is so accessible. Because there is so much porn people don’t automatically have to have sex. You don’t have to have a partner. I think it’s quite hard sometimes to find a partner. We’ve had more exposure to sexual content, than there would have been before, so we don’t have to do it themselves. We just sit on our computers.

Also, people forget that being abstinent is a totally okay lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to have a partner. That’s totally fine. I also think people having sex later is part of people doing everything later. Actually our adult lives are taking a bit longer to properly start - 26 isn’t actually that old. That’s still fairly young. We’re not talking about 40-year-old virgins.

When I think about my parents' generation who got married in their early twenties, and have only been with each other, now that’s completely changed as well. None of my close personal friends are getting married or even close to getting married.

I think men are nervous too. I think there’s a definite pressure to perform for guys. If you watch porn, it’s very abusive to women. You’ve got all these guys watching all these tanks of men basically attacking women. They’ll be watching it and thinking how am I supposed to do this? Maybe that puts men off.

There is a hook-up culture that has come out of dating apps like Tinder. From my friendship group a lot of my close friends are daunted by Tinder just because you’re always second guessing what the other person you match with is wanting, or what their agenda is. That might put you off – and also because it’s not an organic way of meeting someone, and very artificial, and the app itself is superficial.

There’s such pressure on both men and women to look a particular way – so maybe some people think they’re not deserving of having sex, because they don’t fit what the traditional norms are of being desirable.

I think a lot needs to be done with sexual education in school. A lot of us went into the whole adult world of having sex and having partners not really knowing what we were doing and what was acceptable."