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Prude vs. Crude: Sex and the Generation Gap

SexyYoungCouple_400When one of my students, then 23, wrote a paper on changes in sexuality, she did not describe younger people (“Generation Me,” those born in the 1980s and 1990s) as more sexually active; instead, she wrote that they were “less sexually repressed.” Older people may think that young people are promiscuous, but the younger generation flings it right back–sure, we’re a little loose, but you’re just uptight. From Generation Me.

In Valerie Frankel’s recent novel The Not-So-Perfect Man, 40-year-old Peter asks out a 23-year-old woman. She replies:

“I can’t go out with you, Peter… you seem like the kind of guy who wants a relationship. I don’t do that. I hook up.”
“Hooking up?” he asked. It sounded painful.
“Going out in groups of girls, and picking up groups of guys, taking them back to someone’s apartment and having safe-yet-casual sex,” she said. “I think I’m leaning toward lesbianism anyway. And even if I were attracted to you, I couldn’t do much about it until my labial piercings heal.”
“Labial piercings,” he said.
“Four of them. Two on each side. Very tasteful. Refined,” she said.
Peter checked his watch, straightened his tie, cleared his throat.
He said, “I’ll be going now.”

In case you haven’t heard, “hooking up” has replaced dating among many young people, even among those without tasteful labial piercings. A May 2004 New York Times Magazine article on teens hooking up got tongues wagging about the practice, and the hookup scored its first book in The Happy Hook-Up: A Single Girl’s Guide to Casual Sex. It was soon followed by The Hookup Handbook, which notes that hookups can range from “making out to full-on sex” but are most distinguished by being “between two people who don’t necessarily have any foreseeable future or even a hint of commitment.”

Another new term is “friends with benefits,” or a friend you do sexual things with—no romantic relationship or commitment implied. “I think you can compare friends with benefits to the driving range,” says Sam,16, interviewed for a 2005 NBC special on teens and sex. “There’s no commitment to playing a round of golf—you just go there to work on your game, figure out what shots are working for you.” (Casual golf, anyone?)

Or take Kristen, 21, who says, “I lost my virginity at the age of 13. But I would like to mention how mature I was about sex in general. I should be applauded, not shunned.”

This is not your father’s sex life—and it’s definitely not your mother’s. Hooking up is increasingly common, and even sex within boyfriend-girlfriend relationships begins at younger and younger ages. Waiting for marriage is, to put it mildly, quaint. The vast majority of Generation Me does not wait until they are married to have sex. Most do not even wait to graduate from high school. Emma, now 24, lost her virginity at 17 “to a boy I could just barely call my boyfriend.” She explains, “No one I knew believed in waiting for marriage.” Some of this is simple demographics: 62% of people in their 20s have never been married.

Even religious teenagers with strict parents soon find themselves sexually active. Patrick, 31, grew up in a strict Catholic family and attended a Catholic high school, but, he says, “I lost my virginity at the age of 17 to a girl I had known only a week.” Things changed even more once he lived in a college dorm: “I found myself having more sexual partners and not feeling guilty about a one-night stand,” he says. Or as a girl put it on the NBC special, “Our generation is supposed to be known as the wild one anyway. It’s been the wildest one yet.” Is this trend good or bad? Your opinion may depend on your generation. Many young people see these trends as the long-overdue shedding of arbitrary restrictions on sexuality, while some older people are often shocked by the sexual behavior of the young.

Whether you see the new sexuality as freeing or wanton, the tie to individualism is obvious: do what feels good for you, and ignore the rules of society. On the other hand, the changes in sexual behavior are so dramatic that it’s not clear there are any universally agreed-upon rules about sex anymore. Why not do something pleasurable? It’s your body—express yourself. Or as an ad for the birth control method Mirena puts it, “All you’ll remember is the freedom” when you “put yourself in control.” In a 1999 survey, college students’ primary motivations for having casual sex were exploration or experimentation, satisfying their own feelings of sexual desire, and “spontaneous urge.” Sonia, 21, believes that “different sexual behaviors bring more awareness and more confidence about yourself.” Sometimes self-esteem comes in handy for reappraising things later. In their Class of 2000 report, CBS interviewed one young woman who slept with three boys by the time she was 15. However, she says, “I don’t regard myself as a slut because I have more self-respect than that.”

Even deciding not to have sex is informed by the integrity of the self. In a 1999 episode of the college drama Felicity, the title character debates whether to have sex with her boyfriend. Her friend advises, “Our best decisions, the ones we never regret, come from listening to ourselves. And whatever you decide, you should be very proud.”

A Glamour magazine article advises, “Keep in mind that postponing sex until it’s right for you—regardless of what anyone thinks—means you know your own mind.” In her book Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution, Paula Kamen concludes, “In our individualistic American culture, that standard of being true to oneself is the driving force behind young women’s sexual decisions.” When Kamen asked young women about sexual choices (and life choices), their most common answer was “it depends on the person.”

When I asked my students to write about differences among the generations, most chose changes in sexual behavior. It’s one of the most noticeable changes in the lives of young people over the last few decades. Perhaps because of the trend toward openness, my students had no problem writing at length about when, where, and how they had sex and how comfortable they were with it. And how uncomfortable their parents were—even though most of their parents are Boomers.


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