Sex and Gen Z: 'People think we're not interested – but it isn't true' – Metro.co.uk
After a hectic day at work, Maz finds herself lying on her bed in her small but tastefully decorated bedroom in London. The 23-year-old is constantly socialising as a PR rep, but now she’s on her own – and longing for some company.
So, she picks up her smartphone and starts flicking through Bumble. Maz is no stranger to the dating app, having tailored her preferences precisely to match with someone her type, as opposed to going through an endless carousel of potential conquests.
However, for many of the guys that pique her interest, a long-term relationship certainly is not on the cards.
‘It’s almost favoured to have a sneaky link,’ she tells Metro.co.uk over Zoom, before explaining a ‘sneaky link’ is the updated Gen Z parlance for a ‘friend with benefits’ – no strings attached sex, free from the constraints or pressure of a relationship.
‘People are very upfront about wanting something casual,’ she continues. ‘I have a lot of friends who all have a sneaky link from apps. People aren’t ashamed about it.’
Maz’s description of her and her friendship group’s casual and open sex life is at odds with preconceptions about younger generations and their attitudes towards relationships. Numerous university studies have pointed towards Gen Z– ie, those born between 1996 and 2012 – being in a ‘sex recession’ with fewer sexual partners when compared to their older counterparts.
Theories attached to the dwindling libidos of twenty-somethings include the proliferation of social media, poor mental health and uncertain economic outlook. Considering the bleak state of the world around us, is it any surprise that young people aren’t particularly horny right now?
But the truth behind the concerned headlines is far more complex. For Maz, her friends, and the numerous others speaking to Metro.co.uk for this piece, hook-up culture is far from dead. If anything, sex is almost a little too easy to come by.
‘It’s a misconception that we’re not interested in it,’ Maz says. ‘We’re way more open. It’s more accepted because it’s widely spoken about.
‘For older generations, there wasn’t much open conversation about it, but now it’s the opposite. People love talking about sex.’
It’s something Kerry Cabbin, sex and relationship educator has also noticed. Having visited schools to deliver workshops to children of all ages as part of Tough Cookies since 1998, she has seen a significant change in attitudes towards intimacy.
‘A lot of the young people I talk to are outspoken, forthcoming and confident about sex, and don’t shy away about speaking about their experiences,’ she says.
‘There’s more understanding of what sex entails compared to before – part of that is a greater exposure to porn. To some degree, they’ve really developed and are coming to relationships with a non-judgemental approach.’
For example, Jenna Clark, 23, tells Metro.co.uk she has found that the sexual partners she chooses always accept her vaginismus – a condition that forces vaginal muscles on their own and makes penetrative sex painful. She speaks openly about it from the moment the call connects.
‘It certainly has an impact on who I date,’ Jenna says. ‘It makes me search for more open-minded people when I’m looking for a partner.
Jenna, who has met all her sexual partners through dating apps, continues: ‘On the whole, I would say we’re a pretty accepting bunch. I would put it down to the fact we’re better educated. That education is key for a wider understanding of values.’
It’s not just sex that Gen Z are more open and accepting of – deeper questions about identity and sexualities outside the heteronormative binary are widely welcomed.
Alistair, who identifies as a non-binary lesbian and prefers they/him pronouns, has found their identity has been mostly embraced by their peers.
‘They’re fine with it,’ the 19-year-old student explains. ‘We’re definitely, absolutely more accepting of how we date. When I say I’m asexual and queer to my mother, she doesn’t necessarily understand it – but my friends get it immediately.
‘Don’t get me wrong, I do have one or two gross boys who say that I’m “broken” or they can help “fix me”, but they’re certainly a minority – most others accept this is how I identify.’
Gen Z are also quicker to embrace unique relationship dynamics beyond your standard, bread-and-butter heteronormative pairing. Alongside staple casual encounters, polyamory and open relationships are becoming more appealing to younger generations. The annual LELO sex census has found 38% of people aged 18 to 24 are open to polyamory – 10% higher than their older counterparts.
Alistair believes the visual culture of the internet has led to the lessening of stigma around sexual experiences or kinks that would have previously been considered taboo.
‘There’s just so much out there now, be it sex-positive Instagram accounts or OnlyFans,’ they say. ‘People can see others try things on the internet that interest them, and they feel empowered to try those things too.
‘It causes a ripple effect, because before the internet was so easily accessible, people probably weren’t even aware of things like polyamory or other dynamics. Now, it’s readily and freely available to learn about from a simple Google search.’
However, it’s an overgeneralisation to say all of Gen Z are keen on exploring their sexual boundaries.
On the other end of the spectrum are the young people who are now actively choosing to embrace celibacy. The hashtag ‘puriteen’ – young people eschewing sex and porn – trended on TikTok back in 2021, with nearly 100 million views.
Meanwhile, one in four 18-24 year olds said in a LoveHoney survey that they have never had partnered sex.
Alistair, who is asexual, only felt comfortable about their sexuality when they found like-minded people.
‘I had a very Christian upbringing, so sex outside of marriage was always considered taboo anyway,’ they explain. ‘It’s not until I left the church that I started to question it.
‘I was hearing about people my age wanting to have sex and relationships with other people, and I just didn’t want that.
‘At first, I thought there was something wrong with me. As I identified as a lesbian as well, I didn’t have that attraction to men either, so I was really confused for a while. But overtime, I met more asexual people and I realised, it’s not just me, and I’m not broken.
‘Communication was vital for me in understanding who I was, and the internet was the facilitator for that.’
As the first generation to grow up with internet access at their fingertips, it’s of no surprise that Gen Z is more than well acquainted with pornography. It’s thought that 87% have seen porn, with their first interaction with X-rated material happening as young as 11.
For Tough Cookies’ Kerry, the extremity of the porn youngsters are exposed to, coupled with digital communication Gen Z relies on, is a toxic combination.
‘If you look back to what people might have seen on TV pre-internet, it wasn’t as scary compared to what some young people feel they might have to do in order to be with a partner,’ she explains. ‘Some of it is so extreme – it could give young people a false representation of what porn and sex looks like.’
However, Alistair argues that Gen Z are a little more savvy than their predecessors when spotting exaggeration and artifice on the internet.
‘We know there’s so much more sexual freedom online than in real life,’ they explain. ‘The proliferation of sites such as OnlyFans means sexual imagery is commonplace, and we know so much content is edited.’
Meanwhile, those like Maz and Jenna, who are sexually active, aren’t necessarily hooking up constantly even if the option to is there. They know they can simply arrange a no-strings attached one-night stand through a few taps and swipes – they’re just simply choosing not to.
This thoughtful consideration of partners may be why Rutger University found people aged between 18-23 are having 14% less sex than the generation before. It’s not necessarily down to an aversion of sex and kink, rather, Gen Z are opting to wait for more quality partners as opposed to amassing quantity.
‘If you look on Tinder and Bumble, people are casually dating, but a lot of people don’t necessarily want that,’ Jenna explains. ‘Sex is a really intimate thing and people may choose to be having less of it, because a lot of emotion does go into it.
‘I’m demisexual, which means I only develop sexual attraction after I’ve formed a close emotional relationship. I want something long-term, so the casual thing just doesn’t appeal anymore. It makes it hard as I want more than just a hook-up.’
It’s the conundrum at the very heart of Gen Z and their attitude towards relationships; sex is commonplace, but genuine heartfelt intimacy is exceptionally rare.
Maz puts it down to the hectic reality of most people’s day to day routines.
‘I think that’s why sneaky links are so popular,’ she says. ‘They provide fast-tracked intimacy. You don’t have time for yourself, let alone a relationship, but you might get lonely and want some form of connection. You’ll get it in any way that you can.’
For 74% of Gen Z, dating apps are the primary way of meeting potential partners. But more research suggests that over 90% of that age group are tired of Tinder, longing to have the sorts of meet-cutes so commonplace in the media.
Still, meeting a partner in real life is almost stuff of urban legend.
‘From my experience, no-one really hits on people when they’re out,’ Jenna explains. ‘They don’t try because they’re scared of rejection. Apps streamline the process, for better or for worse.’
Maz adds her frustrations at how others in her age bracket can get caught up in a constant back-and-forward of messages instead of organising to meet up.
‘I don’t want a penpal!’ she snorts.
Kerry Cabbin expresses her concern that this reliance on apps to communicate is resulting in young people being denied fundamental experiences vital to their emotional development.
‘Teenagers aren’t navigating relationships in person anymore,’ she says. ‘When you think of those classic rites of passage – being picked up and taken out, kissing in the cinema… do these things even happen anymore?
‘Young people communicate less on a face-to-face level because they just don’t have to. Going over and speaking to the stranger seems strange – you don’t have to deal with the pain of rejection.
‘But those parts of life are just as important to experience than as if someone said they like you back. They build up our resilience as they are experiences we have to expect in every aspect of life.’
Kerry adds that while access to information has led to greater understanding and acceptance that Gen Z has towards others, the proliferation of false information on sites such as TikTok, when twinned with general naivety of some young people, causes concern.
‘I see lots of people who could confidently talk about sex but then when I listen to what they’re saying, their experiences are pretty poor,’ she says. ‘I hear things that are inappropriate or distressing, such as broken boundaries or uncertain consent.
‘Yes, we may be seeing more people willing to talk positively about sex, but why aren’t we seeing increased condom use? More than half of 18-24 year olds have had unprotected sex at least once, and 20% of Gen Z opt out of regular STI testing.
‘I think only until we see decent relationship and sex education in schools, where people are properly educated about their bodies, with empowerment at its heart, will we see genuinely positive and helpful attitudes towards sex and relationships in all age brackets.’
It may be a while until this comes to fruition with the next generation; the UK government has only spent £3.2 million out of the original £6 million it promised to roll out on teacher training for its new compulsory sex education curriculum.
For Gen Z on the whole, it is generally accepted that despite their confidence they still have a lot to consider, and perhaps learn, when it comes to sex and relationships.
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Regardless, they are optimistic about what their relationships may have in store. For now, it seems, the kids are alright.
‘People my age are now thinking about whether they want to go down the traditional route of marriage and kids,’ Maz says.
‘I’m not putting pressure on myself. I’m keen to ride the wave. I know what my standards are, I don’t have expectations. If someone surprises me then that’s great, but if they don’t, then I know I’m going to be fine.’
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