Millennials might be the most maligned generation in history. We are labelled entitled, avocado-toast-obsessed and narcissistic. We spend all our cash on brunch, we are snowflakes and we are so consumed by social media that we have the concentration span of a gnat. Most of the time, I couldn’t disagree more, but there is one “millennial cliché” with which I concur, and that is that we don’t have sex.
I’ve been celibate for a year. The last time I had sex was a tipsy encounter with a friend who needed a little pick-me-up, which made me feel worthless because it didn’t mean anything. My last committed relationship was three years ago with someone I thought was “the one”. He wasn’t.
It’s not just me. Research suggests that millennials are going through what The Atlantic once termed a “sex recession”. According to a study by Jean M Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, today’s young people are on track to have fewer sexual partners than members of the two preceding generations, suggesting that people in their early twenties are two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as members of Generation X were at that age, with 15 per cent in the US reporting having no sex since they reached adulthood.
My celibacy perplexes my older friends, who always react the same way: I’m 26, they say, this is the time to experiment and play the field. They assume there is something wrong with me, that I haven’t had options or opportunities to get laid, but that isn’t true. Thanks to the dozens of dating apps available (on which more later), I could have sex delivered quicker than Deliveroo if I wanted.
No, it’s not want of opportunity that’s the issue. The truth is more prosaic: I’m too busy, too tired and don’t want my heart broken — like the rest of my generation. One like-minded friend aged 27 told me she had given up sex because it’s not worth the faff of putting sheets in the wash, while another at 31 says she is sick of being catfished by men who pretend to be footballers and has decided to go on a six-month digital and sex detox.
I’m too busy, too tired and don’t want my heart broken — like the rest of my generation.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this has arisen at a time when, thanks to online dating, sex and the promise of sex have never been more readily available. Like all my friends I joined Plenty of Fish aged 21. There I met someone from Cambridge who, the minute I travelled from London to see him, asked me to do something I won’t repeat in a newspaper. I politely declined and took the next train home. Since then I have worked my way through Tinder, Bumble, VIP dating, Raya (where I matched and was inevitably ghosted by a moderately famous TV actor) and now Hinge.
At first these sites seemed like the perfect way to meet people. But the opposite is true. The premise — of choosing someone based on a picture, agreeing to go on a date based on virtual “banter” — means that you are judged solely on the way you look and perceive yourself online, rather than in the real world. The result can mean endless messaging instead of IRL dating — essentially, becoming online pen pals. It’s practically Victorian.
Things Get Brutal Fast
When you do meet, and are inevitably either disappointed or a disappointment, things get brutal, fast — as I learnt the first time I was “ghosted”. This is when you start seeing someone (a guy I had met on Hinge) and everything seems to be going well, until … they disappear. First the morning texts stopped, then he stopped replying when I messaged him. When I confronted him about his lack of communication he responded with: “I’m just really busy with work right now and dating isn’t one of my priorities.” We never spoke again. I got off lightly — a friend who is 30 has been ghosted three times.
The result is that dating is a convoluted and time-consuming affair, which isn’t something I can afford, not least because, like many of my peers, I’m throwing everything I have at carving out a career. After studying law at the Open University while working at a law firm in the City, I spent five months getting a journalism qualification, fitting it around an apprenticeship at a regional newspaper while shelling out hundreds of pounds commuting from my parents’ house in Essex (I also pay them rent).
Now I work all hours, juggling writing with editing shifts at magazines and newspapers. Then there are my side hustles (no self-respecting millennial is without one): volunteering for Mind, a mental health charity, and doing TV and radio work whenever I get the opportunity.
Obsessed with Work
If this sounds unusually dedicated, it’s not. My generation is obsessed with work. This is partly down to circumstance: student debt, the housing market. But the internet has created a hyper-competitive space where success is fetishised. We are bombarded with motivational posts on Instagram (“I don’t have time to be average”, “Type ‘yes’ if you are going to be a millionaire”), while fashionable career guides that speak to a millennial audience, such as Emma Gannon’s The Multi-Hyphen Method, Phoebe Lovatt’s The Working Woman’s Handbook and Otegha Uwagba’s Little Black Book, are bestsellers.
It’s not just work. We are generation fomo (fear of missing out), always feeling we should be doing better — whether that’s crushing our goals in the gym or keeping up with the Keto diet. If this means that finding a mate takes a back seat, so be it (one friend recently said she was taking a break from dating to focus on her “goals”).
I should clarify: my celibacy wasn’t initially deliberate. It crept up on me — I only realised it had been a year when over lunch a few weeks ago some girlfriends asked me to give them an update on my sex life, and I noticed how long it had been.
Since then it has become more conscious. The past 12 months might have been sexless, but they have also been among my most productive. I’m not glued to my phone, staring at some fling’s “Last Seen” on WhatsApp, worrying if he has been online or read my message and ignored it. Being celibate has allowed me to take a step back and appreciate myself for who I am, rather than worrying about what my date thinks of me. I’m more nonchalant and accepting, and less neurotic. I have more money because I don’t have to worry about having to put some aside for a “date night”.
Like everyone I know, I watched Love Island every day this summer, thinking of all the things I want to do to Ovie Soko, the 6ft 7in basketball player who gained popularity for his bucket hats and shouting “Message” when their phones pinged. And, yes, I have paused to reflect on the irony of this sex-crazed show being so popular among my sex-averse generation. But when I watched contestant Amy Hart’s heartbreak play out on national television when her “half-boyfriend” Curtis Pritchard brutally dumped her after she declared her love, I couldn’t help but think that, with its partner-hopping and forced romance, Love Island is like one giant app brought to life, and it illustrates the most brutal thing about dating in the digital age: the feeling that there will always be someone better than you.
I love the idea of being in a relationship, and the idea of falling in love. There’s no rush, however. According to the Office for National Statistics, in heterosexual unions the age at first marriage for men is 33.4 and for women 31.5 — a record high since the 1970s. As Jo Hemmings, a psychologist and relationship coach, puts it: “We’re getting married or settling down much later than previous generations, there simply isn’t the urgency to find that person.”
And, as it happens, I went on my first date in months last week with someone I met on social media. He too is celibate and somehow we are on the same page. I’ll break my celibacy one day, but it will be a natural process and it will be with someone with whom I have a strong connection. I hope it will be with someone who will show me how committed, trustworthy and caring they are. But soon? No. I have far too much on my plate.