The SMSNA periodically receives and publishes ‘guest editorials.’ The current article was submitted by Mia Barnes, a freelance writer and researcher who specializes in women's health, wellness, and healthy living. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Body+Mind Magazine.
The topic of why young people are having less casual sex is more than just a headline — it’s a reflection of changing social dynamics. A 2020 study revealed that between 2000-2002 and 2016-2018, the rate of sexually inactive men aged 18 to 24 rose from 18.9 to 30.9 percent. During the same time frame, the rate for sexually inactive young women increased from 15.1 to 19.1 percent.
Understanding these shifts can help you grasp more significant trends in emotional well-being, public health and societal values. This issue impacts people by shaping the future norms and behaviors of the younger generation. Concerned parents, health care providers or anyone interested in societal trends should take note.
1. Rise of Online Interactions
Social media and online platforms have become the new town squares for younger generations. They’re where friendships form, news circulates and romantic interests spark. Social networking site Facebook logged 3 billion monthly active users in 2023. However, this digital interaction often stays just that — digital.
The screen is a buffer, sometimes reducing the likelihood of these online connections transitioning to real-world, casual relationships. A 2020 survey suggested that 61% of young adults believe online connections will keep relationships alive. However, 84% of these respondents also expect in-person interactions will remain significant.
2. Economic Factors
Data from the Federal Reserve revealed that 37% of U.S. households couldn’t cover an unexpected $400 expense in cash without going into debt. This financial stress means younger people are often preoccupied with making ends meet rather than engaging in casual relationships that could entail additional expenses like dining out, entertainment or travel.
The financial cost of unplanned pregnancies can significantly deter young people grappling with economic instability. The average annual cost of raising a child in 2021 totaled $21,681, a 19.3% increase from $18,167 in 2016.
Likewise, marriage rates per 1,000 women in the U.S. dropped from 16.3 in 2011 to 14.9 in 2021. Experts say one consequential factor for this shift is the fluctuating economy. In addition, this phenomenon is more widespread in countries that closely correlate marriage with childbirth.
Moreover, the average age of U.S. adults at their first marriage has increased since 1998, when it was 25 and 26.7 for women and men, respectively. It steadily rose to 28.6 and 30.6 in 2021. As young people focus more on their financial stability, they also delay these significant milestones. This longer timeline for serious commitment naturally means less emphasis on casual relationships in the interim.
3. Health Concerns
Young people today are more educated about sexual health risks than ever before, thanks in part to improved sex education and easily accessible information online. A 2021 study found that 84% of adolescents from 2015 to 2019 received instruction about turning down sexual intercourse. This heightened awareness is often a deterrent against casual encounters due to the associated risks, such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Using protection and getting regular health checkups are vital for individual well-being, but they also play a role in population health management. Reducing the incidence of STIs and unplanned pregnancies safeguards personal lives and lessens the burden on health care systems.
4. Emotional Well-Being
Emotional well-being is receiving more attention now, and rightly so. Young people prioritize mental health, making them more mindful of the emotional implications of casual relationships.
In addition, 47% of Americans say dating is more challenging now than 10 years ago. Similarly, 21% of these people cite increased emotional and physical risks as primary reasons they find this endeavor arduous. This awareness often steers them toward seeking more profound and meaningful connections rather than fleeting encounters.
As emotional intelligence grows, the allure of casual relationships diminishes for many. Instead, there’s a trend toward seeking partnerships that offer depth, long-term potential, and quality over quantity.
5. Career Priorities
The career landscape is more competitive than ever, and young people are keenly aware of that. Many are investing time in educational pursuits, internships and work experiences right out of the gate, aiming for a stable and rewarding career.
This focus naturally demands a lot of time and energy, which leaves less room for casual relationships. Moreover, a fear of looming economic instability propels young adults to work on building a solid career foundation.
According to a global internship survey, 86% expressed concern about a recession. Only 45% of respondents expect to be in a committed relationship or marriage within the next 10 years.
Connecting the Dots on Changing Relationship Trends
While these factors offer a glimpse into why young people have less casual sex, it’s crucial to consider them collectively to grasp this societal shift fully. These elements don’t operate in a vacuum — they’re interconnected and influence one another.
Understanding these factors in a broader context enables you to better appreciate the evolving norms around relationships, emotional well-being and public health. Taking a holistic view offers invaluable insights into the changing landscape of young people’s lives.
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Lindberg, L. D., & Kantor, L. M. (2021, November 4). Adolescents’ Receipt of Sex Education in a Nationally Representative Sample, 2011-2019. Journal of Adolescent Health. https://www.jahonline.org/article/S1054-139X(21)00444-4/fulltext#:~:text=More%20adolescents%20received%20instruction%20about,(54%25%E2%80%9360%25).
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