Gen Z is Missing Out on the Benefits of Sex
September 21, 2022 by Justin Lehmiller
Generally speaking, sexual activity is good for our mental health. Sex (however you like to do it) has the potential to enhance our psychological well-being, as well as the connection we have with a spouse or partner.
However, research suggests that sexual activity is slowly receding from our lives. While the overall trend points to a small but study decline in partnered sex over the last few decades, this trend obscures a massive downward spiral in sexual activity among adults under age 25—often referred to as Generation Z.
A fast-growing segment of Gen Z adults are hitting the snooze button on their sex lives. Some older adults see this as cause for celebration because, after all, less sex will likely translate to fewer STIs, unintended pregnancies, and abortions (which, in the U.S., are now increasingly difficult to access).
At the same time, however, the rise in sexlessness among young adults comes with the cost of not being able to tap into the myriad benefits of sexual activity, including the positive effects on psychological well-being. And this, in part, may be exacerbating the mental health crisis we’re seeing in Gen Z.
Research shows that in the 1990s, adults under age 25 reported better mental health than in generations past. Flash forward to today, and the pattern is precisely the opposite. So why might a drop in sexual activity coincide with a decline in mental health?
How Sex Is Good For Mental Health
Partnered sex can boost our psychological well-being in several ways. For one thing, it provides a temporary mood boost. In longitudinal research where young adults were asked to keep a daily diary for three weeks, researchers found that on days people reported having sex, their well-being was higher the next day.
Specifically, people reported more positive mood states, fewer negative mood states, and more meaning in life. The benefits lasted longer when intimacy was present, suggesting that it’s not just sex itself but also the connection we feel with another person through sex that matters.
Similarly, other research has found that on days people have sex, they’re actually happier on the job—and more engaged with their work—the following day.
Part of the reason for this may be due to the fact that sex is a well-known stress reliever. Longitudinal research on couples finds that having sex on high-stress days is linked to decreases in stress the following day—and the decrease in stress is bigger than what you normally see when sex doesn’t occur.
Regular sexual activity may also be a protective factor against anxiety and mood disorders. For example, in a study of sexual activity and mental health conducted during the COVID-19 lockdowns, those who were sexually active reported fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, while lack of sex was linked to a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression.
This wasn’t just due to differences in access to a partner, either. Whether people were or were not living with a partner during lockdown, sexual activity was linked to better mental health than not having sex.
In short, sex—and physical intimacy more generally—appear to have a number of positive effects on well-being. Thus, when we take sex off of the table entirely, we miss out on an important means of bolstering our mental health.
How Many Young Adults Are Missing The Benefits Of Sex?
Adults under age 25 aren’t having as much sex as generations past—and many of them aren’t doing it at all. Results from several nationally representative surveys conducted in the US, UK, and several other countries point to this conclusion.
Young adults are having sex less often and they’re doing it with fewer partners, and this is especially true for young men. For example, data from the US General Social Survey reveal that the number of men reporting no sex in the past year rose from about 1 in 5 (18.9%) in 2000 to nearly 1 in 3 (30.9%) by 2018.
I’ve documented something similar in my own research. For instance, in a representative survey of 2,000 American adults age 18-44 conducted in 2021 by the Kinsey Institute and Lovehoney, we found that, across genders, Gen Z adults reported a lower frequency of sex than people in their 30s and 40s. Further, 1 in 4 young adults say that they’ve yet to have partnered sex, with young men reporting higher rates of sexlessness than young women.
In this study, we also found that Gen Z adults reported the highest levels of stress and anxiety and, further, that lower levels of sexual activity were linked to higher levels of stress.
The Link Between Sexual Activity And Mental Health Is Complex
As sexlessness has risen among young adults, so have rates of psychological distress. Of course, correlation is not causation—and I am in no way suggesting that the Gen Z mental health crisis is simply a function of what’s going on in their sex lives.
Gen Z’s mental health struggles have been tied to a large number of things, including increased technology and smartphone use, helicopter parenting, student debt, and other financial concerns, as well as anxiety about the future health of the planet (see here for a more comprehensive analysis).
There are clearly many factors fueling this mental health crisis, with growing sexlessness being just one. And at the same time, this mental health crisis is also part of what’s behind the drop in sexual activity. Stress is one of the biggest libido killers out there—in general, the more stressed we feel, the less likely it is that sexual desire will set in and that we’ll be able to become and stay aroused.
So, there’s likely a bidirectional association here: worsening mental health results in less sex, and simultaneously, less sex can worsen mental health.
Once sex disappears from the menu, we lose an important and highly effective form of stress relief as well as a way to boost our mood, to feel deeply connected to someone else, and to feel meaning in life. These benefits are not easily replaced by other forms of self-care because when we don’t have sexual relationships, it can be hard to meet our need for intimate touch.
You don’t necessarily have to have sex to be happy, of course. But if you’re not having sex, it’s important to find other ways to meet our deep human need for connection.
Tips for a Healthy Sex Life
For young adults (and adults of any age, really), there is a lot you can do to improve your sex life and tap into the benefits of sex at the same time. It all starts with getting in the right headspace for sex, so here are four helpful tips:
Tip #1: Find ways to manage stress and anxiety.
Stress is one of the biggest libido killers out there. Stress can also undermine sexual performance by creating distraction and anxiety. So in order to have good sex (and even be in the mood for it), it’s important to find ways to relieve stress and be in the moment. This is essential for orgasm. For many people, being able to “let go” is crucial for climax. One sexual difficulty that distinguishes Gen Z from older adults is that Gen Z reports more difficulty orgasming. So, for young adults, exploring relaxation, mindfulness, or other stress-reduction techniques may be especially important for getting to the peak of pleasure.
Also, if you’re engaging in sexual activities that have the potential to result in unwanted pregnancy, it is important to take sufficient precautions to set your mind at ease. For some, this might mean starting on a long-lasting, reversible contraceptive, such as an IUD or contraceptive implant. For others, it might mean combining multiple contraceptive methods to increase effectiveness and provide back-up protection, such as using both condoms and birth control pills. Short of complete sterilization, no method of birth control is 100% effective; however, by choosing highly effective methods, applying them correcting and consistently every time, and combining hormonal and barrier methods, you can dramatically lower the risk of unintended pregnancy.
Tip #2: Explore your body – and maybe get some sex toys.
While Gen Z may be less experienced with partnered sex, they are no less experienced with masturbation. So capitalize on self-pleasure! Masturbation can help you to better understand your own body and what does and does not feel good. This can help to ensure that when the time does come for partnered sex, you’ll have a better idea of what you want. This is where exploring sex toys can potentially help. Toys can help you to experience different kinds of sensations, and can even mimic the experience of partnered activities.
Tip #3: Get some Lube.
In our data, young adults – particularly those who identified as women – reported more difficulties centering around sexual pain than older adults. Sexual pain is multifactorial and, if it’s something you’re experiencing, it’s important to consult with your medical provider to determine the cause. That said, there are a lot of self-help strategies for dealing with this kind of pain. Start with Tip #1: stress reduction and relaxation. Being stressed and tense can inhibit arousal, thereby reducing natural vaginal lubrication. But if pain is still an issue, consider adding a supplemental lubricant, because this is one of the most well-established ways of reducing sexual pain. Don’t skimp on the foreplay, either. Research shows that the longer you spend building up arousal prior to penetration, the more pleasurable sex is likely to be.
Tip #4: Embrace your kinky side.
Our data also show that, compared to Gen X and Millennials, Gen Z is kinkier – and that’s not a bad thing at all! Kink/BDSM is a convenient way of changing your headspace and being more in the moment during sex. Leaning into your kinky side can therefore offer some of the same benefits as stress reduction by allowing you to focus more on pleasure and sensation, rather than getting lost in distracting thoughts.
Sex is good for our mental health in many ways. And what we’re seeing is that in a generation where sex is rapidly receding, this coincides with a decline in psychological well-being.
Those who see Gen Z’s growing sexual avoidance as a cause for celebration are missing the bigger picture here. Sexlessness can be both a symptom and cause of poor mental health. That’s a cause for concern—not celebration.
That said, for Gen Z adults who want to have more – and better – sex and tap into the myriad benefits of it, there are plenty of things worth trying.
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Image Credits: Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash
- Kashdan, T. B., Goodman, F. R., Stiksma, M., Milius, C. R., & McKnight, P. E. (2017). Sexuality Leads to Boosts in Mood and Meaning in Life With No Evidence for the Reverse Direction: A Daily Diary Investigation. Emotion.
- Leavitt, K., Barnes, C. M., Watkins, T., & Wagner, D. T. (2019). From the bedroom to the office: Workplace spillover effects of sexual activity at home. Journal of Management, 45(3), 1173-1192.
- Ein-Dor, T., & Hirschberger, G. (2012). Sexual healing: Daily diary evidence that sex relieves stress for men and women in satisfying relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 126-139.
- Mollaioli, D., Sansone, A., Ciocca, G., Limoncin, E., Colonnello, E., Di Lorenzo, G., & Jannini, E. A. (2021). Benefits of sexual activity on psychological, relational, and sexual health during the COVID-19 breakout. The journal of sexual medicine, 18(1), 35-49.
- Ueda P, Mercer CH, Ghaznavi C, Herbenick D. Trends in frequency of sexual activity and number of sexual partners among adults aged 18 to 44 years in the US, 2000-2018. JAMA Network Open. 2020;3(4):e203833.
Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >