Back in January, before the hazy, rose-scented fumes of Valentine’s Day, we decided to conduct some research.
The love lives of young consumers, of course.
We wanted to know what made the collective heart of this generation skip a beat: the Grindr aficionados, the OnlyFans creators, the self-proclaimed “liberalest cohort yet”.
The results were pretty surprising. It appeared that whilst young consumers were all for inclusivity and lessening the taboo around sex, taking part in the practice itself was…lacking. It was official: Gen Z were having less sex than any other generation.
Fast-forward eight months to the present day, and not a huge amount has changed. In fact, according to Bumble’s 2023 Sex Index, this collective dry spell is far from over.
Single and skint
Due to the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, 65% of young people can’t afford to move out of their childhood homes. This has caused their dating lives to take a big hit (because nothing screams sexy like taking a first date back to the house you share with mum and dad).
One UK Gen Zer, Katie* shared that the cost-of-living crisis had led to fatigue towards dating apps. She shared “because I have less money, I’d rather prioritise plans I’ve made with friends rather than plans that I’ve made with strangers. Also, I know that I’ll usually be drinking on a first date, which isn’t exactly cheap in a city like London”.
Gen Z are a melting pot of gender identities and sexualities, eschewing societal expectations
Samantha Jones famously described herself as a “try-sexual” – she’d try anything once.
Despite Sex And The City holding a slightly older viewing demographic, Jones’ words echo like passed down wisdom from your favourite aunt. Young consumers aren’t afraid to experiment, using sex as a tool in their own self-discovery journeys. In fact, according to LELO, 38% of Gen Z are open to polyamory.
Non-monogamy apps like Feeld have flourished in recent years, with the CEO Ana Kirova sharing that whilst Gen Z represents a smaller proportion of their overall user base, this demographic are “certainly more fluid with their sexuality”, making up Feeld’s “smallest straight-identifying audience”.
Sex-periences via a phone screen
For Gen Z, sex has been at their fingertips their whole lives. Sexual discovery is easy when you have a smartphone: the internet is home to countless porn sites, dating apps offer a shuffled card deck of romantic partners, and apps like TikTok are brimming with educational sexual content.
However, accessibility comes with peril
Last year, singer Billie Eilish made headlines when she shared that watching porn from the age of 11 had “destroyed her brain”. She spoke candidly about “suffering from nightmares” because some of the content she watched was so violent and abusive. Unfortunately, the normalisation of pain in pornography has had alarming real life effects.
A third of British women under 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, spitting or choking in bed, according to the pressure group We Can’t Consent To This.
Gen Z are the first generation to have had chronic exposure to pornography; and the influence on their intimacy capacities is pungent. Like it or not, pornography skews ideas about sexual acts, power and intimacy – and it’s urgent for brands and institutions to challenge this.
Why proper sex education is imperative
There are some positive steps being taken here. In the UK, sex education was made a compulsory part of the curriculum three years ago. However, compulsory doesn’t always equal comprehensive.
Our 2023 survey revealed that two in five young people don’t feel represented in sex education. A massive 87% believe that sex education in schools isn’t inclusive enough.
One male student shared to Student Beans that their school “never really mentioned anything about LGBTQ+ in sex ed – they just mentioned the risks such as AIDS and HIV and mainly portrayed it in a bad light’.
Post-graduate student Bee, who has disabilities including Fibromyalgia, Joint Hypermobility Syndrome and Inflammatory Arthiritis shared:
“From my perspective, I feel like schools should teach more about the experiences of marginalised people: from BIPOC , to disabled people, to LGBTQ+ individuals, to fat folks etc. We should talk about all the different forms of sex and relationships. From monogamy, to polyamory, to asexuality & aromantic, to safety and consent, and everything else outside of this and in between. We should be taught that sex and relationships are not one size fits all – and that this is beautiful.
There are so many different ways to feel joy and pleasure, and we have a duty – as a society – to make sure that people feel represented and seen.”
This just isn’t doing anything for me…
Sex-positive feminism has been credited with shattering taboos around masturbation, LGBTQ+ rights and periods, thanks to its insistence on the rights for female sexual pleasure.
Young consumers are championing this movement. In fact, they’re fighting shame with the ultimate weapon: transparency. Fuelled by the visual culture of the internet age, Gen Z are confident talking about sex openly. This includes being outspoken about what is, and isn’t, working for them.
Carmen*, a 24 year old graduate shared to Student Beans:
“I feel like the point of having sex – especially for me – is to be able to climax. I don’t see the point in sleeping with someone and for them to guess what I like and don’t like. It’s important to communicate, and I’d expect my partner to do the same”
When asked about whether this had always been her attitude, she responded:
“I faked orgasms when I first started having sex – but I hadn’t even explored what I liked or didn’t like at this point. If someone isn’t doing it for you, there’s no need to fake it. I don’t feel like I have to appease the person I’m sleeping with to make them feel better.”
However, there’s still some way to go
We talk a lot about Gen Z at Student Beans. However, it would be erroneous here to categorise the feelings of an entire generation as one! Gen Z aren’t a homogenous group – and despite sharing common characteristics such as inclusivity, self-awareness and self-compassion, this doesn’t extend to every individual.
In June 2023, we interviewed Gen Z OnlyFans creator, Abby Furness, as part of our Youth Trends Report.
Abby launched her account whilst she was still at university, initially posting photos that hid her face. After a while, she began to post full body shots and went public with her identity.
The reactions were unpleasant. She shared that she faced a shocking amount of slut-shaming; specifically from her peers. One of her housemates refused to take group photos with her and tried to disassociate himself from her, telling her “it’s disgusting what you do, and I don’t want to be around it.”. This same individual shared that he “would never have a girlfriend that did OnlyFans”, and lambasted Abby for having “no self-respect”.
Unfortunately, this sentiment wasn’t exclusive to her male peers. Abby revealed that “as soon as the girls in my year found out, they brushed me off. They said that I wouldn’t go anywhere in the world and wouldn’t get a job”.
To learn more about Gen Z’s attitudes towards sex work and the creator economy, check out chapter five of the Youth Trends Report, where we discuss this in more detail.
Which creators and brands are leading the charge?
When it comes to enforcing positive change, brands and creators are in a sweet spot. They have influence, and the capacity to ignite powerful discourse. One example of a brand killing it in this space is LoveHoney.
LoveHoney assisted with the funding and creation of a new ISO standard (the very first international safety standard for sex toys). In 2020, they sponsored a clinical study titled Menstrubation, which proved that masturbation could help with period pain. And, in 2021, they announced a new initiative titled ‘The Pleasure Fund’. This is a five-year commitment to investing $300,000 USD into women’s health, sexual well-being and sexual pleasure research.
The Pleasure Fund aims to narrow the gender health gap: which has widened as a result of the lower priority status given to medical research for women.
Equally, online creators such as Dr Tara have been instrumental in lessening the taboos around sex. Dr Tara is TikTok’s most followed sexpert, and has been a go-to resource for Gen Zers looking for digestible information on sex and relationships. She covers everything from queefing to pegging, smashing stigmas in the best way possible: with a great sense of humour.
She recently landed a spot on the E4 show Celebs Go Dating, bringing her advice on-screen to stars such as Chloe Burrows and Lottie Moss.
And finally, how can institutions better their sex education?
As we shared, sex education still has a long way to go. Institutions, just like brands and creators, also have the power to ignite meaningful change from the ground up. But, sometimes, this works best by starting small. Schools often struggle for time, funding and resources – so it might not be possible for big changes to happen immediately, but there are smaller changes which can be enacted quickly.
Ask for sex education websites to be unblocked
These kinds of websites often get caught up in school network porn filters, making useful resources inaccessible. You can also ask for inclusive sex education books like ‘Can We Talk About Consent?’, ‘Here and Queer’ and my book ‘HONEST: Everything They Don’t Tell You About Sex, Relationships and Bodies’ to be added to your school library.
Involve students with lesson planning
No one knows what teenagers want to know better than teenagers themselves. Ask students what issues are important to them. By creating a safe environment and encouraging feedback and discussion, students can help to shape a curriculum which is relevant and useful to them.
Mirroring the school’s demographic to provide support on their specific issues
There need to be a couple of approaches to inclusivity in the classroom. The first is the bigger picture: looking at the world we live in and the people who live in it and making sure we’re being representative of all of these different experiences people have. The second is looking at the demographic of the school and the specific issues that community faces.
If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, please find some resources below:
Some names have been changed to protect privacy.