In his letter to the fictional protagonist of “Cat Person,” my colleague Kyle Smith writes:
Robert is your seventh sexual partner. You’re 20 years old. Margot, I don’t know what the right number is for you, but seven is too many.
. . .
I’m from Gen X, two generations older than you, and I can tell you that, not that long ago, seven sex partners might have been considered a fairly robust tally for a lifetime. But for a 20-year-old? I know guys from college who married the third or second or even first girl they ever slept with. Needless to say, going back to a generation before me, seven sex partners in a lifetime would have been considered a startling number.
I hate to admit it — as someone whose 1984 birth arguably makes him a candidate for Generation X — but it’s unlikely that today’s teens and young adults are drastically more promiscuous than Generation Xers were. There’s just not much evidence of it in the survey data, and while surveys about sexual behavior are hardly perfect, I’d argue they’re more reliable than the sense we might get from pop culture.
In her book iGen, the psychology professor Jean Twenge pulled together some numbers on teens, finding that whereas the typical Gen X teen lost his or her virginity in the tenth grade, today that tends to happen a year later. The drop is biggest among ninth graders; nearly 40 percent of them had had sex in 1991, but fewer than 25 percent have today.
Twenge finds that overall sex-partner counts are falling across generations too. And for my review of Mark Regnerus’s Cheap Sex, I dove into the data myself, focusing on people in their 30s to account for the possibility that later generations are getting started more slowly but then making up for lost time:
I couldn’t find any trend for men. . . . Their median number of sex partners [since age 18] was six in the 1989–98 [General Social Surveys] (which I combined to boost the sample size a bit), six in the 2000–08 period, and . . . six once again in the four most recent surveys, conducted between 2010 and last year.
Women’s median has climbed from three to four over the same period, though it’s hard to tell if they’re actually having more sex or if they’re just more willing to admit it these days. After all, sex-partner surveys are notorious for producing the mathematically impossible result that men are having more sex with women than women are having with men.
Unfortunately this survey isn’t a great fit for 20-year-old Margot’s situation, because it asks about partners since age 18. Among women age 20 to 24, however, the median has held steady at two since the 1990s. In the 2010s, just over half reported two or fewer, with another third reporting three to six. There does seem to be an increase in sex-partner counts in the three-to-six range (which in the 1990s applied to just a quarter of young women), but no increase in young women reporting seven or more. As above, it’s hard to say whether this is a change in honesty or a change in behavior.
Everyone younger than yours truly is an insufferable snowflake. That goes without saying. But the evidence for increasing promiscuity is spotty at best.