Its not that hookup culture doesnt shape millennials expectations when it comes to sex. But those concerns are as likely to be emotional as practical
When I was 11 years old, copies of the now defunct Australian teen magazine Dollystarted mysteriously showing up in my familys living room. At the time, I thought my mother was buying them for her own entertainment, and passing them on to me when she was done the way she did the other magazines she read. But with a couple of decades hindsight, I now realise the magazines were purchased for my benefit.
At that point, I was already educated in the basics of sex and puberty. But the magazines provided answers to the questions that would plague my adolescence. How to a form a relationship? When was the right time to have sex? What did it mean to desire and be desired, and how did I fit into that? What is love? (Baby, dont hurt me, dont hurt me)
The answers the magazines gave me werent always the most constructive, but their presence in our house sent a clear and important message: that in our family, sex and relationships were subjects that could be discussed openly and without fear.
Not much has changed, if a new study out of Harvard University is to be believed. The report, titled The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young Peoples Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment, argues that frets about a hookup culture of allegedly rampant casual sex are misplaced. In reality, only 8% of US 18- to 19-year-olds have had four or more sexual partners in the past year, and the vast majority of 18- to 25-year-olds report dating in exclusive relationships or not at all. According to a widely-reported 2015 study on sexual practices across generations, young people born in the 1990s are more likely to have had no sexual partners since the age of 18 than either Gen Xers or Babyboomers before them.
That doesnt mean that the spectre of hookup culture doesnt shape young peoples expectations when it comes to sex. But these concerns are as likely to be emotional as they are practical about what a good relationship looks like, how to avoid getting hurt, how to deal with breakups, and how to begin a relationship in the first place.
Media images of love, the authors write, may be more toxic than media images of violence in part because we are not taught to view them as aberrant.
In movies, books, and on TV, sex is portrayed as a powerful force that transforms children into adults and ugly ducklings into sexy swans, and love as an instantaneous, unmistakable attraction that is driven as much by pain as by pleasure. In practice, these narratives lead us to measure our self-worth according to our ability to catch and keep a romantic or sexual partner, or to stay in a relationship that is abusive or otherwise harmful because our abuse is coupled with fevered declarations of love.
I observed the same sense of sex as what British sociologist Ken Plummer calls the Big Story in the men and women I interviewed for my 2015 book, The Sex Myth. As Sarah, 25, described it: Everything in the media, literature, popular culture points to sex. If youre not married or in a relationship, its expected that youll be hooking up with people and dating. Thats just what you do. You have a love life and you talk about whatever your latest chapter is.
But while the topic we were ostensibly speaking about was sex, as in the Harvard report, the reason the subject mattered to us was because it was deeply tied up with our emotional lives. Whether we were women or men, queer or straight, sex was the lens through which we had been taught to evaluate our desirability, our capacity to connect with other people, and the status our existing romantic relationships. Talking about it openly and exchanging vulnerabilities served as a way to make sense of our experiences; to understand ourselves and how we fit in with other people.
And talking about it as the title of the Harvard report suggests is precisely what is necessary to tackle the issues teenagers and young adults are facing when it comes sex, whether thats the challenge of forming a relationship based on mutual honesty and respect rather than mutual social posturing, or the challenge of battling the everyday misogyny and homophobia of catcalling, sexual harassment, and sexualised insults.
But where conventionally the sex talk has been thought of as a one-off event, in which a parent explains to a child where babies come from or a PE teacher demonstrates how to put a condom on a banana, the Harvard researchers argue it should be approached more the way my mother did it as an ongoing dialogue.
Seventy per cent of the 2000+ young adults who responded to the Harvard survey said they wished they had received more information from their parents about the emotional aspects of romantic relationships. And the report comes equipped with a series of talking points for parents to discuss with their children, ranging from what romantic love is and what it feels like, to lessons theyve learned from their own relationships, to ethical quandaries like what makes a relationship exploitative.
Parents likely wont have all the answers to these questions. They are issues that have cut to the heart of philosophy and human experience for millennia, after all.
But simply being open to the conversation to keeping it on the family dining table, so to speak can make a big difference. In the same way that when we talk to a friend, we often get the best results not when we follow their advice to the letter but when we use our conversation as an opportunity for mutual reflection and learning, parents and children can learn the most from each other when they engage with mutual respect.