Why Toronto Millennials aren’t having sex

Porn, online dating, hookup culture – you’d think they’d shape a generation that’s promiscuous, but many Millennials aren’t having sex at all. Young locals tell us why


I’m a Millennial. Like many others in my generation (born sometime between 1981 and 1995), I came of age in the early days of the Internet. I watched my family swap land lines for cellphones and then smartphones. I spend most of my waking hours online. 

I’m underpaid and overworked. I’ve taken out loans and battled unemployment. I don’t own a car, don’t have kids and don’t ever expect to be able to afford a house. I blame most of my problems on baby boomers. 

One more thing: I’m not having much sex.

Turns out I’m not alone. A report published last August in the journal Archives Of Sexual Behavior came with the headline Sexual Inactivity During Young Adulthood Is More Common Among U.S. Millennials And iGen

The study asked more than 33,000 respondents how many sexual partners they had had from the age of 18. Millennials averaged eight. Boomers, on the other hand, had about 11 and Gen Xers 10. To top it off, younger Millennials born in the 1990s were twice as likely to be sexually inactive compared to previous generations.

The results were enough to send the media into a frenzy. How is it that a generation presumed to be sex-crazed and promiscuous because of the availability of porn, online dating and hookup culture isn’t actually that interested in doing the deed? What’s wrong with kids these days?

Sam Wei, a 26-year-old financial analyst from Chicago, told the Washington Post she wasn’t having sex because it muddies relationships. Intellectual conversation, she claimed, is more intimate and stimulating anyway. Noah Patterson, an 18-year-old web designer from Washington, said he was too busy working multiple jobs to go on a date, let alone have sex.

There are so many explanations for our sexless lives: growing up in the wake of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, the rise in other sexually transmitted diseases and infections, the popularity of abstinence-only sex education. 

Then there’s the economy to consider – the fact that Millennials are saddled with more student debt than ever and living with their parents for longer, the rise of precarious low-paid work, the uncertainty of health benefits and the cost of birth control and safe sex.

When NOW put out a call for Toronto Millennials interested in talking about their sex life – or lack thereof – we got dozens of responses. People across the city were willing to talk frankly about sex, sexuality, lifestyle and mental health, while asking for no pity and feeling no shame. Clearly, we want to have this conversation. 

So let’s talk about sex.

Barriers to entry

Sarah T. had a lot of sex when she was in college, but as she’s approached 30, there’s been less time for relationships and hook-ups. The hospitality worker devotes most of her waking hours to one of three jobs: working at a hotel, hosting events and running her budding photography business. When she gets home at night, all she wants to do is watch a few episodes of her favourite Netflix show and go to bed.

“Jobs don’t pay very much, so I work a lot to make ends meet, making sure I can pay my rent and my student loans,” she says. “I don’t even get weekends off, so when I have free time, I spend it with my family or friends. The whole sex and dating thing is great, but I find it’s kind of a luxury.”

To satisfy urges and flirt with guys, Sarah uses Tinder, a location-based dating app commonly used for casual sex. However, she doesn’t actually go on dates. She uses the phone app’s instant messaging function to chat with guys. Sometimes there’s sexting involved, but it’s all done conveniently from the comfort of Sarah’s own home.

“It’s kind of like being on an imaginary date, but you don’t have to prioritize actually physically meeting someone,” she explains. “I use it to satisfy that urge, to scratch that itch.”

It lets Sarah focus on more important aspects of her life the rest of the time and not worry about the stress and complications that often come with intimate relationships.

Lena B. also gave up sex after a relationship ended in July 2016. She says she wanted to focus on applying to a masters program and didn’t want romance to get in her way.

“I didn’t want to have sex and get attached to anyone, because I didn’t even know where I was going to live in a few months,” she says. “Generally, I fall for guys and let them decide my life in a weird way.”

She remained abstinent until December, when she hooked up with a long-time friend. 

“I was really honest with him about not wanting a relationship,” she adds. “I think if I could have sex once every two weeks with someone I trusted but we weren’t going to fall for each other, that would be ideal.”

Viewing sex and relationships as an obstacle to career and life goals isn’t uncommon. As fictional champion boxer Rocky Balboa once put it, “Hey, Adrian, I’m serious now. There’s no fooling around during training, understand? I want to stay strong.”

Toronto psychotherapist Stephen Biggs, who works in outpatient mental health at Michael Garron Hospital (formerly Toronto Eastern), believes this dilemma might feel even stronger for Millennials, who are likely battling job and financial insecurity. 

“Patients who are younger living in Toronto have a lot of anxiety about what their lives are going to be in terms of affording a place to live, getting a job – all those things,” he says. “You can’t feel your sexiest when you’re worried about those things, but it doesn’t mean you’re not craving sexual intimacy or connection with people.”

Kimberly H. understands this feeling all too well. The 31-year-old veterinary assistant and her husband of two years both take antidepressants to help cope with anxiety. Her anxiety is rooted in financial stress, among other things. 

“When you don’t have a lot of money, it puts you in the mindset that you don’t deserve to treat yourself [to things] like a date night,” she says. “It’s kind of like a dark cloud that hangs over you.”

Kimberly has been on antidepressants for the better part of 10 years, and she’s noticed their effect on her sex drive. Decreased libido is a common side effect of SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and many other psychiatric medications. There isn’t much research into solutions for patients aside from reducing dosages. 

Biggs compares the effects of antidepressants on the brain to those experienced during adolescence. 

“Your body chemistry changes just like brain chemistry changes when you’re having hormonal changes in puberty,” he explains. “Your experience of sex and sexuality is going to change, just like in menopause it’s going to change. In a way, you have to relearn how to be sexual.”

Kimberly says she almost never has sex with her husband any more, and her libido has plummeted. She doesn’t masturbate either. The couple’s therapists have suggested they redefine what a sexual act may be. Just lying naked with each other in bed can feel intimate and satisfying. 

“We try not to put the pressures of sex in our heads,” she says.

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New sexualities

When Sara-Jane Whitaker was a teenager, she noticed her peers developing the desire for intimacy and urges to date, kiss and eventually have sex. She expected that feeling to kick in, but it never did. At 35, Whit-aker now identifies as asexual. She clarifies that she’s a hetero-romantic asexual, meaning that she’s attracted to men but has no desire to have sex.

For a long time, Whitaker believed something was wrong with her. She experimented with sexual acts, but found them either boring or repulsive. It wasn’t until she found an asexual support group online that she realized this was her identity.

“A lot of people don’t like labels, but for me it was a way of saying, ‘This is why I’ve always felt this way.’” 

Her asexual support group meets once a month. She says most of its members are in their 20s and 30s. Asexuality as an identity is still relatively new. Outside of LGBTQ communities, it’s rarely even acknowledged, let alone understood.

When Whitaker came out to her parents, she says they were baffled. 

“They couldn’t really grasp what it meant,” she says. “But they stopped asking when I was going to bring a boyfriend home.”

She’s tried dating, but the global prevalence of asexuals is estimated to be under 1 per cent. Even in Toronto, it’s been impossible for Whitaker to find a guy who’s interested in an intimate relationship where sex is never a factor. 

“Trust me, I’ve looked. There are very few fish in a very small pond,” she says.

Melissa Fairey, a Millennial sex educator and sexual health advocate, believes mainstream discussions about relationships, intimacy and sexuality outside of heterosexual intercourse are only starting to become common. Growing up in Toronto’s Catholic school system, her own sex education was based on a culture of guilt, shame and preserving one’s virginity.

“In education, we haven’t been open or inclusive. It’s always heteronormative, and [the discussion] doesn’t include LGBTQ experiences,” she says. “Plus, a woman who’s open to talking about sex or her own sexuality is seen as less valuable.”

Fairey started the York Region Youth Sexual Health and Reproductive Empowerment Project, which focuses on comprehensive and inclusive sex education for women in the GTA. She says she wants to make talking about sex less taboo and for young women to take control of their sexual reproductive health.

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Filmmaker Curt Jaimungal’s struggle with depression impacted his romantic relationships. His film I’m Okay explores that.

Great expectations

In 2016, 28-year-old Toronto filmmaker Curt Jaimungal directed and starred in his first feature film, I’m Okay. His “anti-romantic comedy” explores how to foster your mental well-being while in a relationship and post-breakup. 

While I’m Okay is based on Jaimungal’s own experiences, his story feels familiar to many Millennials. A screening followed by a mental health panel discussion at the TIFF Bell Lightbox sold out last year. Now a similar event titled I’m Okay – Mental Health And Romance: A Toronto Epidemic? is planned for the Royal Cinema on February 16.

“I think this whole Disney idea of everything being happy, especially for our generation, is not necessarily true. What sucks is that a lot of it is comparative. We feel like we’re not happy relative to something else, because by all measures we should be happy,” he says. “It’s almost a privilege to have depression it happens when you have time to think about things. I’ve noticed that in our culture and in myself. I was depressed for years.”

From the time Jaimungal was diagnosed with depression as a teen, he was prescribed antidepressants but hated them because of the side effects. Eventually, with the help of a therapist and performing stand-up comedy, he climbed out of it. He says the rise of social media might be a reason why Millennials feel anxious or depressed these days.

“You just see the good parts and not the bad parts,” he says. “Same with sex stories. Everyone says sex is such a magical, amazing thing, but when you have it, you’re kind of like, ‘Is that all there is?’”

As a rule, Jaimungal doesn’t watch porn. He says it creates false expectations that lead to disappointment. It can also have a numbing effect, so more porn and wilder sex are required in order to reach orgasm. 

“We tend to forget about fulfilment and treat sex as an achievement,” he says.

Talking it out

Courtney M. started taking anti-anxiety meds last year to help her cope with school, her grandmother’s death and ending a long-term relationship. Within a few months, the 25-year-old film industry worker noticed a dramatic drop in her libido.

“I wasn’t masturbating as much, and I wasn’t sexually interested in anything,” she says.

In November 2016 she started a long-distance relationship with a guy who lives in New York. They meet up on weekends every few weeks and have sex then, but it’s difficult for Courtney to let go and enjoy herself. 

“I can’t get in the mood or come to a climax,” she says. “I know my own buttons and I know all the things to do, but it’s just exhausting.”

One solution has been to be completely honest with her new partner, which in turn led him to reveal that he’s on antidepressants, too. Courtney is also open to talking about her mental health and sexuality with friends. Her next step is seeking help from her doctor. 

“It’s gotten to the point where I’ve wondered if I should halve my dosage so I can be my old self again,” Courtney says.

Physicians are often reluctant to talk about sex. Biggs says it’s even worse for patients with mental health problems. Studies have shown that only about one in three health care providers ask patients about their sex lives and sexuality.

“But when you look at the research around psychiatric patients or people on psychiatric medications, those numbers are much lower – about one in five [physicians] will ask whether they’re having side effects from medications that can affect their sexuality,” he says. “And if they do, patients are often told, ‘Well there’s not much we can do about it.’”

Biggs suggests that patients experiencing decreased libido from mental stress or medications should try to talk about it. Discussing your experience with a friend, sexual partner, health care professional, support group or online forum helps normalize it and reduce your isolation.

It’s one reason given by everyone who came forward to NOW with their story. 

“It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with for years, and I know I’m not the only one,” says Kim H. “It’s more common than people think, so the more we talk about it, the closer we may come to solutions.”

It’s okay not to be having sex. It’s okay not to feel like you’re in the mood – ever. And if you’re choosing to have lots of sex and enjoying it, that’s okay, too. 

But however you’re feeling and whatever you’re experiencing, know that you’re not alone. 

michelled@nowtoronto.com | @michdas

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