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Exclusive: Millennials More Tolerant of Premarital Sex, But Have Fewer Partners

May 05, 2015

Sorry, Millennials, but despite your hookup apps, your parents were probably having more sex than you're having. Millennials are much more tolerant of premarital sex than earlier generations, but they tend to have slightly fewer partners than their parents did, according to a new study released Tuesday.

Over the last eight years, acceptance of premarital sex has moved from a minority position to a majority position, with 58% of respondents in 2012 saying they thought there was nothing wrong with sex before marriage (compared to 44% in 2004,) according to a new study of over 33,000 people published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Over the 35 years before that, acceptance has gradually increased: 28% thought premarital sex was okay in 1972, then 38% in 1978, then 41% in 1982. As acceptance for premarital sex has increased, so has tolerance for homosexuality—in 1973, 11% of people believed gay sex was "not wrong," but by 2012 that number had quadrupled to 44%.

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Yet despite increasingly laissez-faire attitudes to sex and marriage, millennials are sleeping with fewer partners than their parents did. Boomers and early Gen X'ers born in the 1950s and 60s had the most sex of all—an average of 11 sexual partners as adults—followed by those born in the 1940s or 1970s, who averaged at about 10 partners. Millennials, born in the 1980s and 1990s, only have an average of eight sexual partners. Still, they're doing better than their grandparents in the "Greatest Generation," who slept with an average of about two partners each.

"Although millennials are more tolerant of these behaviors, they're not taking that is license to sleep around," said report author Jean Twenge, who also wrote Generation Me, about millennials. She noted that the decrease in the number of partners could be related to growing awareness about HIV and other STDs (since millennials are much more safety-conscious than earlier generations) and probably doesn't have much to do with the morality of premarital sex. "Millennials have never known a world where premarital sex was a taboo," she said.

Twenge said this change seems to be over generations, not over time. In other words, it's not that the entire population that changes its attitudes all at once, but instead that a younger, more accepting generation replaces an older one. So while the culture as a whole may have become more accepting of premarital sex, people who grew up when it was still a taboo may not have necessarily changed their minds.

Still, despite the growing acceptance of sex before marriage, the data suggests that there might still be a different kind of awkwardness in the cross-generational sex talks. "What you might see when millennials are discussing these issues with their boomer parents is that millennials are more permissive of sexuality," Twenge said, "but boomers might have to shut their mouths about how many partners they've had.".

Read next: 5 Things You Need To Know About Kissing

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