Despite all the social developments that have made sex easier (the sexual revolution, dating apps, yassified contraceptives), we still haven’t moved the dial on better. Bad sex has endured. And when I say “bad sex,” I am referring to sex that is quite simply unpleasurable, unsatisfying, or even demoralizing. While older generations are up against many of the same barriers to sexual wellbeing (like purity culture and the enduring impact of inadequate sex education), young people have been uniquely inundated with toxic messaging surrounding sex that has actually disrupted our abilities to feel pleasure. Resource-sharing on platforms like TikTok and Instagram may have positioned young people to better parse their sexualities, but not necessarily closer to building affirming and pleasurable sex lives.
As a professional sex writer whose latest research is on maximizing pleasure, communicating with partners, and exploring sexual autonomy, I, too, grapple with the disconnect between the sex I know I could have and the sex I actually have. I now know I am not alone in enduring medium, bad, to very bad sex again and again, even though I know better; even though I own good vibrators; even though my therapist is this close to leaving the field because I “don’t want to be helped.” No amount of sexual know-how or progressive personal feminism could salvage the majority of my sexual encounters.
Over the course of hundreds of interviews with sexually active millennials and Gen Z-ers, I’ve found that sexual dissatisfaction is nondiscriminating, though the “badness” of bad sex varies wildly. In fact, Laurie Mintz, a professor of human sexuality at the University of Florida and author of Becoming Cliterate, suspects millennials and Gen Z-ers are the most sexually misinformed generations of all time, due to the unprecedented accessibility of misinformation.
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For many young people in relationships, bad sex often looks like middling intimacy upkeep. A 28-year-old cis woman who identifies as “hetero-ish” said sometimes sex with her partner is just “maintenance.”
“It’s the days where maybe neither my boyfriend nor I feel super excited about having sex, but it’s sort of an acknowledgement of maintaining intimacy,” she said.
A 31-year-old cis gay man told me something similar. “I can tell the times we get short with each other are usually because we haven’t been intimate in a while, and when we do I definitely notice a positive difference in mood.”
Then there is bad sex among single people, wherein lack of comfort and familiarity is one of the biggest issues.
“I’d say most of the casual, consensual sex I’ve had was in the meh-to-bad range,” a 28-year-old cis straight woman told me, citing “jabby fingering, lackluster oral, and flipping me over every two seconds because they watch a lot of mainstream porn.”
Studies suggest young people are experiencing growing rates of anhedonia, or the reduced motivation and capacity to feel pleasure. The COVID-19 pandemic made things considerably worse across all populations. Some researchers cite this anhedonic wave as one of the core phenomena fueling the sex recession, as it becomes harder to justify the work of coordinating sex when the experience doesn’t even feel pleasurable. In fact, neuroscientist Dr. Nan Wise posits in her book Why Good Sex Matters that the ever-increasing external stimuli in our environments are not conducive to feeling more of anything, let alone satisfaction.
Read More: Why Are We All Having So Little Sex?
Research has shown that, in many ways, we’re not just going backwards from the sexual revolution of the 1960s; rather, we’re still enduring the backlash to it. Historian Dagmar Herzog, in her ever-relevant 2008 book Sex in Crisis, explores this very problem by tracing America’s sex anxiety to the legislative victories of conservative evangelicals.
“Our national conversation about sex now suffers a tremendous impoverishment,” Herzog writes. “It is simple to find near-frenzied talk about adolescents’ exposure to sexual imagery on the Internet. It is far tougher to find frank and open dialogue about our hopes and fears for our children’s—and our own—sexual health and happiness. There is much titillating talk about sex in America, yet there is very little talk about sex that is morally engaged and affirmative.”
Over 15 years later, Herzog’s analysis rings truer every day, with a dizzying uptick in legislative efforts to police adolescent sexuality and gender identity, particularly in American schools, which continue to deprive young people of inclusive, medically accurate sex education. (Republican lawmakers are ramping up efforts to restrict comprehensive sex ed. According to a 2022 study by the Guttmacher Institute, adolescents were less likely to have received sex education on key topics like contraceptive methods in 2015-2019 than in 1995.) The lack of pleasure-forward public discourse on sexual wellness is dark, to put it mildly—where are we to learn about and explore and delight in our own pleasure, if it’s becoming increasingly criminalized?
When it comes to sexual happiness, young people are still left to fill in the blanks, seeking out our own information from mass content like porn and bad Google results that so often lead us astray in the absence of widespread media literacy. What’s more, other institutions that teach us about sex—like family, church, and school—are largely reinforcing cis-heteronormative, puritanical values that marginalize our most vulnerable youth and interfere with their sexual well-being. Too often these institutions stigmatize sexual pleasure, perpetuating messages like: sex is scary; genitals are gross; sex is for men’s pleasure; sex is straight; sex is just for making babies; sex is for certain types of bodies.
A growing body of research shows that sex education is more effective at promoting health when it’s pleasure-inclusive. When mortified parents or health teachers teach us about sex, they usually fail to point out that sex is supposed to feel good. At school, talking points stick to the risks of sexual activity, like STIs and unwanted pregnancy. If you’re lucky, and find yourself in a classroom that acknowledges birth control, you’re given the opportunity to roll a condom atop a banana. But even in more progressive classrooms, pleasure rarely comes up, leaving us entirely on our own to figure out pleasurable, affirming sex in a culture stacked to deprive us of it.
When are we supposed to learn about intimate communication, which most sex therapists agree is the key to pleasurable sex? Certainly not in high school, or from Gossip Girl, or in the moment, when you are laser-focused on concealing the body part you hate most, or mustering every scrap of concentration to pull off dirty talk.
“There’s a huge lack of modeling around intimate communication,” Carole Cain, a sex therapist and educator, told me. “The Hollywood model is two people meet each other, they throw off their clothes, they jump on each other. They go home happy; nobody says a word.”
In fact, one 31-year-old cis-het man put it to me like this: “Once sex is engaged, my ability to communicate through verbal means goes away almost immediately. I have no ability to say things without feeling stupid. Given that communication is so central to having good sexual experiences, that’s a huge handicap.”
This feeling is common. If the awkwardness doesn’t get you, the lethargy will. Communicating feels like work. “I wish more guys were better at sex so that I wouldn’t have to do so much work to find satisfying sex partners,” another 31-old cis-het woman lamented to me. “But I also do nothing in the way of instructing men on how to be better at sex, so I’m not really doing much to combat this issue.”
We must respect the calculations we all make surrounding sex—even bad sex. For years, I figured that as long as I used protection and avoided friends’ exes, bad consensual sex was a net wash—a silly, aerobic way to pass the time that didn’t positively or negatively affect my life. But bad sex is not a wash; bad sex matters because good sex matters. Our pleasure matters. Our time matters.
From Laid and Confused by Maria Yagoda. Copyright © 2023 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
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