I can't say I didn't smile in the movie "No Hard Feelings" when Jennifer Lawrence storms the bedrooms at a college house party and, finding only teens sitting around texting, lambasts them all for failing to do some good old-fashioned shagging.
The film satirizes the now-common knowledge that Gen Z has become sexually timid — a stereotype supported by data from institutions including UCLA and the University of Chicago showing that sexual activity has markedly declined among young Americans in recent years.
This data makes sense if you consider the combined impact of the pandemic and social media: This is a generation raised behind masks and screens. Young Americans have experienced unprecedented loneliness and physical isolation in their social environments, so it follows that sexual intimacy would seem uniquely inaccessible and uncomfortable to them.
What's more surprising are the findings from a recent UCLA study showing that Gen Z is eschewing not just sexual behavior but also sexual content in film and television. Nearly half of 1,500 viewers surveyed between the ages of 10 and 24 said sex "isn't needed" for the plot of TV shows and movies, and most preferred content about platonic relationships and friendships.
As a parent raising my middle and high school kids with a mindset similar to the one I was raised with — that sexual desire is healthy and acting upon it can be safe and fun — the prudishness trend concerned me at first. But the psychologists I've interviewed have convinced me that a craving for PG-rated content is not just reasonable but also a healthy adaptation for Gen Z.
This is a generation, after all, that has received much of its sex education from often-jarring online pornography. Younger people have also been exposed early on to the risks of sexual behavior via the MeToo and the sexual consent movements and from watching the undoing of Roe v. Wade. Gen Z has also been assiduously rethinking the many complex shades of its sexual and gender identities while challenging the structure and purpose of societal institutions, including marriage.
Given these pressures and influences, "of course Gen Z is longing for trust, safety, intimacy and connection," Alexandra Solomon, a sex and relationship therapist who teaches in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, told me.
Some young Americans even describe their resistance to sex as a career decision. Solomon, who is the author of Love Every Day and offers relationship advice on Instagram, has counseled Gen Zers who avoid sexual relationships because they don't have the time and "emotional bandwidth" and would rather focus their energy on professional growth and financial security. In this context, a desire for entertainment about safe, platonic love makes sense and can eventually become "a foundation for healthy desire and sexual exploration," she added.
So yes, some amount of prudishness or delayed sexual maturity in Gen Z is nothing to be concerned about — and may be in fact an expression of pragmatism and careful discernment. After all, Gen Z is not just moderate about sex but about other potentially risky behaviors: They are drinking, for example, about 20% less alcohol than millennials did at their age, and this "sober curiosity" can certainly be a good thing.
But what can be risky, according to Solomon and other adolescent therapists, is when the emerging subculture of "puriteenism" in Gen Z goes beyond moderation to advocate for stringent rules around sexual abstinence, sobriety, clean diet and other absolutist lifestyle choices. The "wholesome" trend, which first emerged a few years ago, is still going strong with 125+ million views on TikTok, while Wholesome Memes on the platform formerly known as Twitter has 3 million followers.
Choosing an extreme or fixed identity can backfire. We learned from the Puritans themselves that strict asceticism often can't endure. Says Solomon: "When you hear a young person subscribing to a rigid identity or system of behavior, there's cause for concern — especially if that system is governed by fear or shame. Because when curiosity, attraction, and desire inevitably begin to bubble up, their internal response will be to crank up the pressure and lock themselves down," which in turn can feed anxiety and depression in a generation already struggling to protect and restore its mental health.
This kind of moral anxiety makes it hard to maintain a healthy discourse around sex and identity.
The uncomfortable reality for parents of teens is that it's up to us to lead an open conversation with our kids about sexuality, especially at a time when teaching sex education in middle and high schools has become highly controversial. The responsibility also falls on institutes of higher education. Solomon's undergraduate Northwestern curricula, which includes "Marriage 101" and explores topics from asexuality and demisexuality to pansexuality and polyamory, provides an interesting model.
The media plays an important role, too, of course. Hollywood should continue to produce the full gamut of content from more explicit shows like "Euphoria" and "Sex Education" to tamer and gentler storytelling like "No Hard Feelings" and "Heartstopper," allowing Gen Z to continue to draw from and participate in a more nuanced sexual discourse than previous generations. So long as the dialogue is open and evolving, the young people who have wedged themselves into fixed ideas and identities can shift and grow and be welcomed back into the conversation.