It’s well-documented that millennials are having less sex than any previous generation, and research suggests Gen Z is going the exact same way. The question is: why? It is entirely possible the new Netflix series Sex Education might have the answers.
Sex Education is the story of a Otis, who lives with his sex therapist mother. But while she is intensely relaxed about sex and talks freely about everything from masturbation to impotence, 15-year-old Otis is a virgin.
In the trailer for the show, we hear his mother, played by Gillian Anderson, saying to her son: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been pretending to masturbate and I was wondering if you wanted to talk about that?”
It’s presented as an irony that the son of someone whose life revolves around fixing sexual dysfunction, isn’t having sex themselves. But I wonder if Sex Education has uncovered the reason younger people are having less and less sex: that their parents and teachers have ruined it.
Back in the bad old days, sex education involved doing the grand tour of European brothels if you were a rich young man, a quiet whisper about some unpleasantness to come on the morning of your wedding day if you were a rich young woman; everyone else learnt from watching farm animals.
Twenty-first century parents tie themselves in knots trying to get it right. There are books, apps, documentaries and websites dedicated to sex ed. The accepted wisdom seems to be that it needs to go beyond condoms and STIs, and include consent, pleasure and detailed anatomy – as well as the pitfalls of the digital world. And rightly so. But as well as being healthy and consenting, shouldn’t sex also be – well – sexy?
Let’s face it, listening to a lecture about oral sex from your mum or teacher is anything but. There’s a fine line between giving teenagers all the information they need to make good choices, and ruining the mystery of physical exploration by giving lectures about it over Sunday lunch.
I was raised in a household were sex was just a thing people did. If shock factor had been what I was aiming for as a teenager, I’d have had more luck announcing I wanted to go to church than requesting that my boyfriend sleep over. I think I owe my healthy attitude towards sex to my pragmatic, relatively hands-off upbringing.
Carrie* (30) had the opposite experience. She told me: “My mum is a midwife and sexual health nurse, so I was brought up with pictures of women giving birth, baby dolls, boobs and the rest around the house. Sex to my mum was a bad thing. She’s only ever been with my dad, which is beautiful – but it’s not like that any more.
“Stupid teenagers had sex to get pregnant. She thought that would happen to me, so it was quite oppressive. She was always helpful regarding contraception, but I actually rebelled. I had A LOT of sex and I couldn’t tell her, because I knew she’d judge me. I’m getting married this year – and I’m sure my mum thinks I’ve only had sex with two people.”
Sophie* (27) grew up in a household where sex was a hot topic. “My mum was raised very religious and rebelled by having a lot of sex. So when we were teenagers she wanted things to be different for us. She wanted to normalise sex, but actually she made it feel kind of gross. I hated having to talk to her about stuff like masturbation and oral sex. It was embarrassing, and I wanted it to be private.”
I asked ‘sexpert’ Annabelle Knight whether she thinks particularly open households might spoil the experience of exploration.
“Anything your parents deem as cool or fun – no matter what – will make it seem less so to their kids,” she says. “The trick is to be open to questions and to inform with accurate info, teamed with sex and relationship education in schools – taught by professionals.
“Everyone’s sexual journey should have a little mystique. Half the fun of sex is experimentation and discovery… but, the basics have to be covered and kids should be safe in the knowledge that if they have questions or problems they have a reliable and trustworthy source of information to fall back on.”
I had always assumed I would be an incredibly cool mum. And, frankly, it would only take a Google search for my future offspring to find out my opinions on swinging, threesomes or BDSM. I had visions of my children’s friends seeing me as some kind of oracle. But I’m starting to wonder if I’d be doing them a disservice.
What I consider to be modern parenting might strip away any excitement. If you want a teenager to think something is uncool, the fastest way is to connect it with their parent.
So when it comes to sex education in my household (still a way off, admittedly) I’ll be taking a step back. I’ll be around to answer questions and never judge. But that’s where I’ll leave it.
Young people discovering sex deserve the right to work things out for themselves, to explore their bodies and the bodies of their partners without their Dad’s voice in the back of their heads saying “don’t forget about the foreplay”. That’s a surefire way to make sure we raise generation sexless.