Adults Leave Millennials Clueless About Sex

If you’re in need of some comic relief this week, check out this piece from The Atlantic on “the sexually conservative Millennial.” In it, writer Emma Green sets out to show that Millennials (the generation of Americans presently between 18 and 35) are in fact far less libertine than is widely supposed. They are, in fact, a “sexually conservative” generation.

How conservative? Oh, it’s amazing. Fully 37 percent condemn “sex between adults who have no intention of establishing a relationship.” Another 21 percent think the random, anonymous hook-up might be wrong “depending on circumstances.” So slightly over half of Millennials think that there might be more to sexual morality than “don’t rape people.”

Isn’t that a load off your mind? Here I was thinking young people today had problems with sexual morality.

As a conservative moralist, it pretty much goes without saying that I’m obsessed with sex, and seize every opportunity to preach about it to the depraved young. My university ethics courses routinely involve a unit on chastity (fitting under the general topic of temperance), which actually does put me in the position of regularly discussing these questions with a fairly representative cross-section of American youngsters. Here’s the first telling fact: at the outset of the unit, most of them literally do not know what the word “chastity” means.

As we begin, so we continue. Liberal colleagues have suggested to me in the past that students might find the formal study of chastity “old hat”: familiar, antiquated and not applicable to them. I find to the contrary that very few have anything approaching a clear understanding of traditional sexual mores. There are exceptions, certainly, but most have been given very little advice about sex beyond repeated warnings to “use protection.” If they went to Sunday School at all, their teachers probably figured that talking about chastity would be uncool and alienating.

Hence, I get the pleasure of doing something all teachers enjoy: startling my students with radical views on sex. When I suggest, for example, that a major objective of traditional sexual morality is to enable men and women to love and not exploit one another, that’s clearly quite surprising to many. They just thought it was about obeisance to small-minded rules. And while some are clearly affronted by the moral implications of the traditional view (college-aged men in particular tend to resist the suggestion that fornication might be exploitative even if the woman consents) I also find that most of them know they don’t have all the answers.

It’s really quite unconscionable that parents and other “responsible” adults send young people to college with so little insight into the psychological and moral significance of sex. In order to bypass the “consent” roadblock, I sometimes pose the following question: suppose a young woman is starting college and comes to you, a more experienced student, for advice about when she should consent to sex. “I know it’s up to me,” she says, “but I don’t know how to decide when to say ‘yes’. What would you recommend?”

I get a lot of shrugged shoulders at this, but the ones who answer are even more heartbreaking.

“Listen to your heart. You’ll know when you’re ready.”

“Bad sex happens, and most of us have experienced it. It hurts, but that’s part of becoming an adult. Grow up, move on and make better decisions the next time.”

“The main thing is not to gripe about it. I can respect anyone who ‘owns’ their sexual choices, no matter what they are.”

In other words, today’s Millennials aren’t sexually conservative. What they are is sexually clueless. If they ever do get to marriage (Good news! More than 70 percent still think marriage is a relevant institution!) they’ll probably already be scarred by years of heartbreak and betrayal that their elders did nothing to prevent.

I think it’s telling that “campus rape culture” has become such a major topic of discussion these last few years. In many ways it’s a canard. Many or most of the episodes classified as “rape” would more accurately be described as “bad hook-ups,” and some appear to be invented from whole cloth. The disciplinary actions that follow on these “rape” cases are often egregiously unfair. Nevertheless, I can easily understand why this has happened. When “rape” is the only recognized sexual taboo (at least among unmarried young adults), the category must be expanded to include all sexual wrongs.

Activists often caution against “blaming the victim” in cases or rape (or “rape”). I agree. The people who should most be blamed are not sexually confused Millennials, many of whom were given their parents’ and teachers’ blessings to go forth and copulate (and just make sure their sexual encounters are safely sterile). The most blameworthy parties are adults who failed to teach their children anything of note about the meaning or purpose of sex, or to offer any useful guidelines as to when to engage in it. Let’s hope all those scars and heartbreak inspire this generation to find a better way, so that their kids can have it better.

Rachel Lu


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

  • Scott W.

    Certainly the parents are primarily responsible for their children’s moral stunting, but also colleges that refuse to provide a wholesome atmosphere. They want their campuses to be PC ghettos where the strong (administration, faculty, and correct thinking students) prey upon the weak (the students who just want to get their credits and move on to their jobs where PC human-resources departments can pester them). Every now and then a place like Gordon College will attempt to stay the madness, but a cabal of sexual revolutionists will threaten your accreditation for your trouble.

  • Vinny

    Some Good News! If you don’t mind me posting it here as it is about a young man. From the front page of our liberal (is there any other kind?) newspaper on Easter.

    Went from it’s all about me to there’s something more.

    • Asmondius

      Great story, and even better to see the Chi-Rho pictured in a public newspaper.

    • St JD George

      Interesting story that I find a personal connection to having been born there and converting myself from a largely secular family, though much, much later in life. God bless him for opening his heart to the Holy Spirit.

  • Siwash

    Interesting column, since it confirms some of my own experience with this age group. . . that there are actually MANY aspects of life about which they have been, in some way or another, screened or kept ignorant. This may just happen when parents and schools simply teach pop culture instead of our real culture. . . or maybe kids are watching too much entertainment, video games, etc., and have much less interpersonal relationship experience.

  • Daniel P

    “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

    Very much worth remembering. It’s not the parents that are the problem, since they (for the most part) grew up with a milder case of the same disease. Spiritual forces of evil are the problem. We can’t win this battle if we don’t realize that it is, fundamentally, a spiritual one.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    In their Godless and utilitarian world, the young ‘naturally’ (in the fullest sense of the word) hold tight to sexual pleasure to validate their desperate ‘reality’. I certainly understand the millenial’s’ fear. Let something else, something ‘heilige andere’ (wholly other) enter their lives and see what happens.

    “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.”
    -Pope Benedict XVI Inaugural Mass

    • Deep inside, we tremble at losing the pride of life by letting Christ in.

  • Jean Robertson

    I have been saying this for years.. the “sex education”, the “Aids education” that adults inflict on other people’s children in schools, leaves the young confused, and not even able to look after their own interests… their own body, their own health, their own emotional health. There are so many “adults” in the “education”, “health” , media industry who will be finding themselves answering for what they have done to the innocent. In the meantime, parents have to be brutally honest, and tell the kids the truth. (if they themselves have ever figured it out)..

    • Vinny

      (if they themselves have ever figured it out).. Pope Francis believes that most have “figured it out.” We need a “reset.” When I became an instructor at my job, my supervisor told me – “you need to get their attention.” Well, we need the Pope and other bishops to turn over a few tables just to get people’s attention. Then start the education process, which left us slowly at first and then cascaded to where we are today.

  • Anna

    Loved the point about rape being the only sexual taboo. At my university there have been many instances of girls who felt taken advantage of the morning after a bad hookup, and reported a rape to university authorities. I would be willing to bet that many, if not most, of reported rapes on campus are actually drunken hookups, with one party (usually the woman) feeling guilty or exploited the next morning.

    • Akira88

      These kids seem to confuse “rape” with regret.

  • Tom Piatak

    An excellent piece.

  • JohnE_o

    It doesn’t really sound all that different from the campus where I studied during the late 80’s.

    • James

      A bit different from public college where I studied in the late 1990s. Our cohort came of age in the height of the AIDS epidemic, so we were a bit more conservative.

      Then again, it was an engineering school. We didn’t choose abstinence, abstinence chose us.

      • JohnE_o

        Heh – I know what you mean on the engineering thing, James!

  • I love the common gripe that Christians are obsessed with sex (rules and taboos thereof); yet all I hear from progressives is sex, sex, sex. Their music, art, movies, and literature are almost always about their sexual experiences.

    The battle over the meaning of sex is tied to the meaning of man: if man is merely animal then it makes sense to push for uninhibited, consequence-free pleasure, as sex is not gift but right of nature. If man is more than that, then we must come to terms with the limits and context of the gift of sexuality.

    • Vinny

      “…if man is merely animal then it makes sense to push for uninhibited, consequence-free pleasure,…” Animals aren’t “uninhibited” as in “do whatever you want.” They also don’t have sex just for pleasure, it’s survival instinct.

      • As if there’s a law of animal behavior (on purely naturalistic principles). Man’s sexual pleasure is argued to be tied to his survival.

        My point stands: man as mere animal might do whatever pleases him, since evolution is obviously the architect of the accidents of his sexual endeavors.

        But, if Man has a God in Whose image he is made, the question of pleasure is subservient to the teleology of his nature.

        • Thomas J. Hennigan

          An animal doesn’t do what pleases it as it has no free will and only does what is programmed by nature.

    • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

      Boccaccio and his ilk created a template, a ‘sex world’ where what is ‘really’ going on everywhere is lust. It is a warped world to say the least. The Church strongly condemned Boccaccio – not for his randy monks etc. but for his ugly misogynist rants, “All women are whores” was the central dictum of Renaissance Neo-Pagan sexuality. At the root of ‘sexual freedom’ is a hatred and debasement of women.

  • St JD George

    Lines up with some of my own observations too Rachel. I know my experiences are limited living in a suburban environment, though the public schools are diverse culturally, racially and socioeconomically. I thinks it’s complicated and I definitely wouldn’t say that there is more religiosity among this generation, however, there seems to be much less sexual perversity than one would expect given how much poison is fed them. Maybe ironically there is a repulsive response to the cultural garbage thrown at them due to innate hunger for God’s mercy. I don’t know, but I accept that God works in mysterious ways. Having said that, I also accept that there are no shortage of headwinds that we Catholics and Christians face in this world.

  • Akira88

    This article makes me wonder about the parenting role, the effects of role reversal (stay-at-home-dads) and radical feminism. It speaks of a failure in the home.

    • James

      Stay-at-home dads are pretty rare. The families I know in this situation tend to be extremely stable and happy with their lives. May not be what you would want, but it works well for those couples.

      The bigger problem is no dad or no mom in the picture. Broken and blended families cause far more confusion than “role reversal”, whatever that means.

      • Akira88

        “Role reversal” is a common term. Everything you mentioned is a huge problem. Reversal of roles w/ mom & dad inverts the feminine and masculine roles. Oh, it’s modern and may “work” in some areas, but how emasculating for the male. It is a huge problem today. It’s been brewing for years.

        • James

          Sorry, but beyond the biologically obvious, the idea of “masculine” and “feminine” roles are bullshit. Yes, there are tasks that women are more likely to be interested in and there are tasks that men are more likely to be interested in, but in a marriage, roles are best defined by the couple themselves. Trying to force your relationship into a specific social pattern is a recipe for disaster.

          Men who are stay-at-home dads generally want to be stay at home dads. That you think they are less of a man says more about your sense of masculinity than theirs.

          • Akira88

            Nice mouth.

  • I have heard more than one priest tell me, in discussions about the cultural collapse around us, that I am overly concerned about the importance of sexual immorality in the culture. “After all,” I was told, “that’s not the worst of sins!” The deep sadness I have, as I watch the decline of the West and of the world, is due to our dehumanization in process, manifested so poignantly in the losing of rightful understanding of human sexuality. The older I become, the more clearly I understand the sacredness of marriage – and the uglier becomes our growing cultural blindness to this gift, and this responsibility.

    The young may or may not ever hear it, but it deserves to be said: casual sex today gravely, gravely, wounds a future marriage tomorrow. The scars may or may not be fatal, but they will not heal.

    I am not surprised by your article, but deeply saddened nevertheless. Thank you for your work in teaching – we need many more teachers who possess a sense, and a grasp, of truth.

    • ForChristAlone

      Because many priests are ill-schooled in theological anthropology

    • Tony

      Yes, well, pneumonia isn’t the worst of diseases either, but it will kill you if you don’t treat it. Bone cancer isn’t as bad as being shot in the head, but it will kill you too. Besides, the sins are all tied together …

  • Tony

    The Lonely Revolution…

    Has there ever been a time in human history in which the sexes took less innocent delight in one another’s company?

    Ordinary people don’t want to live in a jungle. The “law” of the Sexual Revolution is the law of the jungle, with only rape excluded. But people want the jungle when it suits them, and then tea and crumpets when it suits them. Can’t have it. There is no such thing as half a jungle.
    God bless you, Rachel, for your courage and honesty.

    • Rachel

      That’s just it, isn’t it? Jungles can be exciting for a little, but if you stay in them very long you’re apt to get hurt. There’s a reason why almost all of us really prefer civilization.

      • Tony

        Rachel, a colleague and I are teaching a course together this semester, on literature and spiritual crisis. We’ve been in the middle of two works having to do with marriage — John Paul’s The Jeweler’s Shop, and Heinrich Boell’s The Clown. My colleague asked the students how many of them expected someday to be married. Most of them raised their hands, but not all.

        I looked around at the six or seven who did not raise their hands. A couple of them were seminarians, no surprise there, but some were not. They included a very good looking, tall, bright young student, interested in everything literary and theological. He’s a fine young man. It suddenly occurred to me that it’s possible he has never been out on a date. Many young people who keep to the moral law are in that position. Life is especially lonely for the people who do not play the Jungle Games. And then it occurred to me that there is probably less — well, kissing, less kissing of boys and girls than there used to be, before the sexual culture was so thoroughly poisoned. There certainly isn’t much flirting ….

        • Thomas J. Hennigan

          Kissing is a symbol of love and there are, of course several types of love, but if it is emptied of its meaning,who wants it? I think a young man who wants to maintain his virtue has no need of getting involved with young women who dress and act llike prostitutes and expect sex from him. He should pray that the Lord will send him a good Catholic young woman and try to go to groups where such congregate, if any still exist.

          • Tony

            Well, but it need not be emptied of its meaning. I believe that it may be an expression of genuine affection and even what we call love, before marriage. But I know that you see what I’m getting at. It’s a terribly lonely world out there.

            • Rachel

              Sigh. Yes. I have three unmarried siblings, and this is always such a problem when talking to them about romantic prospects. They’re not crazy, but what counts as “normal” nowadays is just so appalling; what is reasonable to expect?

              Though I have no really strong views on earlier vs somewhat-later marriage (my mother married at 19, I at 27, and I think things worked out quite happily for both of us), this much I would definitely say: don’t pass up a promising marriage for a job! There are plenty of jobs in the sea, but people who understand what marriage is? Much harder to find.

  • I think that the fad involving zombies and vampires is a perhaps a cathartic reflection of single’s life: less than humane beings prey on humans to satisfy the urge of getting something out of them. Zombies and vampires don’t even do what they do freely, but are impelled by a compulsion to consume a person’s life. Isn’t this exactly what goes on for hooking up, whether for one night or for one year?

  • ALT

    Good observation piece…
    I’d like to read the action piece that would accompany this article.

  • hombre111

    A pretty good job. Thank you.

  • Andy Kornkven

    The author rightly places blame on parents and other adults who fail to teach Christian sexual morality to the young. But also to be pointed out is the colossal influence of pop culture– movies, TV, music– and the profound influence this phenomenon has on the shaping of young minds. Pop culture is now completely out of the control of any governmental or societal institutions that might hold it to any moral standards whatsoever. In fact with digital streaming, Netflix, etc., adolescents can consume this media without their parents even being aware of what is being watched– a far cry from the days of my youth when at least the TV set in the home could be monitored. Catholic teaching suggests that this kind of media should be responsible to the society as a whole. It’s great for adults to try to communicate to the young the basics of sexual morality, but they should also expect government agencies to rein in the machinery of youth entertainment that at this time seems to have the upper hand.

    • Jude

      Some of the best advice I received during a homily by a FSSP priest: Get rid of television. (We already had.) Put the family computer in an area where it is under constant monitoring. No individual computers for kids in their rooms. Have the mother keep the password and use online filters.

      • Andy Kornkven

        Sorry, but that will only work for kids under a certain age. It will not work for older teens, and it certainly will not work when they go off to college. We have to accept that parents and individual adults can only do so much. This is a societal problem and we must demand that the government use its God-given authority to hold media outlets, including internet, up to acceptable standards.

        • TomD

          I think what Jude has said is correct and shouldn’t be quickly dismissed. Give children a solid foundation when they are young . . . teach them a better way . . . and they are much more likely to make good choices as they mature. No approach to parenting is perfect, but some approaches increase the likelihood of success. What Jude has suggested will do that.

          And while government, to some extent, has a legitimate role in regulation, we must not give in to the notion that this is a “societal problem” that can be effectively addressed through governmental action. Ultimately, the breakdown of the family over the last 50 to 60 years is at the center of the problem, for which there is no government solution. If anything, well intended but misconceived governmental action, as described over 40 years ago by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has made the problem worse.

  • M.J.A. – 4th day of the Divine Mercy Novena ,’ bring to Me , all who do not believe in God and who do not know Me ..’ ; those words might seem as if meant mostly for non Christians; yet , good to often ask ourselves , how much do one really trust , when being called to be gentle , kind , holy , patient , that He would give the grace and strength , to be so .. .
    Getting our young ones too, familiar with the theme and devotion might be a good idea , that trusting in The Lord , means trusting that He would give the strength , to break free from idolatrous desires of wanting to keep unholy company , break any generational curse from similar pattern in the family , to be an agent of deliverance , even for others , all of which can help life to be in more fulfilling realms and keep one away from being in the footsteps of the dishonest couple, in The Acts , who fall dead while lying – good for the young to know that trying to enter marriage in such a state from related lifestyles also have its grave consequences ;
    helping them may be to watch movies and life episodes about
    St.John Paul 11 who might appeal as being contemporary and how his presence , in the spirit of prayer can be a powerful help , to deal with many situations , such as the temptation to be vainglorious , to be a non believer by rejecting The Lord –
    St.John Paul 11 also dealt massively with the nonbelievers ; may be a good Catholic organization would promote a program of giving out all high school seniors, an image of Divine Mercy and of St.John Paul 11 , for the dorm room table and churches could have buddy system by which members would get to call and pray with and remind the college kids , to be strong in faith and all the choices that come with same !

  • maximus

    The Millenials are not the only ones who didn’t get any moral or practical “sex education” from their parents. I am 41 years old and only got “keep your zipper zipped.” My parents grew up in the 40s and 50s where there was still cultural/societal support for traditional sexual mores and shame when you didn’t comply. Then came the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Those growing up before the revolution and before the growth of TV and internet had no idea of the extent of vulgarity, promiscuity, and indecency their kids were facing with the advent of MTV/cable TV, mainstreaming of pornography, and wild college life (my parents never went to college). Even if our parents would have been aware of these problems they had no resources to address it. Many didn’t know how to approach this sensitive subject because it wasn’t taught to them when the dangers were less prevalent. Churches at the time didn’t have good resources or take action either. I know many men and women who grew up in “good Christian families” that sinned in this area due to the fact that their parents assumed they would do the right thing due to the Christain living they were modeling as parents. The parents were silent on specifics. It is hard to know where to distribute the blame…our society has failed us in upholding decency…rampant pornography, no-fault divorce in the 60s and 70s, the widespread availability of the pill…the result was moral chaos and confusion.

    In today’s world there is so much explicit bad information a touch away on the internet and a click away even on the major TV networks that you must speak good information to your child pro-actively or the bad messages will dominate and destroy them. Luckily, we now have great resources:

    • Jean Robertson

      I agree that the parents of the now 43 – 58 year olds had no clue as to what was going on in school curriculums and why their kids were so “weird”… A lot of them were heartbroken… they just did not understand.

  • thebigdog

    It’s just a matter of time before the religion of Leftism starts calling for a 48 hour retroactive period, during which the young lady can consider a regrettable hook-up, date rape.

    • Tantem Ergo

      Yes you’re spot on bigdog. It could equate to the morning after pill, or in this case “regret”.

  • maximus

    If parents can’t speak to their kids about this issue then please seek the websites I listed in my prior post and you can find DVDs, CDs, and books to do the talking for you from Jason Evert, Pam Stenzel, and Chris Stefanick.

    I forgot to list a few other good resources in teaching on this matter…the books I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boy Meets Girl by Joshua Harris and the book Woman In Love by Katie Hartfiel ( Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West should also be considered.

  • SnowBlossoms

    Sounds very similar to the 70’s -90’s. Same things, different names.

  • Ultramontane

    “When women dress immodestly, and men despise religion, its the beginning of the end.” – Seneca

    • Thomas J. Hennigan

      These days women dress like some years back prostitutes used to. The result of this is accusing men of sexual harrassment. The adolescent or youth has a hard time contolling his sexual instinct and everything is about sex, advertisements, posters, songs, movies, soap operas etc. Nobody has taught the poor guy to control his instints. They tell him, if it feels good, do it. Then when he does whatever they tell him to do they accuse him of harrassment. Modesty is non inexistent these days, especially among women. They make laws instead of teaching children and adolescents how to respect one another and control their instincts.

      • Jean Robertson

        I tell my kids: an innocent 16 year old boy, for example, should not be hanging out with a 13 to 17 years old sex educated girl…

  • Lane Cobble

    Amen!!! As a lost soul, then a born-again, now on the path to becoming Catholic, I have seen and heard it all from “Christians” and non-Christians alike. So many know virtually NOTHING about the true power and beauty of sex, and why it is so important.

    So many thing in this article resonate with me because they match my own experience with coming around to seeing sex in the way God sees it, then becoming even more aware how utterly lost so many other are about the topic. Guided by feelings, or anger, or vague notions of their own personal moral code, which is shiftier than even they imagine. And the worst part is, with the “Greatest” Generation pretty much already gone, what we have in the US is an ENTIRE nation full of people, from the oldest to the youngest, without any true moral compass in regards to sex.

    Think about it, there is NO generation in this nation anymore, top to bottom, who profess a sane, traditional, truly loving, realistic and godly view on sex. Just the opposite. The Baby Boomers will go to their grave refusing to admit they did it wrong, that they effed up big time, that it caused untold damage to themselves, their families, their communities, and their entire nation. The greatest fear of most Baby Boomers is to hear that not only has their nation been LOST on THEIR watch, but BECAUSE of them. Because of their fornication, because of their obsessions with money and ‘success’, because of how they have chosen to live their lives outside of God’s Law, every day, they LOST the greatest nation on earth to savagery, paganism, Mohammedism, sodomy, corruption, and soon, savage violence.

    Their parents bought into the lie of “success” and “Higher education”, sent their young children to be mentally and emotionally molded, damaged by Marxist, Christ-hating professors across our nation. The naive “Greatest Generation” sent their own children into the lion’s den, and our nation began it serious decline into materialism, unfettered sexual desires and perversions, selfishness, carnality, class warfare, sophistry, and on and on.

    The Gen Xers and Millennials are equally lost, if not more lost. The churches are full of younger men and women who, uhhhh, think nothing of getting another tattoo, going on long trips with their girlfriends or boyfriends, and profess nor practice God’s view on sex and sex before marriage. Sophistry abounds, avoidance, etc. And yet, it might be the MOST important practice of any believing Christian, the most important weapon with which we are fighting for Good, Light and against Darkness.