We know that young people today are having less sex than their parents and grandparents did at their age, but new research suggests that they might not even be enjoying the little sex they do have. A Canadian study found more than three-quarters of young men and women have trouble with their sex lives, and the problems aren't getting better with age.
The University of New Brunswick study involved 400 participants aged 16 to 21 who reported struggling with their sex lives due to one or more “persistent and distressing” sexual problems, CTV News Atlantic reported. Over a two-year period, 79 percent of young men and 84 percent of young women reported sexual problems. While many of the issues were physical, such as erectile dysfunction and failure to reach an orgasm, the researchers were particularly worried by the lack of sexual libido and satisfaction among both men and women.
"It's scarily common amongst young people to have really bad, painful, unwanted sex," study lead researcher Dr. Lucia O'Sullivan said, CTV News Atlantic reported. "If they're not enjoying it ... they're doing it because they feel they should."
The study was inspired by college nurses’ concern at the high number of young women who were going to the university health center reporting vaginal tearing. Although vaginal tearing can usually be fixed and/or prevented with lubrication, the nurses were curious as to why so many girls were experiencing this physical trauma. While vaginal dryness can be caused by a number of factors, such as menopause, recurrent STDs, and polycystic ovarian syndrome, the team suggested that in this case, it came down to lack of arousal - the women were not enjoying the sex.
"The standard of care was to hand them this lubrication and to let them know they are at high risk for sexually transmitted infections," said O’Sullivan. "But then she [the university nurse] started asking them 'Are you having sex that you want, that you are interested in? Are you aroused?' and she began to realize that there was a more serious problem."
The researchers suggest that painful, damaging sex may be the result of young adults growing up hearing too much about the dangers of sex, and not enough on how to receive pleasure. O’Sullivan insists the issue is more troubling than it appears, even though sex may improve with experience and time. In an essay published on The Conversation, she explains how some sexual problems may arise from negative messages received in childhood, and these messages may linger well into adulthood.
The decline in young people’s sexual satisfaction is likely a culmination of many different factors: the extreme emphasis on safe sex; looming danger of incurable STDs, such as antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea; and the easy availability of pornography all contribute to declining sexual satisfaction in young people, she wrote.
"We have always educated young people about the problems of sex. We think about it in terms of 'Don't have it and if you do have it, make sure you prevent this calamity,'" said O’Sullivan. "We never say 'By the way, this should be a fun part of your life.'"
Source: O’Sullivan LF, Brotto LA, Byers ES, et al. Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Functioning among Sexually Experienced Middle to Late Adolescents. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 2017