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If you didn’t know, we’re in a “sex recession”. Off the back of a pandemic where lockdown restrictions effectively criminalised casual sex, few people would be surprised that attitudes towards relationships and intimacy have changed. Throughout the 2020s, headlines were splashed across the internet about Gen Zs having fewer sexual encounters and being “too woke for sex” 

And it isn’t just tabloid fodder, there seems to be some reality to the claims; a US survey – conducted by the Kinsey Institute and Lovehoney – discovered that 1 in 4 Gen Z adults say they have yet to have partnered sex. Elsewhere, a study published by the University at Albany revealed that young adults have less sex – a decline that has been unfolding over the recent decade. While UCLA’s 2021 survey found that 38% of Californians aged 18 to 30 reported having no sexual partners, marking a decade-high figure. While we know these trends don’t speak for everyone, it does prompt the question: what’s going on with Gen Z? Has the queerest generation to date ditched casual sex? 

Dr Limor Gottlieb, a doctoral psychologist on love & relationships, agrees with the trends found in the growing data on Gen Z’s sex patterns. “There has been a general decline of sexual activity and we’re seeing that Gen Z isn’t as sexually active as previous generations,” she explains. Gottlieb says there is a growing attitude shift – Gen Z’s focus on personal autonomy with a growing focus on consent, selective relationships and personal intimacy. “Now it’s all about mindfulness and being more conscious about making the right choices,” she says. “Masturbation is also no longer taboo and, for some, hookup culture is meaningless and if they want sex, they want it to be with connection and with intimacy.” 

Attitudes toward sex, whether you choose to have it or not, have changed. Gen Z aren’t faced with outdated remarks about getting laid or being a virgin and, instead, choosing to wait to have sex is seen positively. As Gottlieb explains, this cohort is  “building up self-esteem through the choice of abstinence.”

With the focus on gen z and their changing dynamics with sex and relationships, there seemed to an oversight in how queer gen zers are operating in same space. So, we asked Gottlieb how the decline in sexual activity is playing out among queer youth. This could be due to several reasons, but notably stemming from being queer in heteronormative environments, fear of sexual health infections and delays in adulthood which warrants a need for more time to understand ourselves and our queer identity. 

What does ‘boysober mean’? 

It’s true, dating looks different now — and the language has changed, too. Whether it’s how we talk about charisma, aka rizz, or choosing to go ‘boysober’ and ‘girlsober’, the way in which younger generations are discussing relationships is evolving. 

Hope Woodard, 27, has been using the term ‘boysober’ (and ‘girlsober’) since last November and set TikTok alight in popularising the term. Woodard, who identifies as bisexual, has planned to write off dating and sex for the next 12 months. As for why, the influencer relates that going sober in the more traditional sense helped her gain a new sense of clarity with her love life. “I went straight edge for a while, but honestly giving up drinking and partying reconnected me with myself in a way that I had never been before,” she says. 

 “I kept getting into the same cycle, similar to drinking and partying, with relationships and decided I needed to take a full stop and I had started reading about the abstinence movement in Gen Z.”

The TikToker started having sex as an early teen and has recently been unpacking her relationship to sex and dating. “I don’t think I’ve ever given enough thought to the earlier days of my becoming sexually active,” she outlines. “I’ve been having sex for 10 years plus and I’m still not where I want to be mentally, emotionally, spiritually. It’s so interesting that we all sort of go through this phase of reclaiming our bodies [through abstinance] and that has been so great and new for me.”

How is Gen Z putting the ‘boysober’ and ‘girlsober’ mentality into practice? 

Addy, 26, has been boysober for 5 months. For them and their practising friends, the move to celibacy is all about self-reflection – in Addy’s case, understanding his pansexuality. “I’ve very much grown up around situations where romance and hookups are idealised and encouraged,” they say. “But now I’m at a point where my company, and those I love platonically, is often more nurturing than anything that might be considered romantic.” 

I’m at a point where my company, and those I love platonically, is often more nurturing than anything that might be considered romantic.” 

Taking time aside Gen Zers, like Addy, are using their time during abstinence to work on themselves ahead of when they next choose to have a relationship. “Also, if you’re not mentally in a place to commit, why not take some time out work on yourself and come back to it when you have the capacity.”

Queer 25-year-old Tilly, decided to go ‘girlsober’ and ‘boysober’ after a bad breakup and has stuck at it for almost a year. Choosing to take a break from the faff of talking stages and awkward dates, they’ve used the last year to re-examine their relationship with queerness and gender identity. For them, the time away from dating has been an opportunity for them to explore their identity – both in terms of sexuality and gender – through abstinence; an opportunity that led them to re-evaluate how they identify and choose to present themselves as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

[Abstinence] has helped me to examine my thoughts and feelings towards myself, who I am in a relationship and what my own boundaries are when it comes to sex,” they say, “It was helpful for me to figure out my non-binary identity, specifically, without the pressure of trying to attract other people.” As for their friends, a few of them have also tried going “sober” from relationships and Tilly isn’t surprised at the trend of LGBTQIA+ Gen Zers leaning into the movement. “[Dating] can be a pretty tough thing to navigate; there are lots of boundaries you need to figure out to know what’s best for yourself, what you want when it comes to sex and love and romance,” they agree. 

[Abstinence] has helped me to examine my thoughts and feelings towards myself, who I am in a relationship and what my own boundaries are when it comes to sex

Meghan*, who identifies as queer, 22, has gone boysober because he is “waiting for something to happen naturally”. For the Londoner, the pressure of swiping right and finding a connection can feel “doomed from the start”. Like Tilly and Addy, Meghan has been using celibacy as an opportunity to interrogate his own identity and understand what he wants when it comes to relationships. 

“As a queer man, I feel like it’s almost inherent in our nature to be hyper-sexual beings, due to those around me all fitting that narrative,” he explains. “As someone who doesn’t sleep around or spend my time swiping endlessly on dating apps, I feel odd for not feeling the need to get constant intimate validation. I’m a very independent person so I don’t feel the need to be looking for a partnership right now.”

Celibacy as sexual liberation

With Gen Z more likely to identify as LGBTQIA+ and the growing visibility of demisexuality and the asexual community,  the move towards abstinence can be understood as part of a wider queer evolution – a rejection of not just compulsory heterosexuality, but compulsory sexuality full stop. 

While prior generations have done vital work unpicking the stigma and shame around free sexual expression, Gen Z is bucking the notion that there’s any uniform experience of sexuality. They’re affirming that – contrary to what we’ve been led to believe – not all individuals experience sexual attraction towards others and that our sex drive naturally fluctuates throughout our lives. Rather than feeling pressured to have sex when they reach a certain age, they’re taking time to figure out what they want first – and the terms and specifics of how they experience desire and sexual and romantic attraction. 

With social attitudes changing about how sex and self-pleasure are viewed, there is a growing, educated conversation around personal interests, consent and the needs of individuals. With the gradual removal of cultural stigma around celibacy and virginity  – finally, the reign of v-card jokes is over – LGBTQIA+ Gen Zers aren’t seeing celibacy as something to be ashamed of. Rather, abstinence can be celebrated – and can be an individual’s own version of sexual liberation. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees