Modern-day society is largely driven by two agencies: sex and love. Between the invisible gaps separating each is a common misconception that they are necessarily tied together, that one cannot exist, or thrive, without the other. Except as the world evolves, people are becoming increasingly adaptive in their approach to defining intimacy. Sex and love might not always belong in the same bed — and that’s okay.
Thanks to Gen Z’s efforts to desensitize intimacy, teenagers sparked a new sexual revolution. The broadminded approach has brought the younger generation hope, invigoration and freedom in owning their distinctive sexual identities. Yet the old-fashioned notions of denial and judgement lurking beneath the surface of this erotic awakening create a deep fear in teenagers about engaging in sex.
Razzi Schlosser, a junior at Tufts University, acknowledges the scrutiny teens face for engaging in casual sex is real. “Sex was always presented to me like the girl is the victim in the situation so I shouldn’t risk it or engage in it. People constantly enforce the idea that you should abstain from sex until you find someone that you will love for your entire life and this is just very unrealistic,” Schlosser says. “Older generations tend to create a deep sense of shame in sexually active teenagers and I think this has horrible repercussions for women later in life – it teaches women to fear sex and to feel shameful for being sexually open. This is super unfortunate because the actual purpose of sex is to connect two people, and that needs to be embraced.”
Razzi’s mom, Gen Xer Kimberly Schlosser, 49, explains that while sex was once viewed as something sacred that was saved for someone you loved and were committed to long-term, premarital sex has become acceptable without the negative consequences that girls faced at a different time in history.
“In my generation, coupled with the area of the country where I grew up, which was the South, girls who had sex with different people were what we called at the time ‘promiscuous’ and they were definitely looked down upon and excluded from certain social circles for that behavior,” Kimberly says. “I appreciate that people in this generation have more freedom with their bodies to do whatever they want, but I don’t think that many teenagers today can fully understand how major and impactful having intercourse with somebody can and should be. I’m not saying that it should always be this beautiful, positive experience but I’m saying, realistically, it’s not as easy as teenagers think it’s going to be.”
It’s possible the significance to which older generations ascribe sex contributes to the shame and self-hatred that many teenagers experience when engaging in intercourse. William Khabbaz, a freshman at Syracuse University, agrees that sex may not always be ideal, but instead of approaching it as an enormous, existential decision, it simply should be a beautiful, free-spirited act that is done to appreciate love and other humans.
“I was sixteen years old when I lost my virginity. Being a young gay male at the time, there were a lot of pressures. The only way to cope was using apps such as Grindr and Tinder,” Khabbaz says. “Technically I was underage during this time, but the men didn’t know. My very first experience was with a man double my age. I hated it, but that moment started a streak of me hooking up with men who were a lot older than me. I would have sex with 3-4 men each week and regret it each time, but then continue to do it just because I felt I needed validation.”
The validation Khabbaz searched for was rooted in the notion that sex was meant to be this big, fantastic thing. Many partners later, however, he realized that sex wasn’t actually as big a deal as the world says it is. “My body count is very high, but it was only because I hated sex growing up and I kept hoping it would become this life-changing thing that everyone makes it out to be and it just never became that. I think that my past experiences scarred the way I am today – it has made it extremely hard for me to find comfort in having sex with men, because I always feel like I will just hate it and never enjoy it,” he says.
Instead perceiving sex as the magical be-all-end-all key to sealing a relationship, it can actually do the opposite and complicate things further. It’s important to acknowledge that a sexual disconnect is completely normal and even expected as one grows into their sexual identity. Sam Cordell, a junior at New York University, believes there is a direct correlation between partner choice, communication and apprehension.
“My main fear is that I’ll be involved with someone intimately and emotionally and then there will be a mismatch that cannot be overcome sexually and something is just off,” he says. “I’m scared of that sexual mismatch then turning into a social mismatch where neither one of us is willing to put in the effort to help change the situation and I’ll end up losing that person simply because of a lack of communication.”
As the normalization of sex triggers discomfort in older generations, the disapproval and lack of acceptance can send a dangerous message. However, these generational differences can also ultimately inspire Gen Z to gradually learn to embrace and own their sexual openness.
“A lot of times, the suffocating culture around teenage sex teaches us be ashamed of ourselves for engaging in it,” says Spenser McCoy, a freshman at Syracuse University. “Because of this, many people fear being transparent with each other about what they want or need from sex. I hope in the future, people will be more honest with each other about what they want because that’s really important.”
Syracuse freshman Rachel Cramer agrees there needs to be more respect and better communication between partners in order to make the experience more mutually beneficial. “I’ve dealt with a lot of guys who have had sex with me only for them and their benefit. Because of that, it’s become one of my fears and the reason as to why I’ve started to have a lack of trust in men during sexual encounters,” she says. “My hope for sex is that I always feel respected – I always feel like I’m in the right place, at the right time, with the right person.”
With the breach of a new generation, traditions are rapidly shifting and this leaves young men and women vunerable to the challenges of early sex. Despite the general fear and anxiety surrounding adolescent sexuality, people are gradually learning to embrace these newly condoned rituals as Gen Z are discovering what it truly means to own their sexual identity. For example, Razzi Schlosser and Khabbaz are slowly learning how to define their sexual identities in a way that values themselves and requires the same from a partner.
“I hope that women stop being stigmatized for looking a certain way and that people are able to accept that no one body is perfect. My fear is that I’ll continue engaging in meaningless, unemotional, disconnected sex with people who can’t appreciate the not-so perfect parts of me — although I’m making an active effort to not do that,” Razzi says.
While Razzi is hopeful that girls can have confidence in their sex lives without receiving any negative reinforcement, Khabbaz hopes to find someone who encourages him to view sex as a meaningful asset, freeing him from the suffocating chains of his past sexual encounters.
“I hope to find someone who looks at me the way I look at them. Someone who appreciates and loves me the way that I love them. I want sex to finally be something I enjoy doing,” Khabbaz says. “Sex and love control us. The most important thing is to find love within yourself and to appreciate your own body and I never want to come to a point where I don’t feel that.”
This story was originally intended for the Spring 2020 Hopes and Fears print issue, but due to the COVID-19 outbreak, select stories from this issue will run on our digital site instead.