It’s okay if you’re scared to have sex

6 mins
29 Mar 2023
Scene from The To Do List - losing virginity

A new study has shown Gen Z Brits are having less sex than their parents. We ask an expert to explain fear of sexual intimacy

image The To Do List / Varsity Pictures

words Lucy O'Brien

Hey, sex can be scary. Despite what films and TV would have you believe, not all of us grew up sneaking around school to have scandalous sex like Effy in Skins; scheming our first shag like Lily in Sex Education, or having life-changing first-time sex as a teenager like Marianne and Connell in Normal People. In fact, according to a recent YouGov poll, the reality of this generation's sexual ventures is something quite different from what we see on screen. According to new stats, of those who were willing to share their sexual experiences, the median number of sexual partners disclosed by those aged 18-29 was just four, compared to an average of six among 40-59-year-olds. Meanwhile, the figures also revealed that there are a significant portion of the UK who are yet to have sex, with 7% of women and 12% of men who took part of the poll identifying as virgins. They don’t call it the sex recession for nothing.

But why are we having less sex than our parents? Well, according to counsellor Tom Cowan of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, young people may be less sexually active due to “increased access to technology and social media, which may lead to more time spent alone rather than socialising in person, and greater emphasis on individualism and personal achievement, which may prioritise education and career over romantic relationships.”

“There is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to experience sexuality. Sexual development is a highly personal and individual process"
BACP-accredited counsellor, Tom Cowan

Gen Z have been oversaturated with representations of sex and sexuality in the media, but have grown up without the means, information or facilities to enjoy it safely for ourselves. Thankfully, at least, on-screen sex scene acting has become far more ethical than in the past. Intimacy coaches – who help to choreograph sex scenes to ensure actors feel physically and emotionally safe during filming – have now become an industry standard, especially since cast members from early 00's shows like Skins have since spoken out about not feeling protected while filming intimate scenes.

A positive change that it is, it doesn't lessen the fact that sex education in the UK is still in serious need of some TLC. Almost everyone I know (including me) had zero education on pleasure, consent, sexuality, how to have safe queer sex, sexual assault, contraception (beyond the trauma of placing a condom awkwardly on a banana, which, believe it or not, is not where contraception begins and ends) or information on STIs that weren’t just pure scare-mongering. And despite government guidelines on the now mandatory teaching of “inclusive” Relationships and Sex Education in all UK schools, a 2022 study revealed that 46% of 16-17 year olds hadn’t learnt anything on sexual pleasure, with a further one in three still not sure where and how to access sexual health services.

Needless to say, the combination of sex being normalised and over-represented on screen, unfiltered access to porn and a lack of responsible sex education in schools can make many people dread their first time being sexually intimate with someone else. But if this is you, know this is okay, and there’s no rush to lose your virginity; a concept which, in itself, puts unnecessary pressure on the idea of having sex. Besides, sex might not even be for you – not everyone has high libidos (a fancy word for sex drive), and many people identify as asexual.

Whatever the reason, many young singles (and people in relationships, too) are in no rush to have sex – nor should they be. “I just understand that it'll happen when it happens,” says Jason*, a 23-year-old singleton from the US who hasn't had sex before. “But sex does scare me a little, mainly because it'll be a new thing I've never done before and I don't know for sure how well I'll do,” he goes on.

Performance anxiety is a normal emotional reaction that occurs when trying something new. “Sex in the media and on TV can sometimes have negative impacts on our development and wellbeing,” Cowan says. “It can lead to distorted and unrealistic views of sex, relationships, and gender roles. Young people may feel pressure to conform to these idealised images, which can result in feelings of inadequacy or anxiety if they do not match up,” he explains.

“In all honesty I’m just starting to love myself, work on my confidence as a person and take things at my own pace”
Casey*, 23-year-old from London

But for others, it’s not so much the physical act fo sex that deters them, but sexual and emotional intimacy with another. “I want to have sex with the right person,” says 23-year-old Casey* from London. “A lot of it has come down to talking to people and realising that their intentions aren’t the same as mine – I’m not willing to get hurt along the way,” she says. And while there should be no pressure or deadline to find the “right” person, protecting your space and waiting until you feel comfortable enough to be intimate with someone is a reassuring way to approach sex if the concept scares you. “There is no "right" or "wrong" way to experience sexuality,” Cowan insists. “Sexual development is a highly personal and individual process, and it's important for individuals to discover sex at their own pace and on their own timeline.”

Indeed, the worst thing you can do is compare yourself to others. Like Cowan reminds us, sexuality is not a race, and it’s important that you only start to explore sex with others when all those involved are consenting and ready. That being said, if you do feel embarrassed of your sexual status, know you are not alone. “It can make me feel like everyone is a part of a special club I'm not invited to,” admits 23-year-old American, Emanuel*, who is also a virgin. “I do compare myself a little bit,” Jason* agrees. “But never to the point that I feel like less of a person or like I'm missing a huge part of myself.”

“In all honesty I’m just starting to love myself, work on my confidence as a person and take things at my own pace,” Casey* says. “I’m proud that I haven’t had sex yet as I know I will find the right person who I feel comfortable and safe with when the time comes. I don’t feel like I have to rush things just because my friends are in relationships.”

For further sexual health advice and conversations, you can visit the Health for Teens website. If you are seeking help from a sexual health clinic, you can find your nearest one here. For help and advice regarding LGBT+ sex and sexual health, you can visit the Switchboard website, or call their helpline on 0800 0119 100.

*Names changed

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