You may not know whether to love or hate millennials, but you do know you are supposed to be envious of their freewheeling love lives, even while pitying them for never knowing where they stand with anyone amidst all these wild, ambiguous hookups. Turns out those hookups may not be that wild, or at least not that frequent. Who knew?

In a recent piece at Time, Charlotte Alter reports that as you would guess, millennials are far more chill about premarital sex than previous generations. Whereas only 44 percent of folks asked in 2004 were cool with kicking it freestyle, nowadays, 58 percent of 33,000 people surveyed (in 2012) are down with no frills doing it. And yet, Alter writes:

Yet despite increasingly laissez-faire attitudes to sex and marriage, millennials are sleeping with fewer partners than their parents did. Boomers and early Gen X’ers born in the 1950s and 60s had the most sex of all—an average of 11 sexual partners as adults—followed by those born in the 1940s or 1970s, who averaged at about 10 partners. Millennials, born in the 1980s and 1990s, only have an average of eight sexual partners. Still, they’re doing better than their grandparents in the “Greatest Generation,” who slept with an average of about two partners each.

I would venture that no tidbit in existence until this one has lowered the bar for being better than the Greatest Generation. We’ve all finally been vindicated. No, we certainly can’t be the passionate, self-sacrificing good citizens our grandparents were, but we sure as shit got laid more. Well, some of us.

What’s more, in a follow-up piece about the results, Alter notes another study that found that 49 percent of twentysomethings hadn’t gotten laid at all in the last year. Fewer than 7 percent were doing it a couple times a week.

In the grass-is-greener syndrome that is ever-present between generations, the envy-meter goes something like this: Everyone hates/envies the younger generations because duh, they are younger and have their whole lives to live, lives we’ve already squandered. We expect a wisdom from them they can’t possibly have acquired, expect them to correct the ills we’ve foisted upon them, and generally accuse them of having it too good, because everything came a little too easily for them. (PS: Every millennial is Robert Redford in The Way We Were. Millennials: go here.)

Anyhoo, let’s take a moment and reflect on how we’ve thought of millennials up to now. As Leah Finnegan noted over at Gawker, from a NYT piece by conservative scholar Sam Tanenhaus, it’s basically this:

Millennials, he writes, are “coddled and helicoptered, catered to by 24-hour TV cable networks, fussed over by marketers and college recruiters, dissected by psychologists, demographers and trend-spotters.” They are narcissists, fans of “the breathlessly updated Facebook profile, the cascade of selfies, the Kardashians.” (Has Tanenhaus ever met anyone under 50?) They would rather earn $40,000 at a cool job than $100,000 at a lame job.

But thanks to their uncontested lockdown on Modern Love columns and nonstop essays elsewhere about their love lives, we all assumed they were getting serious serious tail, just, you know, griping about it a lot. Maybe they are snot-nosed little entitled brats who think their first job should be a museum quality replica of work-life balance, but they’d beaten the system: at least they were out there living their lives free and easy, far above the usual stodgy constraints the rest of us have long suffered under. They don’t need to get married, and they don’t need an “official relationship status.” Sex with all sorts of people, day and night, round the clock handjobs, strangers on a train, attic sex, alley sex, bad apartment sex, weird bathroom bar sex, frustrated DMV sex: you name it, millennials are having it right now, suckers! Only they’re fucking not (fucking)!

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Let’s look at why. At Time, Alter spoke with Jean Twenge, who wrote a book about these now-pitiable creatures, Generation Me. She told Alter that it could be about STD and AIDS awareness, long drilled into them since birth. Premarital sex may be NBD, but the consequences are no joke, and they don’t have the luxury we might have of pretending otherwise.

Alternately, their casual attitude toward being serious might reflect even more seriousness about their lives, rather than less. Alter notes:

“You’d think they’d be focused on sleeping around, but really what they’re focused on is getting ahead,” explains Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and Chief Scientific Advisor for Match. “In their 20s I think they’re working very hard. There’s something to be said for the fact that they may be taking relationships and commitment more seriously.”

And even though they aren’t getting laid, it might not be because they’re lame, but because they’re they’re actually kind of wise?

[Clark University Research Professor Jeffrey] Arnett says millennials may see their elders’ licentious behavior as a cautionary tale. “It’s not only that they have fewer sexual partners than the baby boomers did, but they also drink less, they smoke less, the crime rate is half now than it was 20 years ago, teenage pregnancy has plummeted—it’s part of this broader pattern of less risky behavior,” he explains.

“It could be that the children saw the consequences of not following the rules—high divorce rates, drug addiction, and a lot of teenage pregnancy and so on, and there are many of them who have grown up to be more conservative in terms of some of their own social behavior.”

Over at GQ in a piece called “In Defense of a Sex Drought,” self-described cool young person Julianne Smolinski adds to this that, generally speaking, all the Internet access to sex makes sex considerably less urgent in a way. She notes:

There’s porn everywhere, always, with no risk of infection or embarrassment so long as you can work Incognito mode. The Internet has also granted us sweet excuses to stay home and, like, play Minecraft while scarfing a Taco Bell Grande Scrambler Burrito and sexting. Point is, we’re pretty damn sexed up even when we’re not having sex. Then you add in the era of Tinder and oversharing, and we’re more easily able to determine who’s actually worth having sex with beforehand, rather than the trial-by-error method of our parents.

This makes me legitimately jealous in time saved alone. Besides, she adds, you could do a lot of other good stuff while you’re not getting laid, like read a book. Update your resume. Be a person. “ There’s always been something creepy about treating sex like a Sub Club card that you need to get punched before the free-sandwich offer expires,” Smolinski writes.

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It’s important to note that individual millennials or individuals of any age who aren’t having sex are having a relative experience, which is that they only know what they know, and to them, however much sex they are having might seem totally normal, because it probably is. I would add in their defense, too, that at least, for once, this is a generation we can say probably isn’t actually lying about sex in the surveys. If they are, they are very humble, which probably looks good on a resume now or something.

Ultimately, this is humanizing. Knowing that millennials are experiencing collective blue balls but are totally fine with it means we can maybe embrace them. Learn to love them? After all, can you really blame them for not chasing sex all the time? All that good Internet. All those hookup apps, all the debate about the modern man versus the old-fashioned gentleman. Arguing for, and against, chill. It’s exhausting. And frankly, enough to make you swear off sex altogether.


Contact the author at tracy.moore@jezebel.com.