5 Big Sex Issues Gen Z-ers Bring Up In Therapy All The Time

Here’s what this generation is saying behind closed doors, according to therapists.

Recent data suggests that Generation Z, folks born between the years 1997 and 2012, are less sexually active than older generations. Why? Potential reasons include increased smartphone and social media use, high levels of stress, mental health struggles and effects of the COVID lockdowns and legislative restrictions on abortion rights, just to name a few.

According to a 2021 Kinsey Institute and Lovehoney survey, one in four Gen Z adults in the U.S. say they’ve never had partnered sex. However, 31% of people who have not had sex with a partner say they’ve engaged in virtual sex or sexting.

“So when young adults say they aren’t having sex, this does not necessarily mean that they are sexually inexperienced; rather, many of them seem to be expressing their sexuality in a different way — and, increasingly, that’s through an internet connection,” sex researcher Justin Lehmiller wrote in a blog post about the survey.

Still, statistics don’t paint the full picture. Therapists who work with Gen Z clientele are privy to their innermost thoughts, struggles and fears around sex. We asked these mental health professionals to share some of the sex-related concerns they hear most frequently from folks in this cohort.

1. Trouble communicating boundaries and desires with their partners.

While young folks tend to embrace values like consent, bodily autonomy and pleasure, New York City therapist Keanu Jackson said he sees a number of Gen Z clients who continue to struggle expressing their boundaries and desires in their relationships.

“I actually encounter a bunch of folks who seek support in learning how to advocate for themselves and to speak truth into their sexual and relational needs,” Jackson, who’s part of The Expansive Group therapy practice, told HuffPost.

“There is a wide misconception that if you wish to have a long-term healthy relationship, that you need to be ready to meet 100% of your partner’s needs 100% of the time. Not only is this a wildly dangerous and unrealistic expectation, but it also teaches folks that your personal boundaries aren’t as important. This is especially the case when there are clear power differentials present in the relationship and controlling behaviours.”

Therapists share the common sex-related concerns they hear from Gen Z clients.
Sladic via Getty Images
Therapists share the common sex-related concerns they hear from Gen Z clients.

To help his clients struggling in this area, Jackson starts by modelling his own boundaries in the therapeutic relationship, “leaving space for them to ask questions and explore their own,” he said.

“The therapeutic relationship is still a relationship, after all, and is a powerful source to help someone build or expand upon their own voice.”

2. Pressure to define or label their sexuality.

Los Angeles therapist Torri Efron Pelton said a unique concern she hears from her Gen Z clients is about social pressure to “explore [their] sexuality freely” when they aren’t yet ready or interested in doing so.

“With the openness of social media and recognition of multiple sexual identities, teens are feeling both more acceptance and pressure to explore themselves to not fit into a box,” she told HuffPost. “Sexual freedom has led to concerns of, ‘What if I don’t want sex to be casual?’ ‘What if I don’t know what I like and everyone else does?’”

For some younger Gen Z-ers, this push to define define their sexuality “comes with its own set of issues,” Efron said.

“While expanding our choice of labels was meant to be inclusive, many of my Gen Z clients feel pressure to pick a label early on and stick with it rather than truly exploring who they are and what they want,” Efron said.

In their sessions, Efron and her clients explore this pressure to figure out their sexual preferences by some arbitrary deadline.

“Often times, the individual is able to let go of this imaginary timeline and return to developing at the rate they would like,” she said.

“I often hear, ‘I don’t know what I am,’ referring to sexual preferences,” Efron continued. “To that I simply ask, ‘Why do you need to [know] right in this moment?’”

3. Feeling marginalised or excluded from sexual communities.

Jackson said that as a “queer, kinky, Black therapist,” he often gets inquiries from other people of colour who want to find connections within sexual communities.

“However for some reason or another, they have felt excluded and/or othered in spaces that are allegedly ‘safe,’” he told HuffPost. ”Racism, exoticism, and fetishisation pose huge risks for folks of colour, as our humanness is often disregarded in favour of non-consensual objectification. There are also other various barriers to access such as lack of accessibility or intentionally high fees.”

In fact, he’s come across ads for private events where they ”restrict access based on physical appearance — race, weight, height, etc. — or have heard of folks who paid to attend a gathering being ultimately denied entry without a stated reason,” he said. “Any person of colour can assume what actually happened.”

Some Gen Z-ers talk about feeling "excluded and/or othered" in sexual communities that are "allegedly ‘safe,'" Jackson said.
Olga Rolenko via Getty Images
Some Gen Z-ers talk about feeling "excluded and/or othered" in sexual communities that are "allegedly ‘safe,'" Jackson said.

In their sessions, Jackson helps them realize that the internalized shame they feel “has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with ideological and institutional oppression,” he explained.

“I assist them in continuing to locate their power and finding connection in spaces that actually are affirming for them,” Jackson said.

4. Receiving unsolicited explicit photos.

Efron’s Gen Z clients also talk to her about people sending them unwanted sexual photos on Snapchat and other apps where the images disappear after a set amount of time so that there’s “no evidence left behind.”

“I once had a young male client, around 15. He opened his Snapchat and saw an explicit photo sent to him. He felt completely unsafe returning to school being around that peer and unsure how to process what he had just seen,” she said.

Receiving an unsolicited nude photo can be disturbing and violating.

“We processed boundaries and sexual concerns and that it’s not only OK to say no in person, but to let this peer know that was not OK. We had to work on this image not turning into an intrusive thought,” Efron said.

“For many of these children, there is no warning when opening a Snapchat of what they are about to see. So regardless of setting the boundary that they do not want to engage sexually with this person, they have to live with the image in their mind that they never asked for.”

5. Performance anxiety.

From his Gen Z clients, Jackson hears concerns about erection issues and “nervousness with anal sex in general,” particularly among the queer, cisgender men he sees, “whether it be topping, bottoming, or not wanting to do either.”

“We live in a culture of shame, unfortunately, that assigns value judgment based on what your body looks like, and perceived sexual prowess,” he said.

“What I mean by this, for example, is that based on how you look, someone may assign a sexual script to you before you even have the chance to introduce yourself. If you somehow don’t fit the mould that was created for you, then it’s likely that you’ll be mistreated or shamed just for being yourself, which of course could lead to increased anxiousness as you’re trying to have sex or be intimate with someone.”

When working with clients dealing with performance anxiety, Jackson often asks them first about their early models for sexual behaviour. And though comprehensive sex education has become more accessible over the last decade, “there are still very pervasive and harmful messages about sex and intimacy that are deeply embedded within our culture that won’t fade out for quite some time,” he said.

In their sessions, Jackson said he’s listening for generalisations and judgments and “gets curious with them around what has informed those beliefs in being true,” he said.

Sometimes, he’ll even open up about his own experiences with erectile dysfunction or sex-related anxiety “in an attempt to reveal that what we go through in isolation is more common than we initially believe,” he said.