Op-Ed

Sex Was Just Starting To Feel Normal Again — But Then We Lost Roe

Hooking up just feels heavier now.

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At 22 years old, there’s only one thing I can say with certainty: I’m done living through history. Over it. I’ve seen a reality TV celebrity and alleged abuser attempt (and fail, epically) to run this country. I’ve lived through — and continue to live through — a full-blown global health crisis. And now, I’ve gotten a front-row seat to the devastation of reproductive rights, thanks to the five Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, ending the constitutional right to an abortion in the United States. The procedure is now at risk of being banned or significantly restricted in 26 states, per the Center for Reproductive Rights. So, when it comes to history, I think I’ve seen enough.

It seems like my generation is right there with me, with 69% of Americans under the age of 30 disapproving of the Supreme Court ruling, per the Pew Research Center. We are angry and tired. Marginalized groups have never had the privilege of simply witnessing history from the sidelines; instead, they bear the brunt of our country’s shortcomings every single day. So, while the overturning of Roe v. Wade will have different consequences for different people, people of color and those with less financial security will be the most affected (as effing always).

For Gen Z as a whole — with many of us currently in the heart of our young adult years — we are left to reevaluate our relationship to sex, to our bodies, and to our youth. This moment of reflection and grief has spurred many to take action in their own ways: calling their representatives to fight restrictions and bans, donating to abortion funds, sharing resources on social media, and more. If you’re not sure where to go from here, you’re not alone.

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Caroline,* 21, had started seeing someone casually before the ruling was announced, but they hadn’t done the deed quite yet. She nearly felt ready to take things to the next level, but the Supreme Court decision made her feel differently. “After I heard,” she says, “I felt more reserved and cautious of how much of my body I allowed them to see or touch.”

Her new partner sensed her becoming distant, but after they talked through her reasoning for wanting to slow things down, they were able to get on the same page. Caroline — who had to stop taking her birth control pills a few months ago for health reasons — was already careful to avoid an accidental pregnancy. But with abortion access now becoming less secure in her Ohio college town, she’s even more hesitant to take any risks. Caroline isn’t necessarily waiting until she meets her future husband to have sex, but rather, she’s looking for a sexual partner she can openly communicate with, who wants to help reduce the risk of pregnancy, who is patient with her timeline for feeling comfortable, and who makes her feel supported rather than judged.

Caroline isn’t the only one with evolving views on sex. As some people, like TikToker @moneymollusk predict, hookup culture may be on its way out, because “what woman would have mediocre s*x with a drunk rando if he could potentially father her child?”

Sydney, 23, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and is trading her birth control pills for an IUD for extra protection against pregnancy — and the whims of the Supreme Court. “When Roe fell, [an IUD] felt like a more secure form [of birth control] that I could have for several years in case pills are banned.” (Many other Supreme Court rulings — including the right to contraception, the right to same-sex relationships, and the right to same-sex marriage — are based on the same arguments that held up Roe for 49 years. With Roe gone, other liberties could be at risk.)

Carefree years just aren’t possible if the country you live in isn’t caring for you.

This isn’t the first time Gen Z’s sex lives have been interrupted by history. We were in high school when the #MeToo movement became mainstream — for me, it was my senior year. I feel lucky to have come of age alongside this movement that normalized consent. But there was also a sense of fear that was instilled in us around sex, with young men feeling afraid of doing the wrong thing and young women feeling afraid, period (and sometimes, vice versa).

We were in college when COVID-19 came around. Like many of my peers, I spent almost a year at home, gazing longingly at Tinder matches that I couldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole and dreaming of in-person flirting. My younger brother is immunocompromised, so any scandalous hangouts wouldn’t just impact me — they could put him and my family in danger, too.

For people my age, there were suddenly no more bar makeouts, no more sweaty frat basement interactions. We were raised to look forward to our carefree college years — in many cases, burying ourselves under mountains of debt to enjoy them — but instead, watched them slip by on Zoom.

While every generation likes to believe they’ve had it rough — I don’t think anyone’s dad will ever stop saying, “When I was a kid, we didn’t have [insert literally anything]” — but it really feels like Gen Z has gotten the short end of the stick. In what could have been our wild, reckless youth, we’ve missed out again and again. More than two years into the pandemic, it seemed like a semblance of normalcy was almost finally within reach. The Supreme Court ruling wiped out so many people’s hopes of getting there. Carefree years just aren’t possible if the country you live in isn’t caring for you.

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It might feel silly to indulge these grievances when thinking about these moments in history that have taken so much from so many people. It feels strange to say that I’m bummed that I’ve missed out on messy hookups and one-night-stands and post-breakup hoe phases. If that’s the biggest way I’ve been impacted by these huge world-altering tragedies, then I’m clearly a privileged individual (which, affirmative, I very much am).

But sex can be powerful. It can serve as a way to connect deeply with another person and to feel less alone during extremely isolating times — which is especially important, considering that Gen Z is lonely AF, as a 2021 Harvard study found. Pleasure is powerful: Another 2021 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that people who were sexually active during the pandemic experienced lower levels of anxiety and depression. (And, reminder, the current mental health crisis is so bad for young people, it’s literally been declared a national emergency.) Sex isn’t just for fun stories or wild experiences. It’s also a key player in mental health, self-expression, and human connection.

Of course, it’s a privilege to grieve for my “young, wild, and free” years or feel like they were guaranteed or owed to me in some way. For many, living a carefree young adult life was never a given, regardless of the hardships our country faced these past few years.

For myself and many others, living in a securely blue state means that our own access to abortion has not changed. It’s a privilege to worry about sexual desire instead of the threat of forced birth. For people in red states, for people without this same access, swearing off penis-in-vagina sex isn’t just a personal preference — it can be a survival method.

Regardless of how people may react to this moment, one thing is clear: Casual sex feels inherently less casual. Whether you’re entirely turned off by it or more mindful of asking the other party to roll on a condom, the consequences of sex are at the forefront of our minds. Hooking up just feels heavier now.

Reconsidering our relationship to sex is not nothing. My hope for Gen Z is that we can find ways to approach intimacy that feel safe and satisfying, whether that involves penetrative sex or not. And just as importantly, I hope we can find moments to live out our youth: to leave room for mistakes, a little recklessness, and a lot of learning. But for now, we sit in the grief of losing a part of ourselves — again.

*Name was changed.