20th century science fiction scenarios of computer sex and love are becoming real in the 21st century for the rising generation of Millennials, who are immersed in computer games and online socializing. Having grown up digital, Millennials are more likely than older cohorts to access it, experience it as real, and regard it as normal. In Havas Worldwide’s annual “Love & Lust” survey, conducted among 2,000 adults in the US and UK, almost one-third (32 percent) of 18-34s say that virtuality is reality, meaning that for them, what happens online is real. That’s a significant 13 points higher than the 35 to 54 year-olds (19 percent) and almost 20 points higher than the over-55s (13 percent).
Whenever sexual urges, needs, and questions come up, consistently more Millennials than the older generations go digital. Almost half of them (46 percent) have visited or used online services with sexual intent, compared with 38 percent of 35-54s and just 20 percent of over-55s. Almost 1 in 3 Millennials (29 percent) say images on the Internet have influenced how they think about sex (vs. 22 percent of 35-54s and 11 percent of over-55s); almost 1 in 4 (24 percent) say discussions online have influenced how they think about sex (vs. 14 percent and 6 percent respectively).
Many people across various age cohorts use the Internet for sex and romance, but more Millennials could imagine getting into sexual or romantic relationships through online services. Facebook is the frontrunner for 39 percent of Millennials (vs. 25 and 14 percent), followed by dating sites such as Plenty of Fish (36 vs. 27 and 14 percent) and chat services such as Skype and MSN (36 percent vs. 22 and 12 percent). Even the short-form limitations of Twitter hold romantic promise for 23 percent of Millennials (vs. 12 percent and 7 percent).
“Young people have always figured out sex for themselves by swapping rumors, anecdotes, and publications, plus getting whatever experience they could. Now the Internet is making it all far more accessible and vivid,” says Joy Schwartz, President, Havas Worldwide Chicago. “Anyone who is interested can read, see, and watch anything—learning about everything from basic sex education to the most extreme proclivities. Movies and TV had a big influence on what people found romantic and sexy back when mass media ruled. Now that digital rules, it’s going to be interesting to see how it shapes Millennials and those coming after them.”
With their Internet-influenced ideas of what’s normal, more Millennials have bought sex toys and performance enhancers (44 percent vs. 39 and 23 percent). This might suggest a free-and-easy attitude, but it doesn’t mean that Millennials are free of worries. Almost half say that in general, sex-related websites, apps, and other digital tools/channels are encouraging young people to have sex before they're ready (48 percent vs. 47 and 58 percent). A solid 29 percent of them worry that they aren’t very good in bed (vs. 20 and 14 percent), and 21 percent worry that their sexual fantasies or behaviors aren’t normal (vs. 12 and 6 percent). Most striking, almost a quarter of them think it’s wrong to have sex before marriage (24 percent vs. 13 and 15 percent). And even more intriguing, they’re more likely to say they have sex more often than they like (13 percent vs. 8 and 2 percent)
Downsides as well as Upsides
Digital access to love and lust has spread far beyond the younger generation. In both the US and the UK, 60 percent of respondents say online dating has become normal and mainstream, and around half of respondents (US 52 percent, UK 49 percent) already know someone whose relationship started online. With growing online experience, some of the downsides are becoming apparent:
- More than two-thirds of those surveyed (US 70 percent, UK 67 percent) say the Internet has made it easier for people to cheat on their partners.
- Around half (US 47 percent, UK 40 percent) say sex-related websites and digital tools are cheapening sex and harming people’s relationships.
- And around a third (US 40 percent, UK 30 percent) proclaim sex sites and digital tools are bad for society in general.
For over two-thirds of respondents (US 69 percent, US 67 percent), having a strongly sexual relationship online still counts as cheating with their real life partners. No wonder nearly a third of US respondents (30 percent) and a quarter of those in the UK (24 percent) actually know someone whose offline relationship ended because of something they did online.
“Not so long ago, being online was distinct from the rest of life. People with a taste for titillation had to sit at a computer and tie up a phone line while they checked out chat rooms and surfed the raunchier regions of the Internet ,” says Matt Weiss, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Havas Worldwide. “Now people are online virtually every waking hour—while commuting to work, in bars and restaurants, in the bathroom, and in bed. Portable devices enable them to do whatever they want privately, even in public places, whether it’s lapping up Fifty Shades of Grey on a Kindle, browsing adult-content websites, or swapping steamy messages and photos. For society at large and for marketers, this is creating profound changes in how people think about some important distinctions in life: public vs. private, real vs. imagined, normal vs. abnormal, and right vs. wrong.”
Are We Growing More Shallow? Smart Is Losing Its Sex Appeal
We conducted our original “Love & Lust” survey in 2003, which enables us to make some interesting comparisons across the decade. What we are seeing is that brawn and beauty are giving brains a run for their money when it comes to sex appeal.
In both surveys, we asked respondents to choose which one of four alternatives was the biggest turn-on for them: intelligence, physical strength/good looks, money, or power. Back in 2003, an overwhelming 79 percent picked intelligence; it’s still the top turn-on in 2013, but only for 46 percent (a decrease of more than 40 percent!). Physical strength and good looks was a distant second choice in 2003 with just 10 percent; this year, it’s a close second, with 42 percent.
The growing preference for good looks was confirmed by another, more intimate trade-off. Respondents were asked to choose between a partner who is physically unattractive but great in bed and a partner who is physically attractive but lousy in bed (and would never get better). This year and 10 years ago, respondents preferred the good-in-bed option, but the margin has narrowed considerably: In 2003, 8 in 10 chose performance over attractiveness, while in 2013 it’s down to 6 in 10.