The Changing Face of Youth Sexuality
The complex interplay between mental health, sexual orientation, gender identity, societal acceptance, social media, smartphones and porn.
Much has been said recently about increasing rates of mental health issues in youth a possible relationship to smartphones and social media. Jonathan Haidt has written how the decline in mental health specifically among teen girls coincides with a rise in both smartphone usage and social media. This was echoed by an article in the Financial Times this week. Haidt has followed this up with a piece pinning the blame on the spread of a certain kind of liberal politics that bred fragility, and for which Tumblr was a petri dish.
While there is some truth in this, I don’t believe any of this can be so easily pinned to one thing. It is plausible to suggest a connection with the worsening of mental health among young people over the last 10-15 years, but it does not on its own explain why this has risen more sharply among girls. There is an assumption in a lot of these analyses of a difference in male and female psychology, that girls are more fragile, more susceptible, that the mere access to social media is enough to cause their mental health to deteriorate in greater numbers than boys. I think these are presumptions about innate psychology that “feel” conveniently true in some quarters, but don’t really paint a complete picture.
Social media is just a vector for information augmented with persuasive social pressure, a spreading of ideas - memes in the true Dawkins sense. Adding numbers to indicate social approval, creating in- and out-groups that encompass whole swathes of the species, ideas spreading like wildfire, taken as true because their very popularity demonstrates their truth.
So it isn’t just about social media, social pressure, and smartphones on their own - it is also about the kinds of information conveyed upon them. When considering a sex differential in resulting mental health, we also need to consider the sex differential in which kinds if ideas are propagated, which perceptions dominate and are ultimately reinforced by social media dynamics. We need to consider the level of degradation and sexual objectification of women that pervades all aspects of culture, and through the mechanisms of social media is understood as accepted and even celebrated by the majority. As with so many things, the tech infrastructure we have is not one that has been designed to be good for us, but one that attains success measured through profitability - and systems that keep our attention no matter the cost to us are far more profitable, driven by the needs of ad revenue and behavioural data mining.
The crossover between worsening mental health in girls and increasing cross-sex identification in girls in the same age group has been pointed out elsewhere, but there are other, similar, related trends that possibly form part of the same picture.
This week saw the launch of The Lesbian Project, a new initiative to specifically combat lesbian erasure in wider society. In interviews, founder Kathleen Stock, in describing some of her motivation in setting up the new organisation, said that “young women would rather change gender than say they are lesbian”, which she sees as a result of widespread denigration of lesbians in public life. In response, Owen Jones dismissed this claim by pointing at stats indicating that more young people than ever were identifying as “LGB+”:
Which isn’t really responsive to the claim, since “young people” covers both sexes, and “LGB+” covers more than just lesbians.
In fact, the overall rise is dominated by a marked increase in 16-24 year old women and girls describing themselves as bisexual, or “other”, while “lesbian or gay” has risen less. In the 7 years of ONS data available, among this demographic, “lesbian or gay” has roughly doubled, while “bisexual” and “other” have quadrupled. Women and girls between 16 and 24 are over four times more likely to say they are bisexual, pansexual, asexual or some other sexual orientation than gay or lesbian.
By comparison, the data for boys and men in the same age range shows a much more gradual increase and the opposite bias:
Over the whole time period, boys are more likely to be gay than bisexual, and roughly twice as likely to be gay than girls are to be lesbians, falling to 1.5x in the final year. By 2020, lesbians have just about reached the same level as gay males in 2014. There is a clear difference between the sexes here which cannot be straightforwardly explained by “acceptance”.
Additionally, when compared to the 2020 ONS data on “gender identity” for females in this age range, other confounding factors emerge.
0.11% of “female” respondents described themselves as a “trans woman”. Given that a transwoman is by definition male, that either reflects confusion about the survey response, or that a percentage of male respondents described themselves as female.
The data is not cross-correlated, but this means that in an absolute worst case, up to 5% of 16-24 year olds being counted as lesbians might be heterosexual males.
Likewise, the fact that the census combines “gay or lesbian” into a single response confuses matters further, since 0.28% of female respondents described themselves as a “trans man”. So - again in a worst case - 1 in 8 “gay or lesbians” in this age group could be heterosexual woman and girls describing themselves as gay transmen.
Add to that the 0.77% of female respondents describing themselves as non-binary, gender fluid, agender, or any other label, and it invites questions about how these identities overlap with sexual orientation. As things stand, the structure of the census data leaves us with no clear answers. We don’t really know what the true values are - this is just how young people are understanding themselves, given the language and expectations of society.
But looking only at the values for “gay or lesbian”, split by sex, it doesn’t reveal the significant generational shift implied by Owen Jones’ “LGB+” chart above, which is dominated by the rise in bisexual/other, especially in the youngest demographic.
And as with left-handedness analogies, it is far too simple to point at a combined rise in “LGB+” youth and claim it is all just “increasing acceptance” when the picture varies so much by sex and by orientation. There are many plausible hypotheses and competing narratives and it doesn’t all add up to a positive picture.
The idea that more young people feel able to “be themselves” and don’t feel shamed into denying same-sex orientation is no doubt a good thing - but can we be sure that is the complete picture, given the differences in trends here? In that light, the unexplained sex differences should not simply be glossed over, because they are likely reflective of different social expectations placed upon the sexes, especially given the rate of change and coincident rise with other social phenomena.
How many lesbians are calling themselves “non-binary” at least in part to obscure their same-sex attraction in response to homophobia, or because that is what gender-nonconforming girls are increasingly expected to do these days? How many are saying they are pansexual because of societal pressure not to “invalidate” the gender identity of others? How many girls are describing themselves as agender, asexual, demiromantics as a response to increasing exposure to and normalisation of - often violent - sexual objectification in wider culture?
Critically though, the unexplained obvious outlier in this data is the significant rise in young women and girls describing themselves as bisexual. How much of this is not a genuine expression of sexuality, but submission to the objectifying expectations of a peer group growing up immersed in pornography and porn-saturated social media?
Because while social media and smartphones are an obvious cause for concern, the emergence of these technologies has also coincided with the rise of high quality, free, streaming pornography.
I will take PornHub as illustrative of this trend since it is the largest such site on the web, and its stats are a good indication of the explosion in this area in the last 15 years.
When PornHub launched in 2007 it had 1 million daily visits, growing to 5 million the following year. By 2019 it was 110 million.
In 2010, 12% of traffic to PornHub was on mobile devices, but by 2019 that had risen to 84%.
In December 2022, PornHub was the third most-visited site in the US - after Google and YouTube - and 95% of its traffic was from mobile devices.
The 18-24 year old age group is also the largest demographic of PornHub viewers, accounting for 27% of users.
“Lesbian” is consistently one of the top porn search terms:
Women in porn are always sexually available first and foremost to men, so “lesbian” doesn’t actually mean “lesbian”, it means “performative female bisexuality for the male gaze”. While in reality lesbians are saying the most complete “no” to men it is possible to say, pornography utterly subverts this.
Is it any wonder in this climate that we would see some women and girls resisting accepting a label so strongly associated with relentless, pornographic objectification that bears absolutely no relation to any genuine sexuality whatsoever? Or that - in a climate of sexual pressure and increased expectation of sexual availability to boys and young men - more women and girls would declare themselves bisexual? Or that all of this might contribute to an increase in mental health issues - particularly in girls? Or that some of those mental health issues might manifest as dissociation from their sexed bodies? That some would attempt to opt-out of this societal sexual objectification completely, with asexual and agender and non-binary and transgender identities?
None of this is simple. It isn’t just smartphones, or greater acceptance, or social media, or instagram filters, or cyberbullying, or pressure to be kind and inclusive, or nude selfies and revenge porn, or “trans-inclusive” education in schools, or the fact that porn is absolutely pervasive now.
It is all of these things in concert, and laying the blame solely on social media and smartphones ultimately makes girls responsible for their own mental health crisis, while obscuring the widespread violent sexual objectification that lies behind it.