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The Assignment with Audie Cornish

Each week on The Assignment, host Audie Cornish pulls listeners out of their digital echo chambers to hear from the people whose lives intersect with the news cycle. From the sex work economy to the battle over what’s taught in classrooms, no topic is off the table. Listen to The Assignment every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Sex and Sensibilities: Let’s Talk About Puriteens
The Assignment with Audie Cornish
Aug 10, 2023

Have you heard about the “puriteens”? That’s the nickname for Gen Z’ers who are uncomfortable with sex and sexuality, and discuss that discomfort, largely online. Well, the media is obsessed with them and what their #thoughts mean for the state of their sex lives. But how accurate is that label? Is this a real thing? Our Assignment this week: unpacking the “puriteen” label. 

We called up Constance Grady, who is both a millennial and the Vox senior correspondent behind The Purity Chronicles, and Izzy Ampil, the Gen Z writer who reported “People Think Gen Z Is Sex Negative, But The Truth Is More Complicated” for Buzzfeed News.  

Episode Transcript
Audie Cornish
Before we begin, you should know that in this episode we're going to talk about sex. Kind of. Definitely. I mean, it's about sex. Either way, it's not appropriate for all audiences. So to start, we're going to talk about the "puriteens." Have you heard about this? I hadn't until I started noticing these headlines.
"From Polyamory To Puriteens: How Gen Z Is Rewriting The Rules Of Sex."
"Are Sex-Negative ‘Puriteens’ Actually Taking Over the Internet?"
"Ah, to be young and scandalized: Who are these ‘puriteens,’ anyway?"
Audie Cornish
Apparently a "puriteen" is a Gen Z-er, very online, who is uncomfortable with sex and sexuality and the media is obsessed with them and what their hashtag thoughts mean for the state of their sex lives.
"What is driving the anti-sex backlash?"
"Gen Z is Missing Out on the Benefits of Sex"
These Gen Z Women Think Sex Positivity Is Overrated
Frustrated with hookup culture, Gen Z women are swearing off sex and entering their celibacy era.
Audie Cornish
But what about dating apps? And hookup culture? And the porn wars? And sex positivity? I'm Audie Cornish, and today on The Assignment: what are the lasting effects of purity, culture and the backlash to it? How is Gen Z manifesting sex positivity while also decrying sex scenes in pop culture? And what's with the cycle of panic over the so-called "puriteen" anyway? I consider myself a very tail end Gen X elder millennial, if you will. Think My So-Called Life, Courtney Love, TLC. Like condoms are coming to your school because it's like safe sex class time. So to understand the puriteen panic and all those headlines, I knew I needed to call up some folks with generational and subject matter expertise. So first, here's Constance Grady.
Constance Grady
I was born in 1988, so I'm sort of right smack in the middle of the millennials.
Audie Cornish
She's a senior correspondent at Vox and writes a series called "The Purity Chronicles."
Constance Grady
My adolescence was really really Bush era stuff. So that was the era of both hardcore purity culture and also raunch culture, which I really think of as two sides of the same coin, right? It was very important to be a virgin. That might look like putting on a purity ring and putting on a white dress and pledging your virginity to your dad at a purity ball. It's the era of federally incentivized abstinence only sex education, and it's also at the same time very important to be kind of sexy down for anything girl, right? It's the era of Girls Gone Wild and take your top off on camera and everyone has to have this incredibly long torso with a very tanned and taut midriff.
Audie Cornish
The precursor to Gen Z.
Izzy Ampil
I'm very early Gen Z. I was born in 1999.
Audie Cornish
And that's Izzy Ampil, writer of the BuzzFeed News story "People Think Gen Z Is Sex Negative, But The Truth Is More Complicated."
Izzy Ampil
I spent a lot of time on Tumblr when I was around 13 to 15 and sort of imbibed a lot of the like sex positivity talk that was happening on there at the time. Learned about slut shaming from Tumblr, learned about sort of these grassroots ideas about resistance to rape culture, learned about like the SlutWalk and the idea of reclaiming these words that are used to repress women sexually.
Audie Cornish
When you come across these headlines as people who write about this kind of thing, initial response?
Constance Grady
When I'm scrolling the internet, I mostly end up thinking, "didn't I see something like this maybe five, ten years ago about millennials?" Because I remember there being headlines saying that millennials were too sensitive about sex and millennials were missing out and that they were having sex at lower rates than previous generations. That was a narrative, basically, up until Gen Z was old enough to get their own jobs at media companies and start, and the focus shifts, right?
Audie Cornish
Yeah. Though in fairness, people often base these things on sexual sexuality surveys on CDC numbers, and people were reporting that they hadn't had as many partners the year before as, let's say, the previous generation. So it wasn't out of nowhere.
Constance Grady
Yeah, I think you're right. I think what we're seeing, though, is that this is less a generational backlash than it is an overall trend that is spanning generations. Millennials had less sex than Gen X and now Gen Z is continuing that trend.
Audie Cornish
Izzy for you, your initial reaction when you're scrolling through and see these?
Izzy Ampil
I think my my gut reaction is just sort of a defensiveness of of my generation and feeling like, "why are we all being lumped in together like this?" And I think also –
Audie Cornish
But not like a "we do have sex." Like what? Like (laughs) Do you have a feeling instinctually of "that's not true" or "yeah, it is true, but you're not exactly understanding why"?
Izzy Ampil
I think it's definitely both. I think there's a kind of defensiveness that's like, "we think about sex," "we talk about sex." "We have sex" like "we do all of these things." "We care about sex." And I think there's also a defensiveness that sort of like "this is feels like a really broad generalization and one that it's convenient to attribute to all of Gen Z because it's sort of flashy and grabby." But that might be better explained, not by generational factors. So there's like a skepticism and and also, I think just a gut gut defensiveness of like, "well, I'm having sex. I don't know" (laughs)
Audie Cornish
Now, one thing about this story, when I tried to dive into the research, people have so many different reasons that they consider factors in the decline of sexual activity in the U.S. It's people living with their parents. It's being low income, it's hookup culture. It's like, so, how do you guys go about writing this stuff? Like what did you decide to focus on as you sat down to write?
Izzy Ampil
I think for me, I felt so badgered by all of the headlines that were about like all of the terrible reasons that Gen Z might not be having as much sex that I wanted to dig further into what I think is sort of an under evaluated reason, which is just that they're having less bad sex.
Audie Cornish
But what do you think are the common reasons that you consider terrible, you said?
Izzy Ampil
Everything you said. I mean, I think, holds. Like people are on their phones more and isolating more and like prioritizing digital interaction over physical interaction. But I think for in writing about this, I wanted to think a little bit more about like what is sort of a positive reason, which is that people are less willing to go out and just have any kind of sex that leaves them feeling like not physically pleasured or mentally fulfilled or emotionally fulfilled.
Constance Grady
Yeah, for me, Constance, it's a little bit different because I sort of start at the other end of things. My question is not why is Gen Z having less sex or why are millennials having less sex? My question is, "what did we grow up steeped in?" And then from there you can potentially extrapolate out some the some possible effects, like deciding you want to have less sex because you feel bad about the messages that you grew up with or finding that the messages you grew up with are potentially encouraging you to participate in sex, that you don't maybe actually find that you want to have, and then saying, "okay, I'm going to take a break from that." Those all strike me as plausible reactions you have to the purity culture of the 2000s.
Audie Cornish
Let me dig into your reporting following this, Izzy, you decided to actually address this head on and your article was called "People Think Gen Z Is Sex Negative, But The Truth Is More Complicated." Tell me who you talk to and what kinds of questions did you ask in your reporting?
Izzy Ampil
Basically, I put out a big Google form to ask anyone to fill out a survey about sort of their sex life, how often they're having sex, what kind of sex they're having, with how many partners with who, and also like what their sort of beliefs and philosophies about sex are. What are they hoping to learn about themselves and their sexuality in the next few years.
Audie Cornish
Which is different from the CDC just saying, "have you had sexual intercourse?"
Izzy Ampil
Audie Cornish
You're phrasing it differently. You're like speaking your lingua franca.
Izzy Ampil
Yeah, and I think there was a lot more. I was trying to probe, like, what do people think about sex? What questions do they have, What fears do they have? What have they learned already in the past couple of years and trying to get a little bit more at their, like, belief systems and values and more more that than just like a quantitative sense of how much sex are you having, and when? And so I ended up talking to about 15 people who are pulled from the from that form, but they were anywhere in the range of 18 to 26 and all over the U.S. And I had a couple sources in Mexico as well.
Audie Cornish
What were your assumptions going into this and what did you actually hear?
Izzy Ampil
I think I expected people to like, be more aware of and maybe even resistant to defensive against this stereotype that Gen Z isn't having sex, that they're sex negative, that they're puriteens, etc. And most of the people that I talked to were like, "that discourse hasn't reached me and it doesn't really affect my life." And so I was quite fascinated to feel like, Oh, this is an obsession. Like so many people are talking about this generational divide. And then I talk to all these people who are just living their lives as members of Gen Z, and they were like, I haven't heard this. No one's no one's talked to me about this. And it doesn't really inform my thinking either in a defensive or a proactive way.
Audie Cornish
Constance, does that have something to do with kind of the end of monoculture, so to speak? Meaning if I come up in the age of The Real World where everyone is talking about safe sex and it's on MTV and everyone is literally watching a thing because they're not atomized into a million niche online communities, etc. There is something about that message that can really spread. Whereas now, yeah, it took me a minute to think what is a puriteen?
Constance Grady
No, I think that's absolutely right. I think that if there's a news story that is very popular in the 2000 and in the 90s, then like you're probably going to see a 60 Minutes thing about it. I think also it is interesting to remember how online the idea of the puriteen is. I think this is something that a lot of, especially millennial and Gen X journalists kind of freaked out about when they see very online teenagers being like, "I think sex scenes in movies are bad," which is a thing that you see periodically on Tumblr or Twitter or other social media platforms where other older journalists hang out. We see that and go, "oh my God, these youth don't like sex anymore? What? What is happening?"
Audie Cornish
What is that, like a bot or I mean, someone tippity tapped that into the interwebs machine, right?
Constance Grady
Definitely. Definitely there are kids...
Audie Cornish
Like a kid ostensibly said, "why is there so much sex everywhere? I'm sick of seeing this. It's gratuitous in this film," da da da da da. Like, that exists?
Constance Grady
I think that's pretty – I think that's always been though a pretty common teenage feeling rate of like "this is kind of scary to me and I don't want to be reminded that it exists." That's like not unheard of as a way for teenagers who are just starting to grapple with the idea of sex to feel. I think in this case it can get amplified out by the various bubbles that we live in. And then the next thing you know, a 35-year-old journalist is writing a trend piece about how all teenagers hate sex now.
Audie Cornish
You're going to get a lot of letters because 35 is not old.
Constance Grady
I'm 34 now. I don't think it's old (laughs).
Audie Cornish
We'll be back in a moment.
Izzy Ampil (on tape)
Cool. Well, super stoked to talk to you. I really appreciate it...
Audie Cornish
Izzy Ampil actually interviewed a lot of Gen Z ers about their sex lives.
Izzy Ampil (on tape)
People's friend groups and sort of hyper local communities are the biggest part of how you learn about sex, you know, it's not like...
Audie Cornish
She shared some of the recordings of those conversations with us, and their answers surprised her.
Interviewee 1
My mom's main concern was just don't have a baby. And my dad is a very religious person like he's christian. So that kind of like turned me off of it because it always sounded very negative. But once I, you know, started using Tumblr, the fine age of like 2014 Tumblr, I was starting to see it more in a positive light of like, sex isn't that bad. It's not some terrible act that's going to bind you to someone forever. It's something that people enjoy. And if you do it responsibly, you're not going to wind up pregnant.
Interviewee 2
So last year I started hooking up with plenty of people. After half a year of doing that, I started waking up next to people and thinking, not that I regret it because I don't think I do. I mean, there's a reason why I'm there. I wanted that, but I thought perhaps this is this isn't as fulfilling as I thought it would be. So I decided to stop.
Interviewee 3
Uh, maybe it has to do with this whole cancel culture, like the #MeToo movement that we saw really rapidly as Gen Z-ers as we're growing up, and we're kind of like, "okay, consent is very important." Um but I feel like that definitely plays a role into why I get like a different response from younger people as opposed to like these older people.
Interviewee 4
A lot of the peer pressure I feel I experienced now comes from online. It comes from a lot of media too, because when you hear about this show or this game or and you see what the characters like, what kind of relationships they are in, they're my age. I kind of think, "Well, am I normal?"
Audie Cornish
Listening to what these young people told is he made me reflect on the environment that they grew up in, a kind of gamified dating app situation, access to both partners and porn. And I asked Izzy what her sources had to say about that.
Izzy Ampil
I think that everyone that I talked to had encountered porn before the age of 14. Many of them were talking about seeing porn for the first time at nine, ten, 11, which to me felt, yeah, which to me felt quite early. But I think also many of them tired of porn earlier because of that. But a lot of them moved on to different forms of sexual stimulation fairly soon after that as well. And were interested really in audio porn, in audio storytelling, in erotic writing, in all these sort of various forms of sexual stimulation that weren't just like pornhub dot com. And many of them were had thought really a lot about what it meant to be exposed to porn so early and how that had shaped their expectations. And I think that was also a feature of the Tumblr era that the young Twitter era is people talking about, okay, so how does porn create scripts for how men should act, how women should act, and for what kind of who deserves to have pleasure in a sexual situation. And so earlier on, people were also, I think, critical of the porn that they were consuming.
Audie Cornish
Izzy, what kind of nuance did your Gen-z sources discuss when it came to sex? Right. Like, is it about the very definitions of it? What are the kinds of things that informed their approach?
Izzy Ampil
I think everyone that I spoke to had the sense that when they were talking about sex, they weren't just talking about like vaginal penetration. They were talking about a really wide range of activities and different kinds of engagement with other people's bodies. But yeah, the ambiguity that I saw mostly was just in people's beliefs about the kind of sex that they should be having versus the kind of sex that they were having. And I think one of the things that this focus on Gen-z as puriteens sort of misses is that a lot. Basically everyone, especially these young people who are trying to figure out their sexuality, really don't have this single minded confidence that the sex they're having is right or that their political beliefs about sex are right, like they're still really actively growing and developing them. And unlike the sort of teen who goes viral for saying that sex scenes should no longer be in movies, every single person I talked to was like, I'm having this kind of sex right now. Three months ago, I was having a different kind of sex that was totally different in emotional tone and and style. I was having really, really casual sex for six months before. Now I'm in a monogamous relationship and it's completely different. And I just think everyone is confused about sort of the contradictions of their sex life and also, like, not opposed to it. They're not resistant to that confusion, not feeling like they should have one specific philosophy of sex that they embody all the time. And that's sort of what sort of the online discourse flattens.
Audie Cornish
Do you see this conversation being in dialog with? What was once a very loud message of sexual empowerment, let's say, coming out of the early 20 tens. Do you see any clash there online?
Izzy Ampil
Absolutely. At least with the folks that I spoke to, I think a lot of them were feeling like the sexual empowerment message, the loud sexual empowerment passage didn't work for them and sort of was at odds with the inner confusion and anxiety that they felt about sex. And because it just felt so distant and so unrelatable. I think what helped were the formation of all of these like rules and words and like more specific, more contradictory vocabulary for sex that gave them the language to express the confusion that they felt or the sense that something was not right about the kind of sex that they had been encouraged to have it "freely". I say that a little bit in quotes, because over abundance is and isn't freedom. But yeah, I think especially the people that I talked to were really reacting against this culture of like, all sex is good and you should be having it. And we're, we're trying to find the words for, to express the ambivalence that they had.
Constance Grady
Yeah, I think that's a great way of putting it. I think that there's a tendency, especially in online discourse, to go a little bit scorched earth as soon as a critique of a previous idea goes mainstream, it's kind of like cancel culture for ideas, I guess being like, well, I never believed in it anyway, and we need to throw it out and embrace this new idea. And what I hope can come out of this conversation is an ability to live in the ambiguities a little bit more and take what is helpful and hopeful and utopian from from both conversations and bring them into our real lives.
Audie Cornish
Is there a sense, though, of why people might cringe hearing that all sex that sex is a de facto good?
Constance Grady
Yeah, of course. For one thing, that obviously leaves out people who identify as asexual, which, you know, that is a population that does exist and is wildly underrepresented in these kinds of conversations. And it ignores all of the people who have had sex that was consensual but was not good sex that and not sex that they've really wanted to have. I think one of the things that the MeToo conversation really brought out is how limited our vocabulary is when it comes to talking about that kind of sex. We found ourselves in a place of deep of parsing it out as like, Well, that wasn't rape, so we can't say it was bad really, but also it was not good.
Audie Cornish
Right. It's very little vocabulary.
Constance Grady
Yeah. And that was I think also we could see how that could be weaponized, that ambiguity.
Audie Cornish
I think the the most one of the interesting things I seem to read in these articles that say what's going on with this generation is they have better language to talk about sex. They have a better understanding of the very basic mechanics, so to speak, of pleasure. And they do now have this concept of consent and the kind of rules of the road, so to speak, but that they don't seem happy, that they don't seem happy with the sex that they have and like, why not?
Izzy Ampil
I mean, I think so many young people are still figuring it out. And with this wider menu of named options available to them, if there's a lot of the sense of, well, am I having the right kind? And is polyamory actually like the morally or politically superior option to what I'm doing? And am I ready for that or not? And like, even with the expansion of of named options, you have the sense of abundance and empowerment and the idea that you should be chasing all of these different things that you hear about and this confusion about how to say no or take your time with them.
Audie Cornish
I'm overwhelmed just listening to you say all that.
Constance Grady
One thing that I see a lot looking into plowshares stuff for the Purity Chronicles is there's this kind of narrative. I think that we are better now. We used to be bad, but we fixed it all and now we're good. And I think one thing that these studies can illuminate is we're not necessarily better. We're we're still bad at this. We're fundamentally as human beings, pretty bad at communicating with each other and not judging each other and not setting up these unfulfillable ideals. We're just bad in different ways now. And in 20 years there will be Generation Alpha telling us all the ways we messed up now.
Audie Cornish
We started talking about puriteens and kind of this movement of saying, you know, I'm going to take a step back. I mean, to think about how I approach sex differently, and maybe that means having less sex. What are the conversations that are percolating next?
Izzy Ampil
I suspect I guess maybe I also hope that there will be a celebration of a good sex and of what that means without fear of like the shadow of bad sex lurking underneath. And I think it would be interesting to see that sort of transfer over to a broader conversation about the sex people are having where it's not like, how do you stop having bad sex? How do you stop having bad sex and thinking about sex and the bad ways that you grew up with and this movement towards like, well, what kind of sex makes me feel euphoric, makes other people feel euphoric? What kind of sex feels amazing to engage with on a physical, emotional, interpersonal, social level? And how do we aspire to that? And I think the talk about affirmative enthusiastic consent is sort of a stepping stone on the way to that. But if we develop a greater language to cover that kind of ambiguity, I think that'll be interesting.
Constance Grady
I think also one area of this conversation that has been really underdeveloped at this point still is how to decenter sex. When we talk about what makes for a fulfilling life for people there, it's still such an easy go to insult that like, oh, someday so-and-so will have sex and then they'll understand what real fun is. Or like, Oh, this article or this movie or this song, it just it reads like, this person's never had sex in their life. There are a lot of people who have never had sex in their lives, whether they're ace or they're celibate or other, all kinds of reasons. And I think it's important for us to make space for those people to still have really fulfilling, fulfilled, happy lives full of all different kinds of love.
Audie Cornish
So do you think maybe this data and the panic it seems to invoke annually would be less intense if we weren't using it as an actual benchmark of like success?
Constance Grady
Yeah, I think that's a really good way of putting it. I think our ideas should allow for the possibility of people being happy without having sex.
Audie Cornish
Well, I want to thank you both for taking the time to to talk to me. This was really an interesting discussion.
Constance Grady
Yeah, this was so great.
Izzy Ampil
Thank you. Thank you so much.
Audie Cornish
That was Izzy Ampill, who interviewed Gen Zers about their thoughts on sex for BuzzFeed News. And Constance Grady, the writer behind the Vox series The Purity Chronicles.
Audie Cornish
And that's it for this episode of The Assignment. Now, if you've got an assignment for us, give us a call. Tell us what's on your mind. Our number is 202-854-8802. You might even use your voicemail in a future episode of the show.
Audie Cornish
The Assignment is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Lori Galarreta and Carla Javier. Our producers are Jennifer Lai and Dan Bloom. Our associate producer is Isoke Samuel, and the senior producer of our show is Matt Martinez. Mixing and Sound Design by David Schulman. Our technical director is Dan Dzula. And thanks to Matt Dempsey for his help this week. Our executive producer is Steve Lickteig. Special thanks, as always, to Katie Hedman. I'm Audie Cornish. Thank you for listening.