“Prudish” Generation Z and What It Means for the Future

Centre for Strategic Futures
8 min readMar 8, 2024

By Fuad Johari

A quote often attributed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill states that “if you are not a liberal at 20 years of age, you have no heart, but if you are not a conservative by the time you are 35, you have no brain”. It is almost taken for granted that the young are much more progressive and left-wing, bringing with them highfaluting ideas about freedom and tolerance that may gall some in the older generations. However, in one particular instance, this liberality may not necessarily be true at first glance. Are the younger generations bucking the trend and bringing back Victorian sexual mores, where an exposed ankle more than titillates the mind?

Image designed by Stanley Yang

Let’s get the fundamental concepts out of the way first before we get into the weeds. A generation refers to all of the people collectively born and living or co-existing at about the same time, and usually consists of periods of around 20 to 30 years, when children are born, grow up and in turn begin to have children of their own. These cohorts are usually thought to share similar cultural experiences, which thus shape their overarching paradigm or way of looking at the world.[1]

In the dominant Western paradigm, these are the main generations that make up society today:

· Silent Generation (born between 1928 to 1945)

· Baby Boomers (born between 1946 to 1964)

· Generation X (born between 1965 to 1980)

· Generation Y or Millennials (born between 1981 to 1996)

· Generation Z or Zoomers (born between 1997 to 2012)

· Generation Alpha (born between 2013 to mid-2020s)

In 19th century Europe, where huge changes were taking place and European Enlightenment ideas about civilizational progress were taking root, generational changes were thought to lead to social changes and eventually progress, as outdated ideas held by the older generations eventually died out with them, to be replaced by better ideas that were held by the new generation.

Focusing on attitudes towards sexuality and morality in particular, we can see that there has been a significant change across generations to be more permissive and “liberal” from the Baby Boomers to Generation X and the Millennials. In a study done on attitudes in the US by then San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge in 2015, the acceptance of premarital sex rose from 29% in the 1970s, to 42% in the 1980s/90s, and up to 58% in 2012. This was thought to have come about as the percentage of Baby Boomers in society dwindled, to be replaced by more youngsters from Generations X and Y. Likewise, on acceptance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people in the US, only 11% of people in 1972 believed that “gay sex was not wrong”, but 44% of people in 2012 believed so.[2]

There have been signs, however, that the arc of history bending towards progress may have been sent off kilter with the arrival of Generation Z. For example, the label “Puriteen”[3] (a portmanteau of Puritan and Teenager) began trending on Twitter (now X) in 2021 and referred to a group of teenagers who were prudish and uncomfortable about sexual content on the internet and mass media, disapproved of large age gaps in adult relationships and were especially unsupportive of LGBT Pride parades involving sexual or kink elements (such as having public bondage exhibitions). Puriteens were strongly correlated with the #cancelporn movement as well, which believed that pornography was inherently evil because it normalised unsavoury things such as rape and misogyny and should thus be cancelled.[4] Almost half of Generation Z viewers also want less sex on screen, as found by a University of California, Los Angeles’s annual Teens and Screens report done in 2023.[5] “Wholesome”, which had connotations to evangelical morality in the 90s, has also become a Generation Z compliment.[6] Videos carrying the wholesome tag receiving more than 125 million views on TikTok, while Wholesome Memes on X has 3 million followers. In a study by the Youth Risk Behaviour Surveillance System in 2021, the number of teenagers who were sexually active fell to 30%, from 50% in the previous generation. Less alcohol is also being drunk by Generation Z, with a poll done in 2023 by Gallup showing that the number of people below 35 who drink has dropped from 72% to 62%.

These factors, taken together, may paint an alarming picture of a new generation that is keen to bring sexual mores back to the past. However, a consistent trend that underpins all these developments may be Generation Z’s deep understanding of boundaries and a desire for meaningful connection, that has forced them to confront many deeply held ideas about sex and morality, and what it means to truly connect to another person physically and psychoemotionally.

This may be happening due to a few interconnected socioeconomic and technological factors. Generation Z is coming of age during a time of rapid social change and activism on many issues such as LGBT rights, gender equality and racial justice, which means that they are more likely to challenge traditional norms and expectations in relationships. The rise of the #MeToo movement and other developments have exposed Generation Z to discussions about consent and respect in ways that previous generations may not have been, which leads many younger individuals to prioritise clear communication, mutual respect and informed consent, which subsequently influenced their life choices.

Continuing a trend that was first seen in the Millennials, Generation Z is hitting life milestones such as getting married, buying a house and having children much later than previous generations.[7] Living with parents to a much older age and being in a more precarious economic state due to a variety of factors such as low wages and uncertain career paths simply means that the opportunities to have sex are less and less on Generation Z’s minds. At the same time, delaying these milestones allows Generation Z more time to explore their identities, values and relationship preferences, and scoping out better boundaries for themselves.

Growing up in the digital age, Generation Z can seek and receive information from a wide variety of sources which helps to foster greater awareness of healthy boundaries and communication styles. While digital communication offers new tools for connection, it also can blur boundaries and create challenges in navigating relationships, making it even more important that boundaries are clear to manage digital interactions better. The easy access to not just pornography but other sexual content through dating applications and social media meanwhile pose three consequences — Generation Z may feel a sense of sexual inadequacy when comparing themselves to unrealistic standards, they have a surfeit of choice that leads to a higher mental load and perhaps decision paralysis, and the growth of the digital world means that there are less and less opportunities to meet “organically” in the real world, as their interactions have to be mediated through platforms that channel and isolate in many different ways. All these mean that the ways that the older generations have connected with each other are no longer tenable for Generation Z to follow. While most are actively renegotiating boundaries and connections, some have chosen to forego relationships altogether given all the potential pitfalls they have to negotiate and the consequent mental load they have to carry.

Taking these factors into account, if we expand our understanding of Generation Z’s values, we can see that they are in fact even more sexually progressive than the generations that have come before them, choosing to focus on sexual liberation instead of sexual liberalisation, and pushing back against the commodification of sex. In a survey done by Pew Research Center in 2018 of views on social issues in the US for example, nearly 60% of Generation Z believed that there should be an option besides man or woman on forms that ask about gender, compared to 50% of Millennials and 30% of Baby Boomers.[8] Their ideas of sex are also more fluid. In a study done by dating application Bumble in Australia in 2023[9], 35% of Generation Z singles believed that being naked with a partner is an accurate description of sex, i.e. it does not hinge on the act of penetration, and this is buttressed by the finding in the same study that 50% of Generation Z believe that oral sex counts as sex.

These developments have a few possible implications for society. While there may be less relationships among Generation Z, those that do get into relationships may find them to be of a better quality, given their measured and deep considerations before getting into them. Already, Millennials in the US have the lowest divorce rate at about 23%[10], and this trend is expected to continue for Generation Z as well. There may also be less children being born, whether out of wedlock or within, but again, those who are the products of Generation Z relationships or marriages may be better adjusted and have better mental health, as they get a better upbringing from more loving and mentally healthier parents. Generation Z’s reliance on technology and digital communications may also influence technical innovation and discussions around digital privacy and ethics, such as negotiation about sexual activity and related developments in the virtual sphere. As a case in point, sexual assaults in the metaverse are already something that British police had to investigate, in relation to the “gang-rape” of a 16-year-old girl in the metaverse in early 2024.

Sex has always been a touchy issue for many people, but with the rise of Generation Z, perhaps that touch will become something gentler and more loving, yet titillating.

Fuad Johari is Senior Foresight Analyst at the Centre for Strategic Futures.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.

[1] Karl Mannheim (1928), Das Problem der Generationen.

[2] Jean Twenge (November 2015), Changes in American Adults’ Sexual Behaviour and Attitudes, 1972–2012, Arch Sex Behaviour

[3] Karelia Vazquez (11 July 2023), Ah to be Young and Scandalised: Who are these Puriteens Anyway? El Pais

[4] Rebecca Jennings (2 March 2021), “This week in TikTok: The problem with the “Cancel Porn” Movement”, Vox

[5] Adrian Horton (25 October 2023), Almost Half of Gen Z Viewers Want Less Sex on Screen, Study Finds, The Guardian

[6] Sadiba Hasan (11 May 2023), When Did Wholesome Become a Gen Z Compliment?, The New York Times

[7] 2022, Milestone Anxiety on the Rise Among Millennials and Gen Z, Relate UK

[8] A.W. Geiger and Nikki Graf (5 September 2019), About One in Five US Adults Know Someone Who Goes by a Gender-Neutral Pronoun, Pew Research Center

[9] Molly McKew (2023), Haw Are Gen Z and Millennial Attitudes to Sex and Relationships Changing? Bumble’s 2023 Sex Index Explains, Ramona Magazine

[10] Ben Steven (25 September 2018), The Latest Thing Millennials are Being Blamed for Killing? Divorce, Time



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