The bogus teen orgy trend

Take a deep breath. Despite the headlines this week, there is no need to panic about kids having group sex

Topics: Teenagers, Sex,

This week saw the creation of the next “rainbow party” panic. An ABC headline warned: “Teens as Young as 14 Engaging in Group Sex.” The Daily Mail took a sexier angle with: “Group sex is the latest trend for teenagers, says distubing new report.” Even feminist ladyblog Jezebel fell for it with the not intentionally ironic teaser: “Group Sex Is the Latest Disturbing Teen Trend.”

As is often the case with reports on the latest wild-and-crazy teen sex trend, this was all total and complete BS. The original research inspiring these proclamations had been distorted and exaggerated beyond recognition. But if you’re interested in the real story behind these salacious reports, you’re in the right place. (If you want to be titillated by tales of teenage orgies, you’ll have to look elsewhere — sorry.)

I just knew this is what would happen when I first came across the study, which was published earlier this month in the Journal of Public Health. That’s why I reached out last week to the lead researcher, Emily Rothman. I was curious: Did she worry that her findings would be misconstrued in the press to give rise to the latest teen sex panic? At the time, Rothman told me in an email that she was indeed “concerned about reporters ignoring the methodological limitations” — that’s why she tried to include all the important caveats and “frame things responsibly” in early press interviews — but, regardless, most outlets found a way to make her worry come true. The good news is that the study and its mainstream coverage offer up a useful cautionary tale.

Researchers surveyed 328 girls and young women who had visited an urban health clinic in the Boston area. The key thing here is that a study with such a minute sample size is designed to be preliminary; it’s not meant to be definitive. What’s more, the population surveyed places further limits on the findings: These are girls who have gone to a community or school-based clinic in search of services, which excludes those with access to different types of healthcare, or those who weren’t seeking care of that sort. That isn’t to disregard the potential implications of this survey for the health of this particular population, but the findings simply aren’t broadly applicable or representative. On top of all that, the participants ranged in age from 14 to 20: Perhaps you’re already aware, 20-year-olds are not teenagers — so those headlines trumpeting this as “the latest trend for teenagers” are sloppy at best and willfully misleading at worst. That’s not to mention that the difference between a 14-year-old and a 20-year-old is often — at least one should hope — profound.

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These aren’t the only inconvenient details that were shamefully elided in most of the coverage. Another unexamined detail is that when the survey talks about the percentage of girls with group sex experience, it includes both those with consensual and non-consensual experiences. In other words, the 7.3 percent of participants, or “one in 13,” who report having “multiple-person sex” (MPS), as the survey refers to it, includes both voluntary sex involving three or more people and … gang rape. No matter how disturbed adults may be by the idea of a teenage girl having a kinky threesome, there is a crucial difference between her choosing it — even if intense cultural pressures are present — and it being forced on her. Much has also been made in the study coverage of the indicated influence of porn on these “group sex” experiences, but participants who had come into contact with X-rated material of any sort, in any context, even just once, over the past month were considered together. This means a 14-year-old girl who accidentally stumbled across her brother’s Playboy was grouped together with, say, a 20-year-old with a subscription to

The upshot to all of the survey’s findings, as anyone who bothers to read to the end of the nine-page study will find, is that only 24 of the young women who participated in the survey reported having a “multiple-sexual partner” experience of any sort. Of that two-dozen, 43 percent “reported ever being threatened or forced” (which is to say that many of those 24 cases of “teen group sex” might actually be cases of “teen gang rape”). The researchers recognize the limitations of their survey and even warn readers, “our findings are not representative of adolescent females in the U.S.A.” and “should be considered exploratory” — but no matter, they had my colleagues at “teen group sex.”

Dr. Petra Boynton, a sex researcher and educator who is an outspoken critic of the media’s misreporting on teen sex, tells me that the unfortunate result is that it will “worry parents, mislead teachers and healthcare professionals, and probably lead to slut shaming of young women, as this kind of coverage invariably does,” she says. “All the while ignoring the role of boys at best, or presenting them as gang rapists at worst. None of which is directly helpful to the needs of young people.” That’s the thing: These sorts of stories about teen sex trends are very rarely helpful to young people, even though that is purportedly why they exist, and why we read them.

In many cases, the tendency to engage in handwringing over teen sex comes from a good place: Adults recognize the vulnerability of teens and realize how tremendously powerful sex can be — in fact, many of us are still terrified of it ourselves, on some level. This may sound odd, but when stories like this arise, I sometimes imagine those safety diagrams that you find on airplanes of the mother adjusting her own oxygen mask before putting one on her child — because even in the realm of sex, adults are better able to protect their kids once they take care of themselves. Instead of hyperventilating over the slightest suggestion of a rainbow party, jelly bracelet or group sex trend among teens, maybe we should take a moment to direct all that concern inward.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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