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.

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 hotmoviesforher.com.

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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>