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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.

 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

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