When you teach sex-ed in the inner city, you manage to be less and less shocked about the secret sex lives of teenagers. I’ve heard detailed defenses about how effective the pull-out method is as a birth control method and how ear wax is a reliable tool for STI testing. But last week I found myself picking my jaw up off of my desk as I read Brande Victorian’s 1 in 13 Girls Has Had Gro*up Sex which highlighted a study researching the growing fad of gro*up sex among Boston-area teenagers. The study appeared in the Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine and revealed that 1 in 13 girls had engaged in at least one type of multi-person sex (MPS) ranging from gang rape to sex parties. What’s even more concerning is that more than half of the 328 girls surveyed in a Boston-area community or school-based clinic revealed that they felt pressure to engage in gro*up sex that was more often than not non-consensual.
Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health identified certain common factors that teens engaging in MPS had “a strong association between exposure to pornography.” If you look hard enough you can find a variety of culprits to take the blame for what seems to be an increasing pattern of teens challenging the sexual norms of society. With a simple mouse-click and a quick yes to a pop-up that questions, “Are you over 18? Please enter your birth date,” any adolescent who passed basic math can access free Adult Videos with insulting ease. You can also turn on the radio and hear artists like pop favorite Rihanna chanting about S&M and Usher beckon a sexually liberated Nicki Minaj to proposition girls in a club and bring them to him so they can play in each other’s pants. Give your teen a little credit; they could probably teach you a thing or two about taboo sexual behavior, although when experimenting with sex I’m willing to bet Usher is the last thing on their minds.
It’s not so much the case of teens being overtly sexual and pushing the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable, but more their willingness to express these sexual values. As our society grows more and more sexualized, young people feel more comfortable expressing their sexual attitudes and are willing to accept behaviors that traditionally may have been viewed as abnormal. On a positive note, alternative lifestyles can be viewed regularly on TV and teens are becoming more informed that all types of sex (even the ”freaky” stuff) can put them at risk for STI’s. On a positive note, I feel like our society is moving in the right direction when teens feel they can be open and honest about sexuality. A teen that feels free to talk about masturbation, pornography or gro*up sex may also feel just as comfortable asking about condom use and birth control. It’s almost as if America is slowly awakening and thinking, “OK, teens have sex, what can we do so that they can make good decisions regarding their sexual conduct?” As frequent as sexuality appears in our media, it makes sense that sexual education appear just as much if not more.
If I’m completely honest with myself, I’ve been hearing rumors about “trains” being pulled on girls and “Rainbow Parties” (that have nothing to do with gay pride) since I was in high school. But I always felt that I had a choice as to whether or not I engaged in those types of activities. One-third of the teens who participated in the study used drugs or alcohol prior to their most recent experience and even felt pressure to be “liquored-up” by their sexual partners. This makes me question why such a large number of our teens are lacking the confidence to stand up for their sexual values. I’m not the biggest fan of teens engaging in risky sexual behaviors or having multiple partners, but the truth is these teens will grow into adults who are free to engage in whatever taboo practices they wish as long as they aren’t hurting themselves or one another. The important thing is that they have the confidence to give or deny consent which it seems our teens are obviously lacking.
As parents and other caregivers, we only have so much say in the sexual interests of our teens, but the best we can do is make sure they are making well-informed decisions whether they’re diving into the waters of sexual deviance or simply dipping their toes into the shallow waters of sexual experimentation. Teens need to know just as much about what constitutes as consent and how age relates to laws governing sexuality as they know about condoms and STI testing. Although we’ve made tremendous progress in opening the gates for open honest conversation about the birds and bees and birth control by making sure young people have more access to sexual education, we need to be just as sure that our teens are armed with the tools to navigate healthy relationships and are able to identify and communicate their sexual wants and needs so that they aren’t taken advantage of or violating anyone else.