It’s obligatory: Every generation of adults must panic about kids and sex. In their new book Kids Gone Wild, Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle begin with quaint, bygone examples: a 1920s New York Times story in which mothers complained about “petting parties” and a 1950s book that warned girls against the “heavy necking” involved in going steady. More recently, parental and societal alarms have sounded over “rainbow parties,” in which girls supposedly leave different rings of lipsticks, in different shades, around the penises of boys they have—yuck, in my own moment of parental squeamishness, I refuse to finish that sentence. Another color-coded modern-day scare: “sex bracelets,” in which the color of the bracelet is reported to stand for the act performed.
Best and Bogle dissect both of these trends and convincingly determine that they are legends—stories that spread even though few kids have actually gone to a sex party or had sex based on the color of a bracelet. It’s not that every report of a girl giving oral sex to a bunch of hockey players is false. It’s that the degree to which this is happening is often exaggerated and sensationalized, according to the kids themselves. Why do we so readily believe the tall tales? That part is easy. As Best and Bogle observe, rainbow parties and sex bracelets feed our parental obsession with “threats to children’s innocence.” For conservatives, they’re grist for the mill of abstinence-based sex education and chastity pledges. For liberals, they’re cause for worrying about the degradation of girls in a sexist culture.
With the whys out of the way, Best and Bogle focus on the channels through which these hyped-up legends spread. One of their conclusions may sound counterintuitive, but for me, it resonates: Don’t blame the Internet. Blame morning television.
The villains of this book are Oprah, Diane Sawyer, Joe Scarborough, and Matt Lauer, who, Best and Bogle demonstrate, give credence and airtime to segments based on thirdhand accounts of what someone else’s kid or friend was doing. “We’re going to turn now to a disturbing new trend in the news among young girls. Very young girls,” Sawyer said on Good Morning America, in a 2004 segment on the sex bracelets. “Children out of control, experimenting with sex before they reach their teens,” Scarborough said on his show the previous year. (He also claimed, “We hear stories every week.”) Best and Bogle point out that one fifth-grade girl named Megan appeared on three different shows after being expelled from Catholic school for selling jelly bracelets. On air, she said banal things like, “I just collect the colors.” In fact, Best and Bogle couldn’t find a single instance, reading through TV transcripts, of an interview with a student or parent or school official who identified a real rainbow party or sex conspiracy linked to the bracelets. To make the leap, the shows traded in insinuation. During her GMA appearance, Megan mentioned sixth graders French kissing, and Sawyer jumped in with “So they were starting with the French kiss in her school.”
Right—just like some kids French kissed in sixth grade at my school, and maybe yours, too. And yet, on these shows, journalists, parents, school board members, and teachers express horror-filled certainty that middle school kids today are thinking and doing things their own generations would never have imagined. The logic goes like this: The culture is more sexualized—we see it all around us. So kids (other people’s kids) must be more sexualized, too. “Even 10 and 11-year-olds, they knew how to say, ‘homework’s done,’ and then they knew how to have an orgy,” said O Magazine writer Michelle Buford, appearing on Oprah in 2003.
Print media offered better, less credulous coverage. (Best and Bogle also give Saturday Night Live a shout out for the lampoonery of a segment on the “terrifying teenage trend” of “trampolining.”) Another voice of media reason in the book is Seventeen editor Atoosa Rubenstein, who told CNN that she’d been at her job for a long time, and she’d never heard of a girl actually attending a rainbow party. “The numbers prove that girls today are actually starting to go toward modesty in their own lives,” she continued. “The number of virgins is up … The pregnancy rates are down.”
Rubenstein, who has since left Seventeen, had her facts straight. The most important chapter in this short book is the last one, in which Best and Bogle dig into the numbers. From 1988 to 2010, they report, the percentage of sexually active girls, ages 15 to 19, dropped from 51 percent to 43 percent; the rate for boys fell from 60 percent to 42 percent. In 2011, only 6.2 percent of kids reported having sex for the first time before age 13, down from 10.2 percent 20 years earlier. Kids today don’t have more sexual partners than their parents did, on average—they have slightly fewer.
On social media sites, some parents show that they get it. Alongside teens pooh-poohing these so-called trends, they make the case against panic. I liked the line of inquiry of this skeptical commenter on rainbow parties: “How do the girls know what color lipstick to wear? Is there a committee? ... Can 7 High School girls really agree on anything?” The book includes two graphs that track online comments on ROYGBIV blow jobs and sex bracelets, comparing them to amped-up media coverage. “It seems telling that we cannot find any informal—that is, outside traditional media—mentions of rainbow parties until after the media’s coverage began,” Best and Bogle write. They also point out that commenters who believe in the legends tend to point to someone else’s kids, at some other school, or even in some other state, as the source of the trouble.
Still, the alarmism breeds, and has repercussions. It creates a misleading picture of kids’ lives and obscures the real issues of sexuality facing American teens. While the overall teen birthrate has declined, too many black and Hispanic girls are still getting pregnant. Data from 2011 shows that teenagers of color are more likely than white kids to have had sex before age 13 and to have had four or more partners. Best and Bogle rightly argue that the TV shows do a disservice, fueling “the fears of white, middle-class parents that their kids are engaging in unprecedented sexual promiscuity” while ignoring “real class differences in sexual behavior, which are connected to poverty, educational opportunities, and other complex factors that the news media, particularly television, often want to avoid.”
Then there’s the response to sexting, the third phenomenon this book covers. This one isn’t a legend: Kids really are sending sexually suggestive messages and photos. When one kid disseminates another one’s photo, especially to humiliate or take revenge, that’s wrong and harmful. Best and Bogle argue, however, that felony charges for sexting are often an overreaction. The sexting situation that Pew found to be most common—“one teen sending a sexually provocative self-image to his or her boyfriend or girlfriend”—is different from the worst-case, thankfully rare scenario of kids maliciously spreading around someone else’s image. Kids Gone Wild strengthened my conviction that we should discourage consensual sexting without criminalizing it.
The happiest takeaway from this book, to me, is that “teen sex occurs, on the whole, within the context of romantic relationships.” Best and Bogle base this conclusion on the responses of boys as well as girls. Bogle’s 2008 book, Hooking Up, was about the casual sex scene in college, where she found that “the double standard is alive and well,” as Hanna Rosin puts it. There’s plenty of slut-shaming to deplore among high school and middle school students, too. And yet, teenagers also fall in love, and they also have good sex, though American parents tend not to say so. (The Dutch apparently do.)
Rosin says that what she’d like to tell her 13-year-old daughter about sex (if only she’d sit through such a talk) is that the point of sex is to have fun, and one way to do that is to be in love, but it’s not the only way. I’d like to tell my 14-year-old son that the point of sex is to feel good about yourself, which happens when the other person feels good about herself or himself, too, and it’s all a whole lot more likely if you both really care about each other. My son seems to have less than zero interest in discussing this with me. But earlier this summer, our entire family watched the 1989 movie Say Anything. In the scene in which John Cusack’s 18-year-old character is about to have sex for the first time with the girl he loves, she says to him, “You’re shaking.”
“I don’t think so,” Cusack answers. But he is, and maybe he’s a little teary, too. My husband turned to our boys at this point in the movie, and told them to pay attention. This, he said, is what it means to be a gentleman.
Kids Gone Wild, by Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle. NYU Press.