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Study Targets Group Sex Among Teens

SPH study: exposure to pornography a factor

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One in 13 girls, some as young as 14, taking part in a School of Public Health study reported having group sex, a trend that researchers say poses risks to their sexual and reproductive health.

Emily Rothman, an SPH associate professor of community health sciences, and her colleagues surveyed 328 females ages 14 to 20 who had visited a Boston-area community or school-based health clinic, to explore whether they had ever had sex with multiple partners—either consensual or forced. The authors call this sexual experience “multiperson sex,” or MPS, to underscore that it refers to any group sex experience, from gang rape to sex parties.

Of the 7.3 percent of girls who said they had had group sex, more than half reported being pressured to participate, and 45 percent said that no condoms were used during the most recent encounter. Participants also were more likely to report cigarette smoking, being the victim of dating violence, or being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease. The study was published in the Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine.

In addition, the authors note a “strong association between exposure to pornography, having been forced to do things that their sex partner saw in pornography, and MPS.” In the study, those who had seen pornography in the past month were approximately five times as likely as those who had not to report having had a group-sex experience.

Multiperson sex among youth is “an important public health topic that has received very little attention to date,” says Rothman, who led the study. “It’s time for parents, pediatricians, federal agencies, and community-based organizations to sit up, pay attention, and take notice. Group sex is happening, and we need to be prepared to address it.”

The study found that the average age of the first group-sex experience was 15.6 years old. The majority of those who reported such activity said they had participated only once, but 21 percent had multiple group-sex encounters. One-third said they had used alcohol or drugs prior to their most recent experience; half of those girls said that their alcohol or drug use was not voluntary, indicating that they were “liquored up” or drugged by their sexual partner.

Multiperson sex “appeared to pose a potential risk to sexual and reproductive health, as only 55 percent of participants reported that condoms were used consistently during their most recent MPS,” the study notes. “The majority of MPS-experienced girls in this sample reported being pressured, threatened, coerced, or forced to participate in MPS at least once.”

More than half (54 percent) of those teens were younger than 16 when they had a group-sex experience, which in Massachusetts would mean that their sexual partners were violating state law regarding the age of consent, the study found.

“Given the substantial proportion of girls who reported that their MPS was nonconsensual, additional research to understand more about the perpetrators, and how to prevent this particular form of sexual violence, is warranted,” the authors say. “Researchers and clinicians should pay particular attention to younger adolescents engaging in MPS. Given heightened concerns about potential consequences, information about how to address MPS with this subgroup is urgently needed.”

Even if participation among the adolescents had been voluntary, the study says, “it is crucial to know how this early experience shapes their sexual behavior trajectory and affects their lifetime risk for negative sexual, reproductive,” and other behaviors.

The authors say that while there has been considerable research on adult MPS and its association with HIV transmission and sexually transmitted diseases, relatively little attention has been paid to adolescent group-sex encounters. They cite a recent study of high school girls in the Northeast that found that “sex parties” are currently an “accepted activity” of a subset of teens. In another study, in Sweden, 7 percent of female high school seniors who were sexually active reported having had group sex.

In addition to Rothman, others involved in the study included researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, George Washington University, and the Division of Global Public Health, School of Medicine, University of California at San Diego.

The research was supported by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the W. T. Grant Foundation.

The full study is available here.

Lisa Chedekel can be reached at chedekel@bu.edu.

13 Comments

13 Comments on Study Targets Group Sex Among Teens

  • Carlitos Corazon on 01.17.2012 at 8:06 am

    The “population” studied is not representative of the general public: The population studied was small (328), interviewed only those using a “free clinic”, and was based in a single city (Boston). This is roughly comparable to studying South Boston homeless shelters to infer the alcohol consumption habits of all adult males. Conduct the same study at elite private high schools in the Boston area and I suspect you would get radically different results. Additionally, consenting adults (18 and up) can do what they want… and do. That demographic should likely have been ignored by this study as it probably skewed the results.

    Finally, although 7.3% (number of subjects that reported a MPS experience – to include rape) appears significant, it is far lower than the national rape statistics… where 25% of women (and 10% of men) will be raped during their lifetime; approximately 55% of whom will bed under 18 and approximately 22% under age 12.

    With all that said, the “youth” trend is disturbing.

    • Anderson on 01.17.2012 at 9:28 am

      1. This was not a population; it was a sample. Therefore, there is of course a margin of error with the 7.3%, but a sample of 328 students is large enough to be taken with a good deal of accuracy. You are insulting Professor Rothman if you think she doesn’t know how to run an accurate study.

      2. You say, “Conduct the same study at elite private high schools in the Boston area and I suspect you would get radically different results.” Duh — that would be a biased test. This experiment was taken at random, meaning there were likely students taken from those so-called “elite private high schools.”

      3. Care you back your claim that 1/4 of women will be raped? If you are referring to in the world, meaning developing countries are included, then that could possibly have some faint validity. Keep in mind, though, that this test is not meant to be representative of the entire world. If you’re saying that 25% of American girls/women are raped, I’m gonna call BS on that.

      Cite yo sources, and take a stats class.

      • Carlitos Corazon on 01.17.2012 at 9:50 am

        - “Population” is the accepted term for a sample.
        - 328 students is a very small sample/population.
        - Free Clinic users does not define “random”.
        - An American woman has a 25 to 26 percent chance of being raped in her lifetime (1 in 4):
        *Greenberg, Jerrold S., Clint E. Bruess, and Debra W. Haffner. Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality. Sudbury, MA. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2000. Page 573.
        *Lips, Hilary M. Sex & Gender: An Introduction. Fourth Ed. Mountain View, CA. Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001. Page 233.
        - I’ve taken three separate statistics classes… most notably in this case, “Behavioral Statistics”… I aced it.

        Anything else?

        • Alex W on 01.17.2012 at 10:49 am

          To be clear, nothing Carlitos has said seems to be intended or should be considered a personal attack. Prof. Rothman has conducted a very valuable and well-organized study, one that is certainly worth paying attention to.

          However, all the points Carlitos has brought up are completely valid, and very important to consider while reading the study results. Principally, a survey of free clinic uses is by no means a simple random sample of all US adolescents, and more troubling for any extrapolation to such a wide group, it appears that the study focuses on girls, who have a markedly higher incidence of being victims of rape than men. On its own, that’s not such a problem, however it appears that somewhere near half of the girls surveyed reported the MPS incidents as being in a context that could be considered rape.

          The point here is that the survey results are troubling for exactly the reasons one would thinink, however taking the data in the context of all US adolescents is extremely dubious, and the results are almost certainly not the same for that, much larger, census.

      • Abram on 01.17.2012 at 10:12 am

        Anderson,

        The frightening statistic that “One in Four college women report surviving rape (15 percent) or attempted rape (12 percent) since their fourteenth birthday” was publicized at the time of the study but perhaps because it is so shocking, has not become the topic of wide public discourse. Spread the word.

  • Boo Ya on 01.17.2012 at 9:28 am

    Why is group sex defined as “sex with multiple partners—either consensual or forced. The authors call this sexual experience “multiperson sex,” or MPS, to underscore that it refers to any group sex experience, from gang rape to sex parties.” ?

    This does not imply that the multiple people were concurrently present and having sex with the same one person. Is this an error on the part of the journalist writing this article, or is the original paper defining MPS like this?

  • Nathan on 01.17.2012 at 9:50 am

    Out of 495 females who began the survey on a laptop only 328 respondents answered the questions about multi-person sex. Meaning there were 304-no, 24-yes, 167-no answer.) The no answer is split between reports of no sex and incomplete surveys, but I found no indication how many females chose not to complete the 35 minute survey for their $20 reward.

    This is a 2011 report on data collected in 2006. I wonder if the 5-year gap is a tacit acknowledgement that the study sample was not very statistically useful.

  • Catherine Caldwell-Harris on 01.17.2012 at 10:18 am

    FYI: A popular-perss critique of the popular news press coverage of this study appeared here. I didn’t realize a BU faculty member was one of the authors.

    http://www.alternet.org/story/153565/the_bogus_teen_orgy_trend/?page=entire

  • John Burns on 01.17.2012 at 5:52 pm

    The study is correct to note the issues of coercion, rape, general unsafe sexual practices (eg. the disuse of condoms), and substance abuse to promote any of the former three. However, the tone seems to suggest that group sex is a cause of these unhealthy environments. To say that sex promotes unhealthy behavior “even if participation [is] voluntary” is to suggest that it is inherently bad. Sex can be, and should always be, something that people want to and choose to participate in. Surely, abuse happens in particular instances of group sex, but it is absurd and unhealthy to classify the two together.

    We do “need to be prepared to address [group sex]” in the same way that we should be prepared to address sex altogether. Sex is not necessarily unhealthy; the way we treat it is.

  • Erin on 01.17.2012 at 7:09 pm

    The article’s title, opening lines, and tone gave me the impression that this was another “wild teen sex!” report. When I read what was actually happening, I was disturbed by the way this story is framed. Conflating forced sex with group sex is dangerous. Participating in group sex when you’re not comfortable with it or when you are intoxicated falls into coerced sex, and even rape, but answers to questions about those experiences can given an indication of behavioral and environmental factors (as unfortunate as they may be). Including gang rape as an option in that question, however, is not going to give you an accurate look into peoples’ behaviors because rape is not a choice and is unrelated to “group sex”. Te issue is not “teens having sex orgies!” but rather at-risk teenage girls being coerced/raped. Clearly, being gang raped “poses serious risks to [one's] sexual and reproductive health.” That these girls are even in these high-risk situations indicates a whole host of other problems in their lives.

  • Erin on 01.17.2012 at 7:21 pm

    From the study’s discussion: “Third, it is possible that some respondents who had been gang raped, and labeled the experience as gang rape (as opposed to group sex), would not have responded in the affirmative to the survey question about sex involving multiple people. Because the subsequent survey question about whether the MPS was forced or coerced was only asked of those who indicated they had MPS experience, it is possible that some survivors of gang rape were misclassified as not-MPS” They were NOT “misclassified”. If I had survived a gang rape it would make my skin crawl to call it “multi-person sex”. I see what they were trying to do, and it’s not bad work, but this element is unacceptable.
    experienced. This may have resulted in an under-estimate of the prevalence of
    MPS in our sample.”

  • lizbeth on 02.19.2012 at 10:59 am

    I agree that the sample or population or whatever is very much flawed. But I’m not sure that the upper-class survey or the Mid-Western survey or even the fundamentalist survey would be all that different. We have a very porous overlapping society now, rap co-exists with emo music on elite college campuses and the ghetto is playing in suburbia. So, say, Sex, Power, and God at Brown — certainly a destination of the best feeder schools — is billed and is a group sex orgy, and not the least of this is gender bending. All sorts of festivals like Burning Man now go on that are more than worthy of Woodstock. Hard to say what percentage of people are involved, but even 10% would not be outrageous to consider at least once. Then there are hook-ups on Craigslist and the like, and not merely for adults certainly. These are not orgies but threesomes or foursomes usually, and this is not either a merely lower-class scene. Remember, just about everyone is on a computer and this has changed things.

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