The figure of the sex-crazed teenager has a long history. However, concerns about young people’s sexuality have proliferated in recent years, especially in debates about the ‘sexualisation’ of girls. In the UK, a government report on the issue (published in 2011) has led on to a range of new policies and codes of practice, especially designed to reduce young people’s exposure to sexual imagery in media such as advertising and music videos. One of the leaders in this debate, Mr. Reg Bailey of the Mothers’ Union (a Christian charity), has recently produced a report calling for further restrictions.
In our research for the Scottish Parliament, we talked to parents and children about this issue. We found a more complex and ambivalent picture than is typically presented. I’ve also written a short essay on this site looking at how the issue of ‘sexualisation’ was framed within the public debate in the UK, and the use of evidence in the policy-making process.
In their new book, Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype over Teen Sex (New York University Press, 2014), Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle provide a level-headed, clearly written challenge to much of this exaggerated concern. Best and Bogle are social constructionists, which means that they are interested in how particular phenomena come to be identified as ‘social problems’: they do not take the issue as given, but look at how it is framed and defined in the public debate, how claims about it are made and circulated, and whose interests are at stake in doing so. In the process, they consider how some phenomena become ‘issues’ that require intervention, while others remain at the level of ‘urban legends’.
Media obviously play a central role in this. Best and Bogle track the incidence of exaggerated fears about teen sex over time, and explain how they are fuelled by media coverage, especially in ‘infotainment’ formats like TV talk shows, whose producers and hosts seem to accept extreme claims with little or no evidence. However, there are also interesting issues about public knowledge here. Their analysis of internet data finds that people interpret these claims in diverse ways, and that they are often sceptical – thus questioning strong claims about ‘media panics’.
Perhaps the most telling part of the book, however, is where Best and Bogle contrast the hype around these issues with the facts about teen sex. In the US, and in other English-speaking countries like the UK, the age at which young people start having sex has not significantly fallen in recent years. Most teens are not having sex with several partners; and they are not engaging in frequent, anonymous sex. In the UK at least, teenage pregnancy rates are now declining.
However, Best and Bogle also draw attention to the class and racial dynamics of these concerns. Working-class and black youth have intercourse at younger ages, and are more likely to become pregnant and engage in high-risk sexual behaviour than white youth. These youth are far from ‘going wild’, and the figures in all these areas are declining. But, as the authors suggest, the hype over teen sex particularly feeds the fears of white middle-class parents; and it neglects the complex social factors at stake here, including poverty and unequal educational opportunities.
And yet, as the authors suggest, the anxiety about teen sex brings together some politically diverse groups: for moral conservatives, it feeds into their existing narrative about the rise of moral depravity; while for liberal feminists, it supports a problematic story about the victimization of girls. Kids Gone Wild encourages us to question these motivations, and to challenge the terms in which ‘sexualisation’ is currently understood.