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Gender + Sexuality

Return of the Scary Teen Blowjob

'Oral Sex Is the Goodnight Kiss' presses the panic button, wildly, again.

Vanessa Richmond 29 Apr

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media.

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Cover of Sharlene Azam's new book.

Some Canadian teen girls are working in oral sex prostitution rings, offering services in exchange for clothes, accessories, money, and drugs, according to Oral Sex Is the New Goodnight Kiss, a new book and documentary by Sharlene Azam.

I haven't read the book or seen the documentary, only read many reviews (more on that in a minute), but if the claims are true -- and I have no reason to think they're not -- the phenomenon is horrible, heartbreaking, and evidence of a total breakdown in both parental and institutional care. If even one teen girl is working in an oral sex prostitution ring, we should thank Azam for bringing it to the table so we can find ways to make sure it doesn't happen again.

But looking for more facts and solutions is not what's happening in medialand.

Instead, many of the stories about the book and doc in major Canadian newspapers, blogs, and even the otherwise sober CBC radio news, focus on details like that these girls are middle class, pretty, and might even enjoy the sex. In some cases, these stories are based more on Girls-Gone-Wild-gone-wrong details, than on the kind of calm investigation you'd expect from a rigorous trend or health report. And while to some that kind of sensationalism might be titillating and enjoyable (and is it just me, or does that seem kinda wrong given the topic?), to others, it proves misleading, fanning the flames of generational moral panic that's already raging well enough without further indulgence.

Building the fantasy

Check out the lead in the Globe: "Heather spent her teen years on Protection Island in Nanaimo, B.C. Blond and sun-kissed, the daughter of a geologist father and biologist mother grew up on Narnia books. But at 16, Heather was recounting another story. By 14, she was routinely blacking out on drugs, having sex with multiple partners at her house and partying with 'Navy guys.'"

Or this one, from Amazon: "This book is about the recent emergence of teenage prostitution rings in affluent Canadian suburbs. Attractive, white, high school girls... are not street prostitutes. 'They are the prettiest girls from the most successful families,' explains one expert."

One interview with the author, which I won't excerpt here, even mentions the girls' reported enjoyment in providing oral sex services. And while, on the one hand, that's a heartbreakingly tragic detail that shows just how unhealthy the situation is. On the other, that type of detail echoes ubiquitous plotlines from Gossip Girl, 90210, The Hills, or The City, or worse. It's verging on wolf-like pornographic entertainment under the sheep's clothing of journalism.

I mean, please tell me why it's necessary to mention the girl's hair was "blonde and sun-kissed" in any kind of report genuinely focused on sexual health?

Or, while I'm on a roll, why it's relevant to mention class, without explaining its relevance. Without context, it can only be to increase the sense of dramatic tension and shock value. I guess middle class prostitution is more shocking than working class prostitution. Would it be OK if they were street prostitutes? Do they not need our concern? And don't even get me started on asking why any review mentions, out of context, that the girls are white.

And it's not just the descriptions that distort the situation. The hyperbole in the titles makes the practice sound far more widespread than it is. The Globe and Mail's headline is "Teen girls are swapping sex for ... just about anything."

As one commenter said, "This headline is irresponsible. Try 'Eight or so teen girls are swapping sex for ... just about anything.' You cannot come to a conclusion about the way teen girls across North America are behaving because one author went out and interviewed several of them." It's important to point out it's more than eight girls, but it's still statistically very rare and doesn't reflect the way teen girls are behaving in general.

Beyond the anecdotal, a different story

In fact, there's been lots written lately, based on extensive polling and credible studies that show the opposite. In an article titled, "The Myth of Rampant Teenage Promiscuity," the NYT's Tara Parker-Pope writes, "While some young people are clearly engaging in risky sexual behavior, a vast majority is not... and today's teenagers are more conservative about sex than previous generations."

In Canada, a recent Maclean's feature called "Generation Tame" reported "one of the most remarkable shifts in adolescent behaviour in recent memory. Those timeless hallmarks of teenage rebellion -- booze, cigarettes, drugs and sex -- are officially out of favour, according the latest results from Project Teen Canada, an ongoing survey whose in-depth portraits of teen life date back to 1984." In 2000, 56 per cent of teens said they had engaged in sexual activity of any kind, in 2008, that was down to 51 per cent, even though it's "a time when pornography is no more than a mouse click away."

In the U.S., fewer than half of all high school students have had sex: 47.8 percent as of 2007, according to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, down from 54.1 per cent in 1991.

And it's part of a longer trend. A 2002 report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 30 per cent of 15- to 17-year-old girls had experienced sex, down from 38 per cent in 1995. During the same period, the percentage of sexually experienced boys in that age group dropped to 31 per cent from 43 per cent.

As for oral sex, in the U.S., about 16 per cent of teenagers say they have had oral sex but haven't yet had intercourse. Researchers say children's more relaxed attitude about oral sex probably reflects a similar change among adults since the 1950s. In addition, some teenagers may view oral sex as "safer," since unplanned pregnancy is not an issue.

But the stories I read didn't focus on these types of facts. Instead they introduced a lot of salacious details, anecdotal evidence, and moral panic.

Why, when I was young, we never...

There are a couple of sociological reasons why teen sex provokes generational panic. The NYT's Parker-Pope argues that "One reason people misconstrue teenage sexual behavior is that the system of dating and relationships has changed significantly. In the first half of the 20th century, dating was planned and structured -- and a date might or might not lead to a physical relationship. In recent decades, that pattern has largely been replaced by casual gatherings of teenagers," in which teenagers "fool around," and may or may not start regular dating," a shift which began around the late 1960s.

So, basically, some adults aren't taking the time to understand the new culture, so construe all differences as inherently dangerous, and use any excuse to wring their hands about a whole generation.

In the Maclean's piece, Reginald Bibby, the University of Lethbridge sociologist who oversees Project Teen Canada, says that since practically anyone can remember, adult society has grappled with the fear that the next generation is shot through with decadence, or headed for dissolution. Baby boomers [are] as susceptible to these anxieties as anyone -- they [are], after all, the experts in turning on and dropping out."

I'd go further and say some adults, in fact, even enjoy panicking about teen behavior of almost every kind, because it reinforces the idea that the adults are sane, wise and responsible in comparison.

The end of the rainbow

We've been here before. The last time, Oprah led the way by exposing the supposed illicit teen Rainbow Parties, parties where girls used different shades of lipstick to... you know.... Sure it was scandalous, but it also proved to be mostly urban legend after getting lots of play and generating lots of panic in media.

In this Star Q&A, the book's author, Azam, plays into that panic, "We failed our girls. What's happened to our girls? We have let Girls Gone Wild and the media culture define them."

Um, all of them? I know dozens of healthy young women who are grappling successfully with media culture, and are reacting to the Girls Gone Wild phenomenon in a solid way due to critical thinking skills and strong role models. Though a few clearly need immediate rescue, most of "our girls" are doing just fine, thank you. Unlike some members of the cultural media.

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