Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex
reviewed by Rachel Bailey Jones - July 23, 2015
Title: Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex
Author(s): Kathleen Bogle & Joel Best
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 0814760732, Pages: 200, Year: 2014
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Kids Gone Wild, (Best & Bogle, 2014), presents sociological research and arguments to counter the moral panic induced by stories of out-of-control teenage sexual activity. The authors focus on two phenomena that they classify as contemporary legends, Rainbow Parties and Sex Bracelets, and one that rises to the level of a social problem, sexting. All three of these offer narratives of overly sexualized and sexually promiscuous teens (and preteens), playing on the fears of parents, teachers, and others that kids today are running wild and much more sexually active than previous generations. Best and Bogle analyze these phenomena through traditional media coverage and through discussion of these stories on social media to determine the scope and effect of the official and unofficial coverage.
The authors make the distinction between contemporary legends (more popularly known as urban legends) and social problems. Contemporary legends usually have a moral; they suggest that the world is a dangerous place where gang members conduct lethal initiation rites, maniacs attack people at random, and other hazards await the unwary (p. 15). Legends travel most frequently through interpersonal communication, traveling as rumors with wider and less specific range. Contemporary legends are not necessarily true or false, but based on exaggeration of the nature and scope of the supposed actions. Social problems, on the other hand, are based in factual accounts of actions; they are created when value and negative meaning are placed onto social conditions, a process, the way that people come to recognize something as troubling (p. 16).
Rainbow Parties received quite a lot of media attention in short bursts, resulting in shocking and fear-inducing headlines. The stories of these parties involve teenagers engaging in heterosexual oral sex. The girls at the parties wear a wide selection of various colors of lipstick and perform oral sex on the boys attending the parties. The lipsticks leave colorful rainbows on the boys and are often framed as contests for those who can collect the most colors by the end of the night. Best and Bogle trace the instances of traditional and social media mentions, including Facebook and other sites. Two media events seemed to have sparked the outrage over rainbow partiesan episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, entitled Is Your Child Leading a Double Life? from 2003, and a young adult novel, Rainbow Party, published in 2005. The authors found little to no activity about rainbow parties on social media sites prior to the Oprah show.
Sex bracelets (also known as sex bands and shag bracelets) are the colorful jelly bracelets that were popular in the 1980s. The bracelets have made a comeback, with some ascribing sexual meaning to their use. The stories claim that teenagers wear different color bracelets that connote various sexual acts, from hugging to oral sex to intercourse and beyond. If someone snaps and breaks one of these bracelets, the wearer is supposedly compelled to complete the assigned sexual act. Best and Bogle look to print and broadcast journalism and social media sites; they track the number and nature of mentions, and the color meanings, which shift over time and media site. Best and Bogle found local news stories of schools banning the bracelets; the first nationally distributed story was a small feature in Time Magazine in October, 2003.
The color meanings ascribed to the bracelets varied widely in their sample of keys (n= 193), but the most consistent meaning was assigned to black, which meant intercourse in 95% of the sampled keys. The traditional media coverage about rainbow parties and sex bracelets followed similar formulas, meant to strike fear in the heart of parents, the use of second-hand accounts from teens whose friend participated in the activity, and the use of an expert on teenage behavior and sexuality. CNNs American Morning led off a story on rainbow parties with an illustrative example of the teaser, Do you know what a rainbow party is? If youre parents, better listen up. Your teenage daughter might know . . . (p. 49). The teasers (and stories) played on parents deep fear of teenage sexuality, especially for their daughters whose purity and reputation hold greater social value.
Unlike the legends of the rainbow parties and sex bracelets, which can be neither proven nor disproven, sexting is a phenomenon with concrete proof, court cases, and legal action. Sexting is the taking and sending of nude and/or sexually explicit photographs through mobile devices. Best and Bogle present sexting as a social problem, yet it is less pervasive and more complex than generally presented in the traditional media. Many of the media reports in the year of 2008 (a high water mark in mentions of sexting), used a survey completed by CosmoGirl.com and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, claiming that a third of young adults, 20-26, and 20% of teens engaged in sexting (p. 104). This percentage is far greater than a more statistically reliable survey completed by Princeton Survey Research in 2009, placing the figure at 4%. The authors make the claim that sexting needs to be broken into more discreet categories and dealt with as separate issues. The sexual experimentation and play of consenting teens sending nude or semi-nude photos to friends are not criminal nor a problem on its own. If these photos are distributed without consent or are used by adults as a form of child pornography, then the sexting rises to the level of harassment or illegal sexual abuse of children by adults.
Best and Bogle present solid and well-argued evidence for the overblown moral panic of adults faced with a generation of teens whose sexual activity is supposedly out of control. The final chapter of the book, Too Sexual, Too Soon, contrasts the supposedly wild behavior of teens today with statistical evidence that kids are actually delaying sexual activity compared with previous generations. Discussions of teen sex often assert that everybody knows kids are out of control. Our culturelike all culturesis interested in sex, and we seem to be particularly interested in and worried about sexuality among young people (p. 124). To counteract this fascination, the authors argue we need to focus on reliable data and evidence and react with thoughtful consideration, rather than panic or irrational fear when discussing teenage sexuality.