26 October 2006

Real Teens and Rainbow Party

Anita Silvey wrote an article called "The Unreal Deal" for a recent School Library Journal, discussing how young-adult literature has broken out of the "problem of the week" template that first defined it. Folks who've kept up with the genre seem to have been underwhelmed by some of Silvey's observations: Teens read genre literature as well as serious stuff!

Of course they always have. And for many years they reached into the adult shelves to find those books. Now more publishers are coming to teens with books of all sorts, including those that don't put a premium on being "real." And why is that?

I think the article is missing a crucial term: "demographics." The recent rise in teen literature has occurred alongside a rise in the number of teens in the population, just as the first burst (late 1960s through 1970s) coincided with the peak of the Baby Boom turning fifteen. Publishers go where they see higher sales, just like any other business.

Silvey does offer a fine link to David Lubar and Dian Curtis Regan's kit to "Create Your Own Young Adult Novel" of the older sort. (Also seriously useful in that regard: Claire's article "OMG! My BFF is Crushing on My Hottie!" at Media Bistro.)

But my favorite comment from Silvey was about how the adult media, and by extension the larger adult culture, approach teen literature in an even more unreal way:

The mainstream media seems to delight in presenting what is contemptible, rather than what is praiseworthy, in young adult books. For instance, everyone--except teens, that is--desperately wanted to discuss The Rainbow Party, a novel that trumpets adolescent promiscuity.
And now the worries over teenagers' "rainbow parties," as breathlessly discussed in Rainbow Party, by Paul Ruditis, have faded away like a rainbow after a storm. It seems worthwhile to trace how that storm blew up in the first place.

1) In Oct 2003, Oprah Winfrey ran a show called "Is Your Child Living a Double Life?". On it, O magazine writer Michelle Burford said she'd interviewed about 50 teenaged girls and parents about sex, and described "rainbow parties" as one discovery from those interviews. It was unclear how many of the interviewees had described such activity. As far as I can tell, Burford hasn't yet published an article about the topic. But with Oprah having 30 million viewers per week, that guaranteed coverage.

2) The next appearance of the meme was a Nov 2004 episode of the cable-TV comedy Huff, titled "Lipstick on Your Panties."

3) Also watching the Oprah episode was Simon Pulse editor Bethany Buck. She conceived of the idea of a teen novel around the idea of a "rainbow party" in order, she later told USA Today, to "scare" young readers into safer sexual habits. Buck recruited Ruditis, who had written several books for the teen market, from series novels to Sabrina the Teenage Witch: the Official Episode Guide.

I think it's crucial that Rainbow Party wasn't inspired by its author's own experiences, or by the experiences of teenagers he knew. It was a multimedia conglomerate's response to a TV show. It was a media creation from the beginning.

4) In 2005, the book was ready for publication, and it kicked up the predictable outrage that Silvey notes. The multicolored national newspaper USA Today gave the book its first big publicity in May 2005. Some commentators needing a source of outrage for a column bit, starting with Michelle Malkin and Joe Scarborough.

5) The skeptical pushback appeared five weeks later with a prominent New York Times article, asking "Are These Parties for Real?" The paper of record couldn't find a single sex expert or teenager who said they were. That was followed by Caitlin Flanagan's takedown in the Jan 2006 Atlantic, preserved at Powell's.

6) But, like a zombie, the "rainbow parties" rumor keeps shambling on. Wikipedia now documents mentions in several 2006 episodes of TV dramas.

(And now for the best available evidence on reality. The Center for Disease Control has found a decline in youth sexual behavior since 1991, with the big drop among preteens. A clear majority of students are not sexually active. Most who are use condoms. We now return to our regular discussion of fantasy literature.)

To be fair to Ruditis's novel, all its talk about a "rainbow party" turns out to be as empty as that real-life media tempest. The teenaged characters discuss such an event, but none ever takes place. After all the titillation, Rainbow Party ends up reminding us alumni of the real facts about real high schools: everyone thinks that everyone else is having more fun.


Lee said...

Based on the questions I've asked family and friends in the States, and with exchange students who've come back from the New York area, it's not all just talk. Now please don't jump down my throat - I'm well aware that what I'm saying is entirely anecdotal. But I was certainly surprised by the first-hand reports of oral sex in the school bus, for example. But many of these teens do not apparently consider oral sex as 'engaging in sex', which may in fact account for the discrepancy in statistics: intercourse may have declined, but not (or due to??) other forms of sexual activity.

No proof of this, of course, just a conjecture. And no rainbow parties that I've heard about, BTW.

J. L. Bell said...

No one denies that teens, as well as others, engage in oral sex. They've done so for years. The USA had a whole constitutional crisis over that topic in the last decade, after all.

That is still a looooooong way away from a "rainbow party," which is a cosmetic and biological impossibility. Yet rainbow parties have been discussed at length by adult TV commentators, and become the focus of all those fictional treatments, which in turn led to more TV discussions. Most likely because those commentators want to (a) believe that today's teens are behaving worse than their own generations, and (b) discuss sex on TV while appearing to remain on the side of morality.

Again, the best source for data about actual teen sexual behavior in the US is the Centers for Disease Control. Its experts understand about making sure surveys ask teens the right questions. And its 2002 report states: "At ages 15-19, about 12 percent of males and 10 percent of females had had heterosexual oral sex but not vaginal intercourse. (The male-female percentages are not significantly different.) . . . Trend data for males suggest that no large changes in these behaviors have occurred since 1995."

Lee said...

Hm...that's interesting indeed. My impression was certainly that the oral sex is much higher, at least amongst males. Thanks for the figures. I wonder how they would break down regionally.

But if nearly half of all teens engage in intercourse, and a further 10-12% in oral sex, that is certainly a reasonable amount of sexual activity, though of course not rainbow parties. But I'm not that good with statistics. Am I missing something?

Constitutional crisis?

J. L. Bell said...

Sure, there's sexual activity among teens—especially since that group includes a lot of people who are above the age of consent in their states or above the age of legal majority.

But is that more sexual activity than was occurring in the generation of the adults who speak and write about it? And are public perceptions based on actual facts, or on isolated cases and urban legends like the "rainbow party"?

The "constitutional crisis" I referred to was the Republican attempt to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998 for trying to parse his relationship with Monica Lewinsky as not being sexual relations. The Republican Congress argued that such deception rose to the level of a constitutional offense. (This all occurred at the same time that the US took its best shot at Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, an effort many Republicans said was simply an attempt to distract from the impeachment process.)

Lee said...

Aha, I didn't realise the constitutional element of the Clinton/Lewinsky story.

I've been thinking some more about these so-called rainbow parties. I have no idea how the facts stack up against earlier generations, but there's something else that I think may be involved. One of the remarks that I hear again and again from German teens who spend some time in the States, including my own, is that there is less a difference in the amount of sexual activity as its social role.

German teens tend to start very early, though again, this is based on the perceptions of myself, my children, and my friends and acquaintances, some of whom are also teens. All claim that 16 is normal, and that there is almost no one who is a virgin by 18. But the relevant point, especially for someone like me who is so interested in YA lit, is that in Germany these sexual encounters seem to take place primarily within the framework of a fixed relationship, even if short-lived, whereas my 'informants' were often surprised how casual sex was in American high schools -'something you just did,' one girl told me, 'like buying a new CD or eating a Big Mac.'

So I wonder if there's not an element of commodification in American teen sex - not in the sense of prostitution, of course. And this may be reflected in the notion of the rainbow party.

There was also a very interesting article quite a while ago in Salon about teen girls and oral sex, quite a refreshing positive view. I think it must have been published about the time the whole rainbow party story broke. I can try to locate the link if you're interested.

Do you have much to do with teens? Or is it the children's and YA lit that mainly draw you?

J. L. Bell said...

Because I’m not a parent, teacher, or counselor of teens, I neither fear nor claim that what I hear is representative of a whole generation. That frees me to check out expert scientific findings at the rare times I feel a burning need to know about the topic.

Such as this statement from the Advocates for Youth, based on a study tour by four dozen American researchers to Germany, France, and the Netherlands in 1998: “The young people in the countries we visited commence sexual intercourse a year or two later than do U.S. teenagers. Further, the Netherlands, Germany, and France boast better public health outcomes—the teenage birth rate in the Netherlands, for example, is nearly eight times less than in the United States. Germany’s gonorrhea rate is nearly 25 times less than the U.S. rate.” That’s in a downloadable report titled “European Approaches to Adolescent Sexual Behavior & Responsibility.”

Googling for “oral sex” and “teens” at the Salon.com domain brings up more than 400 hits, so the magazine does seem to like that topic. One reason that might be possible is that the Clinton impeachment made it possible for the serious media in the US to talk about oral sex, but didn’t fully remove the topic’s titillation factor. Thus, such stories can both attract readers and seem respectable. Last year an article at Slate.com complained that the media was focusing on teen oral sex to the detriment of anal sex—which remains taboo.

Again, my primary focus in this posting was not on American teens’ activities, but rather on how a media frenzy produced Rainbow Party and the debate over it with minimal input from teens, and not much apparent interest, either. That book offers a story about how the media behaves, not about how real teens behave.