When a local news story about a group of teenagers engaging in sexual activity in a school bathroom comes up, many people expect it to be a troubling story of rape.  But when teens are caught engaging in reportedly consensual group sex, those of us who are sex-positive and protective of young teens who are vulnerable to peer pressure and irrational decisions find ourselves at an impasse of emotional reactions.  How much agency should be given to teens regarding risky sexual decisions?  What leads kids to want to perform unusual sex acts?  Is questioning such a thing sex-negative or anti-feminist?  Is not questioning it a disservice to young teens who may or may not be ready to make these sorts of decisions?

A local Fort Myers high school recently made national headlines when a female student was recorded on several cellphones engaging in (at this point considered) consensual sex with multiple male students in a school bathroom.  Twenty-five boys were reported to have entered the bathroom though it is not known how many actually had sexual contact with the girl.  The public reaction was immediate and, predictably, involved admonishment of the girl, her parents, the teachers, and to a lesser extent, the boys.  Avoiding the slut-shaming in the comment sections of a story like this is impossible.  A few brave souls sprout up asking why commenters judge the girl more harshly than the boys, but most people seem content to dismiss this case as a promiscuous kid gone wild or a reflection on how society at large has pressured our kids to be more sexual at a younger age.

When I’ve spoken with teens in my community about topics dealing with sex and relationships, I’ve asked them to define the word “slut.”  Generally their responses are a variation on the “a girl who will sleep with anybody” theme.  When I ask them to explain why indiscriminate sexual activity is a bad thing, the more articulate ones will respond with STD risks and unwanted pregnancy while the others will just tell me that it is gross.  Getting them to explain why their definition is gender specific typically leads to protestations that they meant to say “anyone can be a slut” but their initial omission is telling.  Adults rarely fair much better upon close examination of their definition of a slut, and while more will include that men can be equal opportunity sluts, most would agree that the label is more quickly applied to women than men.  This tried-and-true double standard has been proven and explored too many times to spent energy on it here.

There are medically sound reasons that a person might want to limit their number of sexual partners.  There are even valid reasons to abstain or refrain from multiple sex partners if such activity is out of step with your personal moral or religious code.  The trap we often fall into is projecting our own personal reasons for avoiding or engaging in something onto others.  We also fail to look at the context for actions we don’t understand, opting instead to judge things at face value without knowing the background story that lead up to the act.  Just because YOU may not want to have sex with more than 1, 3, or 15 people in your lifetime doesn’t mean everyone else will feel the same way.  And so long as everyone is being safe and getting consent, why would you care what someone else is doing with their genitals?

Well, you might care if it’s your son or daughter.  But I would hope your response would not be to cry “SLUT” and hope that solves the problem.  And if it wouldn’t solve the problem with your own kid why do so many people seem to think shaming a person for being “a slut” will change that person?  A more effective response would to to find out why a kid would want to engage in a public group sex act.

Consider this:  in 2015, the 4th most searched for type of porn on PornHub was the keyword “teen.”  The 9th was “threesome.”  It’d be nice to assume all of the viewers of porn are adults who have all of the mental capacity to know that the actors in these videos are compensated, over 18, and generally speaking, consenting to the video as well as pre-screening to ensure safety for all actors involved.  The reality is teenagers – kids – are watching this, too.  As much as adults hate to admit it, teenagers are sexual creatures who will explore, push boundaries, and experiment sexually.  And when they are not being taught comprehensive, sex-positive facts we risk them being taught from the fantasy of porn.  Porn: where everyone is willing, able, and ready to perform extreme sex acts, where a gang bang at a gym is a common occurrence, and where “teens” with tattoos and piercings are sexual acrobats.

Where did these kids get the idea to “run a train” on a girl in a school bathroom?  Probably porn, which is easily accessed on any smartphone or computer.  Parents are less and less able to monitor their kid’s internet use.  The answer is not to ban porn or to blame the porn industry but to remind parents that their children have sex drives, internet access, and an undeveloped frontal lobe which leads to thrill-seeking and an inability to properly weight consequences.  That is a recipe for risky sexual choices.  Engaging teens to challenge their learned misogyny is also paramount.  Personally, I doubt the boys in this case decided to have sex with this girl because they respect women so much.

Somehow, the recent push for transgender bathroom access rights by the Obama administration has also been blamed for this incident.  Many commenters have drawn the conclusion that this only happened because President Obama issued a letter encouraging schools to provide equal access to restroom facilities for all students.  Obviously this logical fallacy falls apart when you point out that this happened without any teacher approval or consent, no one entered the bathroom under the guise of trying to gain access based on their gender identity, and (again) teens have been having sex in school bathrooms since the dawn of public school.

Is group sex bad?  Not in my opinion.  Is public sex bad?  Hey, I’m not going to judge your fetish if you don’t judge mine!  Should teens be having sex?  That is a pointless question because teens are going to have sex just as they have since the beginning of time.  As a feminist, I believe in the sexual agency of consenting, safe, and informed adults.  For teens, I believe ideally they should be more focused on growing up and enjoying their childhood but I accept that my sexless teenage years are not the norm for many kids.  I’ve had plenty of friends who had one or multiple sex partners in their teenager years and they feel no regrets about it, while others wish they’d waited until they were more equipped to handle sex.  So all that said:  should teens be having public group sex?  I’m going to have to say no, which doesn’t feel like a particularly controversial or intellectually challenging stance to take.  But it also is a strawman questions because it’s not like society at large is encouraging teens to have public group sex.  Very few people fall into the category of “pro teenage orgies in public.”

By and large, teenagers do not have the mental and emotional maturity to make a decision that could permanently affect their life, and having public group sex can do just that.  But really…so can having sex one time with one person.  Sex is a risk and teens have to be educated on how to minimize harm to themselves and others.  That said, putting aside the fact that some of the teens in this particular case filmed the act which could result in child pornography charges, it goes without saying that public group sex among teens probably doesn’t happen with all of the careful planning and precautions that a porn production company would require.  Public sex is also illegal, and teens do not have the capacity to weigh that risk effectively.  How can we stop it?  We can’t.  Those of us who work with teens or are otherwise involved with teens can do our best to model good decision making and give them all of the resources they need to make healthy sexual decisions.

But should the girl, who fits every widely accepted definition of the word, be dismissed as a slut?  There are many in our community who have speculated that she may be a student with special needs, though that has not been confirmed.  Regardless, how likely is it that a fifteen year old high school girl went into this situation clear-eyed, fully informed, and aware of the social, legal, and medical risks?  Is it likely the boys in this situation were thinking about each other’s sexual history?  Who among that group has been abused and now acts out sexually as a coping mechanism?  Who among that group is a closeted homosexual who went along with the act to avoid being outed?  Who among that group felt pressured to participate beyond their comfort level?  Teens are pack animals and will do irrational things for the sake of fitting in.

There are more angles to this story than just “slut goes sluting” and we do a disservice to the youth when we refuse to examine the full spectrum.  We also do a disservice to ourselves by reading, sharing, and commenting on a news story without even questioning why the story exists.  The facts surrounding this story are few and far between.  Local news picked it up first, of course, and the salaciousness of the details and the headlines caused it to go viral.  Many commenters seem shocked by the idea that teens have sex in school bathrooms.  I don’t know about everyone else, but I know kids had sex in my school:  on the courtyard, in the woods behind the campus, in their parked cars, and yes, in bathrooms.  If this had been just two students having sex it would not have made local news.  If it had been a confirmed sexual assault, it would have been newsworthy.  But this is an unclear number or boys having supposedly consensual sex with one girl.  Why is that news?  There is no reason to report it except to slut shame the girl and cause a panic.

Jesi
Jesi is a feminist Texan and photographer living in Cape Coral, Florida. She is a co-host on the podcast SPEW and collaborates on photo projects with Love Your Rebellion.