Five 16-year-olds cram around a table at their usual after-school hangout, a deli in west-end Toronto. Munching the last bites of their bagels, Marina, Carly, Ellen, Sophija and Nevena discuss headlines about their apparent sex lives. They don’t snicker about anal sex or become awkward at the mention of contraception. Instead, these youths embrace frank talk about teen sexuality, something even they recognize is lacking in Canadian journalism.
More often than not, claims Ellen, journalists portray the issue of teen sex in a negative light. Consider some “facts” about teens and sex: Chlamydia increased 50 percent in a decade. Fellatio parties are regular events. Parenthood is rampant and the birth rate is climbing. Shocking, isn’t it? The thing is, it’s not as bad as it seems.
Publications appear comfortable running sex-related stories, but many continue to cover the sexual behaviour of teens poorly and prudishly, taking the typical alarmist route, peppering stories with inaccuracies and avoiding or burying positive news about teens and sex. Statistics, as solid as they seem at first, are malleable and can be shaped and twisted-or innocently misinterpreted-to support almost any opinion. Sure, there are plenty of articles on the subject of teen sexuality, but not all offer quality reporting and analysis. Instead, they present the sexual activity of young people as more of a problem than ever, even though there is little evidence to support that. So why are journalists screwing around with the truth?
A 2008 study entitled “Trends in sexual health and risk behaviours among adolescent students in British Columbia” confirms that for that province’s teens, condom use is up while pregnancies and births are down. Even the percentage of teens who’ve had intercourse, even just once, is down. Elizabeth M. Saewyc, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of nursing and the lead researcher behind the study, says that although they only looked at B.C. teenagers, given the size and diversity of the sample and trends in other regions of Canada, she is confident the findings apply to the entire country.
But an article in the January 28, 2008, issue of Maclean’s takes a different perspective. The head is “Suddenly teen pregnancy is cool?” and the deck reads, “For the first time in years, more kids are having kids-and not just in movies.” Back at the deli, Carly flips through the story over her smuggled-in Starbucks, peering through her black-framed glasses. She cited the piece in a Grade 10 speech on the pros and cons of abortion and says articles such as this one suggest that “because we see people like Britney Spears and Jamie Lynn Spears pregnant, suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. They’re pregnant. Why don’t we follow that trend?'” Carly is skeptical of the celebrity pregnancy “trend” having much influence. Her friend Marina adds, “I don’t think teen pregnancy is cool.”
So these teens and their peers aren’t following the Hollywood stars as Maclean’s implies. While the story written by associate editor Cathy Gulli notes that statistics show pregnancy and birth rates for teens are in decline and have been for years, it claims that stats about the teen-pregnancy rate are out of date, and therefore aren’t useful. It also claims the teen birth rate in the U.S. is on the rise, and because the two countries are similar, the trend could trickle over to Canada. Finally, it claims that celebrity conduct mightencourage teens to start baby-making.
“The whole article is entirely speculative,” says Megan Griffith-Greene, editor of Shameless, a five-year-old alternative magazine for young women. “It acknowledges that there are no statistics in Canada whatsoever that prove the thesis.” Nevertheless, in an interview Gulli counters that there was research showing “some increases or potential increases in teen pregnancy rates or birth rates.” But “potential increases” means little, and by hinting that “having a baby is the new handbag,” as one teen mother says in the piece,Maclean’s is suggesting that teen pregnancy and parenthood are indeed phenomena-when they aren’t. Sure, young people still get pregnant, but, says Saewyc, “If you look at the numbers, it’s actually a fairly small problem.” A 2007 report released in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that fewer Canadian females aged 15 to 19 became pregnant during the eight years studied.
Parents rarely read such encouraging information because, as Saewyc says, “Stories regularly seem to imply young people are beginning sexual activity at younger ages, more casually and with riskier behaviour than previous generations.”
Alex McKay tugs on a filing-cabinet drawer in the cluttered office of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN). He finally yanks it open and pulls out clipping after clipping of sensationalist journalism about teen sexual activity and health. He drops the stack in a mess on the floor and starts sifting through it, listing headlines, publication names and dates.
The SIECCAN research coordinator is critical of the way many journalists cover the subject. McKay says they’re “still stuck on the idea that we need to look at adolescent sexuality as something that’s dangerous, and we’re always on the cusp of disaster.” In February 2008, for example, The Globe and Mail ran a headline that was sure to shock: “Chlamydia in teens jumps 50%.” But wait-even though the story reads as if 50 percent more Canadian teens contracted sexually transmitted infections (STIs), it may just have been that more cases were detected.
McKay says the article was “dead wrong.” Along with colleague Michael Barrett, he wrote a 2008 research paper for the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality exploring the reasons behind “the rise in reported chlamydia rates among young women.” McKay says the increase may be because the testing is considerably more sensitive and, since it is more readily available and less invasive, more people are getting tested.
The Globe story by Tralee Pearce, who declined to be interviewed for this article, briefly noted that chlamydia rates had risen for all age groups-not just teens-over a 10-year period. Still, most of the story was about the use of contraception among teens and claimed that “experts agree” all teen STI rates are rising due to the unpopularity of condoms. However, in September 2008, Statistics Canada released a report stating that 81 percent of sexually active 15- to-17-year-olds used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse. Teens are, for the most part, safe about getting it on.
Meanwhile, last April The Ottawa Citizen reported that the rate of chlamydia in 15-to-24-year-old females in the city increased almost 90 percent and doubled for males over 10 years. As Marina said to her friends around the table, it sounds like most young women in that age group in Ottawa are “walking STIs.” The headline was “Safe-sex ‘complacency’ boosts STDs; Gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis rates among young up dramatically.” Unlike the Globe article, much of the Citizen piece discusses how great it is that teens are taking control of their sexual health by getting tested. Once again, the headline was misleading.
Jake Rupert, who wrote the story, compares the anxiety-ridden coverage of teens and sex to reporting on youth crime. “You get the impression that youth crime is out of control,” he says. “But if you look at the stats, youth crime is going down. It’s been going down for more than 10 years.” He adds that when it comes to teens, it’s almost a “knee-jerk reaction” to say they’re up to no good.
Globe columnist Margaret Wente might as well be urging parents to lock up their teens-particularly their daughters. “What are kids up to? Don’t ask” was the headline of a 2005 column that began with a warning that the information she was about to reveal was so shocking parents risked choking on their breakfast cereal. But her “shocking” data on oral sex came from an American study. Earlier, in a 2004 column-“Schoolgirls want to be the sexiest boy-toy on the block: Why?”-Wente wrote, “Dads across North America are going ballistic when they discover that their darling daughters have joined the Rainbow Club.” This putative club, which refers to gatherings where girls perform fellatio while wearing different coloured lipsticks to leave their marks, is simply a rumour in Canada, according to a piece in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. In her “Schoolgirls” piece, Wente, who declined to be interviewed for this article, cites a Globestory called “Good girls do” by Sarah Wilson to support her concerns. Though Wilson’s piece discusses teens engaging in oral sex, it doesn’t mention Rainbow Clubs, coloured lipstick or ballistic dads.
Sensationalist coverage of teens and sex makes it easier to sell newspapers, Katie Mercer says wryly. The reporter at The Province in Vancouver says, “It’s like the old adage ‘If it bleeds, it leads.'” But a 2008 story she wrote about Saewyc’s findings-headlined “Survey says B.C. teens aren’t as libidinous as adults think”-didn’t take that approach. The Province buried the article on page 23. Maclean’s, on the other hand, ran “Suddenly teen pregnancy is cool?” on its cover.
Shameless, with its tagline “For girls who get it,” approaches adolescent sexual activity and health with more insight than many newspapers and newsweeklies. “We’re pro-sex,” says Griffith-Greene in her midtown Toronto home, which doubles as the magazine’s headquarters during production. “There’s nothing wrong with teens having sex and making decisions about their own health and well-being.”
That doesn’t mean she takes the subject lightly. The magazine recognized the seriousness of HIV/ADS with a 2006 piece called “The power of prevention,” and human papilloma virus with “Preventing HPV” the same year. But it doesn’t have that teen-sex-is-scary vibe. For instance, “Not your average health class” was a 2007 profile on Insight Theatre, a Planned Parenthood Ottawa initiative that trains teens to develop and perform plays that educate other young people about all things sexual. And Shameless does what should be an obvious part of researching any story on teens and sex: it asks them about sex, something many reporters don’t do enough.
Griffith-Greene thinks a disproportionate number of articles highlight the sexual activity of adolescent girls as opposed to boys. “I can’t think of any stories where young men having sex has been a really big story in the media,” she says. But for heterosexual teen girls to be sexually active, there must be boys around somewhere. In “What are kids up to?” and “Schoolgirls,” Wente comments almost exclusively on the scandalous stuff girls do. And the boys contributing to the girls’ pregnancies are practically non-existent in the Maclean’s story.
Will readers find a Shameless-style story in the daily news? Probably not. But there are stories that at least try to be balanced. Allison Hanes of the National Post attempts to do just that in a 2007 article called “Teen pregnancy rates lowest yet, study finds; Better informed, but not any less sexually active.” A 2006 editorial in the Toronto Star states, “The fear that today’s teens are somehow more sexually depraved and more deviant is unfounded.” In a 2008 Citizen op-ed piece, “Let boys be boys,” Alex Sanchez writes about homosexual teenage boys and criticizes the hype that surrounds teen sexuality. And Jake Rupert’s article, despite its distorted chlamydia stat, does report that more young people are getting tested for STIs.
It’s also true that reporting on sexual health can be confusing, especially since many academics keep using jargon-laden language. And stories often go though several editors who may inadvertently change the facts. As Mercer says, “It’s like broken telephone.”
Many newspapers and magazines seem to lack the resources necessary to cover the topic of teen sexuality thoroughly. And sometimes reporters who aren’t regularly on the health beat, such as Hanes and Rupert, end up writing one-off articles about teen sexual health.
But that’s no excuse for confusing the data. McKay says journalists who report on the latest stats sometimes don’t realize those figures may refer only to sexually active teens, not all teens across Canada. And according to Saewyc, many claims aren’t based on statistics from primary sources, or they’re based on statistics from other countries.
Inaccurate and alarmist reporting on teenage sexual behaviour has its consequences: it misinforms readers, who go on to perpetuate the uncalled-for hype, heightening the fear of teen sexuality. “What this does is contribute to a culture that makes assumptions about young people,” says Griffith-Greene. “This idea that young people can’t take care of themselves, that they can’t make intelligent decisions about anything.”
Maybe journalists should go for bagels after school with Marina, Carly, Ellen, Sophija and Nevena, and find out from teens what they’re really up to when it comes to sex. “Put yourself in my shoes,” suggests Marina, “then talk about it.”