Newsflash! Teenage Girls Have Sex!

I was watching Tyra Banks' talk show a few weeks ago because she had a feature about a survey she had done on the behavior of teenage girls. Rather than being an informative discussion about teen sexuality, it was her usual fare of taking women onto her show, exposing their sexual behavior and then taking turns with her audience berating and judging them. So I didn't think too much about it and turned it off when the judgemental rants became too much for me to bear. But today, in sifting through my usual sites that I watch for sexual health news, I discovered that this survey that the Tyra Banks show did, is actually being reported as real news. Both the New York Post and MSNBC featured stories on the 'shocking' results of her survey. The Today show had an interview with Tyra in which she clearly positioned herself as an expert on this topic and offered her thoughts on the results and what should be done about them. What a sad state we have come to when we are looking to a supermodel with not one shred of experience in this area for comment about what to do about risky teenage behavior. True, they claim the survey had 10,000 respondents, which is a fairly large number, but I have some major issues with reporting this information as if it can be generalized to the whole population. I also can't stand the way it's being reported. It's framed as if it's legitimate news when really all it is is a simplistic and sensationalized attempt to get viewers for the Tyra Banks show and the Today show.

So here are my questions about this survey:
Why is it being generalized when the survey was conducted solely through the website for the Tyra show? Isn't it very likely that this is a self-selected group? These are obviously girls who watch Tyra, which has to represent a particular segment of the population. And I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that at least some of the girls who responded to this survey were looking for a chance to appear on her show - as a small group of them did. These girls are not stupid and would understand that they're not going to get on the show by saying that they are responsible young women who make careful decisions about sex and use condoms consistently. Who wants to hear that? No, they would know that their best chance of getting on the show lies in saying that they participate in risky, outlandlish behavior. I'm not saying that the young women that were on the show were lieing about their behavior, I'm just saying that the survey was likely to attract girls with 'a story'. Girls who don't have a story probably wouldn't feel so compelled to fill it out - what do they have to say?

Next, what's new about this? The 'stats' gleaned from this survey are not all that different from other national surveys that have been done in the US. It's being treated as if it's so new and shocking. Young people have always had sex and many of them don't use birth control. It's not new. And since this is not a controlled, representative study, there's no way to say that this indicates things are getting worse - which seems to be the implication Tyra is making. The survey indicated that 14% of the respondents had sex at school. This information brought gasps of horror from the audience on the show. But why? Where can you have sex when you're a teenager? You don't have your own place, options are limited, you spend a lot of time at school - why wouldn't that be a place you choose?

And why are we focusing only on the girls? These girls are having sex, not using condoms, and getting pregnant with someone. Why are the boys not on the show? Tyra likes to frame herself as an advocate of young womens' self-esteem and claims this is why she did the survey and the show. That would explain why it focuses on girls rather than boys. But does she really think it helps a girl's self-esteem to bring her on a national talk show and call her out as a violent, stupid, drug-addicted slut?

And finally, where does all this get us? The claim that this is done in an attempt to understand and helps girls is so paper-thin it's laughable. If it was an attempt to understand, she would have focused on the girls' stories of how and why these things happened to them and talked to real experts in teenage sexuality and counselling about what can be done to prevent risky behavior. Instead all she did was race through each girl, have them give an account of all the terribly slutty and horrifying things they did, ask them each why and then call down their explanations as stupid and immature. That's very helpful. I'm sure each of these girls has been reformed.

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