Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
Rumors Of Carroll County Teen-Sex Parties Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
It's tough to be a teen in Carroll County. Things are slower out there than in the big city, so who can blame the kids for throwing a little sex party every now and again?
The Examiner, for one, which spent the better part of a week cherry-picking statistics and engaging in a game of telephone that resulted in a few days' worth of teen sex party headlines in the paper. After The Examiner broke the story, the local television news outlets picked it up and ran with it as well. It was a good time, and, hey, nobody got hurt.
Except maybe for the teens, who have become the rutting, clap-ridden poster children for wayward youth, and the concerned parents of Carroll County, who were probably preparing to hold shotgun vigils outside their daughters' bedrooms at night.
It started with a story on Nov. 15, when Mark Yount, a Carroll County drug counselor, was quoted by Examiner reporter Kelsey Volkmann as saying that "a couple of young people in the last four to six months started talking about attending parties where middle schoolers and high schoolers were engaging in sex with multiple partners."
The Examiner reported that the teens told Yount the activities were taking place in a house filled with wall-to-wall mattresses.
Speaking to WBAL-TV reporters later that day, Yount said, "it's the girls gone wild era." Reached by phone, he declined to elaborate. "They won't let me talk anymore," he told City Paper the following week.
Yount is the only named source in any of the media reports, as of this writing, who had heard of the teen sex parties from a source other than The Examiner or Yount himself. How many teens told him the story? None of the accounts give a number, and Yount isn't talking. The only clue came in the first-day story by Volkmann: The teens were "both from northern Carroll County."
In the same account, Cindy Marucci-Bosley, women's health program manager for the Carroll County Health Department, told The Examiner that "There's a huge number of 16- and 17- year-olds who say they've had 30 or 40 [sex] partners." She later said she had been misquoted by the paper; she had allegedly qualified her statement to say that the girls had 30 or 40 sex partners over the course of their lives, not in one particular evening. "Everyone kept adding things," she said later at a presentation to parents in Westminster, "and making assumptions you just can't make." She says she heard about the parties from Yount.
On the evening news, WBAL showed viewers the shoes of two students. Did they know about the sex parties? "Yeah, but I've never been to one," a girl replied. What had they heard? "Um, that they're crazy," came the answer.
WJZ-TV caught up with Marucci-Bosley, who clarified her comment about teen girls who had reported having 30 to 40 partners over the course of their lifetimes. A pregnant 19-year-old cautioned fellow students about having sex too early but offered no insight into sex parties.
By the following day, the story had a life of its own. It crisscrossed the internet, reposted on blogs and message boards.
In one of two Examiner stories on the subject that appeared in the paper Nov. 16, an anonymous student told Volkmann she had heard of such parties, and a few lurid details were added: abandoned houses, sex games played at the alleged parties. and a clique of kids who indoctrinate younger students into Carroll's teen-sex cult. A Carroll County high school principal, The Examiner reported, was unaware of such parties.
The second story that day, by Examiner reporter Karl B. Hille, cited national statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for teen sexuality and risky behaviors--nearly half of high-school students have had sex, a third didn't use a condom the last time they had sex, and 23 percent were under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Hille's story omitted the CDC's conclusion that almost all of the indicators he cited had decreased over five- and 10-year periods (the number of teens reporting alcohol and drug use did go up, but has remained the same for the past five years).
On Nov. 17, there were five sex-party-related stories in The Examiner. Another student told Volkmann that kids were breaking into houses to have sex, and a police chief, The Examiner reported, was unaware that this was happening.
Also that day, Examiner editor Frank Keegan trumpeted his paper's scoop in an editorial and lectured that "too many parents are hiding in delusion about their children's sexuality, and abdicating their responsibilities. They do not know what kids mean by `rainbowing,' `Dixie-cupping' and gag, `shrimping.' We in the dreaded media are too chicken to tell them in print."
The term "rainbow party"--a party in which a number of girls wearing different-colored lipsticks perform oral sex on the same boy--has been defined in stories in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and Reason, all of which looked at the phenomenon and pronounced it bunk. Rainbow Party was also the title of a moralizing book for young adults, which, The Examiner pointed out, is available at local libraries (though not in Carroll County). What the paper didn't mention is that Rainbow Party is a work of fiction. According to The New York Times, the book editor who commissioned the book got the idea from a 2003 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The editor told the Times: "Are rainbow parties real? I really hope not."
To bolster the claim of Yount's anonymous teens, The Examiner offered a handful of statistics purporting to show that gonorrhea, chlamydia, and teen pregnancy were all on the rise in Carroll County.
The Examiner says that reports of gonorrhea in the county "in the past five years jumped 65 percent." Incidences of the disease did indeed make such a jump between 1999 and '04, from 15 to 25 reported cases (although last year reported incidences of the disease dropped back down to 18). If, as the county says, 24 percent of its gonorrhea cases during 2004 involved 15- to 19-year-olds, the 65 percent jump included just three teenage gonorrhea sufferers.
The Examiner also reported that in Carroll County "Chlamydia increased 50 percent during the past five years, with 77 percent of the infections reported by people between 15 and 24 years," both statistics from a report compiled by the Partnership for a Healthier Carroll County, headed by Marucci-Bosley. Reports of the disease have risen over the past 10 years in the county, as well as in the state and country. In Carroll County, 75 incidences of the disease were reported in 2000 and 114 in '05. This could be attributed to either increased promiscuity, as the teen-sex stories imply, or it could be, as the CDC points out in its most recent reports on the disease, that tests for the infection have gotten better over the years. Once the CDC adjusts the number of reported infections to account for the increased sensitivity of the tests, its estimates indicate that chlamydia infections in Maryland and neighboring states have actually gone down over the past five and 10 years.
The Examiner also pointed out in its first sex-party story, on Nov. 15, that teen pregnancy in Carroll has "spiked in recent years, with 186 cases in 2004, compared with 164 in 2001 according to the latest Maryland Vital Statistics Annual Report." These numbers do not appear in that report, but in subsequent stories the paper uses them to take the Carroll County school system to task for being able to account for only 29 pregnant students during '04.
Marge Hoffmaster, supervisor of health services for Carroll schools, tells City Paper that school nurses can only report pregnancies "for students who are actually in our schools." Some pregnant teens have already graduated from high school, drop out of high school, or are homeschooled. She says the number of 2004 pregnancies was low. The average number over the past five years has been between 40 and 50, she says, but nowhere near the 186 alleged in The Examiner.
So how did the paper determine that there were 186 teen pregnancies in 2004? Volkmann says the paper estimated it according to national averages. According to the nonprofit sexual and reproductive research organization the Guttmacher Institute, some 57 percent of all pregnancies in the nation result in births. The rest result in abortion or miscarriage. The state's 2004 Vital Statistics Report lists 104 births to teenage girls in the county. If Carroll followed the national 57 percent average, the reasoning went, it would have taken 186 pregnancies to result in 104 births. Marucci-Bosley used the numbers similarly.
According to Rebecca Wind, spokeswoman for the Guttmacher Institute, The Examiner and Marucci-Bosley's conclusions are faulty. "The breakdowns by state vary wildly," Wind says. "Taking the national number and applying it to the county would not be accurate."
The Carroll County Times ran its own editorial, a few days after Keegan's appeared, calling the reports of teen-sex parties in the media "dramatically overblown."
"Unsubstantiated reports of mass orgies involving teenagers and vague references to sex games may make for good headlines or teasers on the television news," the paper noted, "but the fact is that teen sex is no greater--and no less--of a problem in Carroll than it is in just about any other community in Maryland or across the nation."
Larry Leitch, health officer for the Carroll County Health Department, is concerned about the teen-sex matter. "I'm sure something's happening out there that's not good," he says. Leitch heard of the teen-sex parties from Marucci-Bosley, who says she heard it from Yount, who, in turn, says two teenagers told him. Despite the recent media coverage, though, Leitch says he doesn't know whether the rumors reported are true.
"There's no direct evidence," he says. "It's not like any state or county officials saw it."
When contacted about her station's coverage of the teen-sex scandal, WBAL-TV news director Michelle Butt says that an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, however small, is a big deal. Though WBAL ran its stories alongside a graphic that read teen sex parties, she says the station's news stories on the subject did not imply that an increase in STDs was related to the alleged parties--or that the parties even existed.
"We never said there was a party," Butt says. "We never said [there wasn't]. We never said there were guaranteed sex parties. We did a legitimate story."
Butt says she saw the story in The Examiner and on the Associated Press wire, which ran a version of the original Examiner piece.
In his editorial, Keegan makes a similar point: "While responsible adults will contend fanatically over the inherently unprovable, they cannot, hard as they try, argue with reality."
Neither Keegan nor Examiner editor Timothy Maier responded to e-mails with questions about the sourcing and statistics used in the paper's stories. Neither did they respond to phone calls requesting comment. In a brief telephone conversation, Keegan said he was too busy to talk about it.
"We're not like the big papers," he says. "I don't have time to chat."
It seems the media orgy over promiscuity in Carroll County climaxed with a whimper, not a bang, on Nov. 20 at a panel discussion about teenage health risks held in Westminster. A panel of experts spoke to 15 or 20 parents at Winter Mills High School about suicide, drugs, cyber-stalking, and teen sex. Marucci-Bosley was there, though she made no mention of teen-sex orgies, and the parents didn't ask about them. She repeated some of the statements she had made to the media but noted that rumors "spiraled out of control." She told the crowd that some young girls were indeed reporting having participated in oral and anal sex, sneaking out of their parents' houses late at night to sleep with their boyfriends.
"Do I think kids are having risky behavior?" she asked. "Absolutely. Do I have proof? No."
After the presentation was over, a girl who looked to be in her midteens wandered in, plunking her backpack down next to her father, who was surveying Marucci-Bosley's table--an array of literature in front of a poster board decorated with slogans and photos.
"Well," she said, glancing at the table, "I don't need these yet."
The father grimaced slightly and rolled his eyes.
"I don't even want to think about that."
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