However, the probing then revealed that they really were not as innocent. And
that they did take some action themselves. That it wasn't something they were
totally pushed into by the outside but that some internal forces, if you want
to call them that, had driven them to become involved in sex as well. So they
would become more open about the sexual activity that actually took place.
They also began providing some more explanations of why they were doing what
they were doing. And one of the themes that came up a lot was the fact that
they felt that their parents wanted to tell them so much what to do and wanted
to have so much control over them that they felt a desire to revolt against
that--and let me just point out that that's obviously not something that's
unique to these teens but that's common for adolescents in general. ... |
So they began talking more and more about the fact that they did play a role in
all this. And that they did make decisions about who they were going to invite
to come to an event where sex was going to take place. How they would stage
meeting with one group of boys and then meet with another group of young men, I
probably should call them. ... As we continued to talk over time they began
taking more and more responsibility for the situation but also acknowledging
that they felt they did not have the skills to maintain the situation at a
level where they felt comfortable with it.
So the girls were running things?
The girls certainly were running things from their point of view. I pointed
out that to some extent they were running things because they wanted to revolt
against their parents. To some extent they were running things because they
were bored. They would talk their lives in the sense that they would go to
school. They would come home. Most of them would come home to a place where
either both parents or one of the parents was working. Or if they had
siblings, would meet with their siblings. But there wasn't much to do at home.
There wasn't much to do in the community. There were no after school programs
or the programs that there were, they didn't like because they didn't really
provide what they wanted to have. So there was a general sense of boredom as
well. And to some extent that boredom became a trigger to start hanging out
with their friends and doing things with their friends, including having sex
with their friends. ...
What were some of the stories that you heard from some of those girls about
the kind of sexual activity that was going on?
The kinds of stories that the girls told me about the sexual activity that was
taking place really varied a lot. And I think some of that had to do with the
level of comfort in terms of telling me what actually was taking place. ...
And also it's very easy to sensationalize these kinds of activities. You
could pick out one event and say "oh let me tell you" and "listen what these
girls did." So I want to be very careful and state very clearly that these are
incidents. And I also should note that in the description of the incidents
some of the young people were willing to acknowledge that this took place
whereas other denied it. So I'm still left with not knowing exactly what
happened since I wasn't there.
The sexual activity basically ranged from having oral sex to having vaginal
sex. Initially, it seemed that they would try to provide some privacy for the
people who were engaging in sex but in most times since it all took place in
one room there was very little room for privacy. So people would be sexually
active while others would watch. This would then subsequently result in some
of the young men asking one or more women to engage in sex with each other when
they would watch. And even situations where people were engaging in sex but
you would have probably the most extreme situation: a scenario where one girl
and three boys were having sex all at the same time altogether. ... It was
basically a very wide variety of sexual activities that they were engaging
And how old were these girls?
The girls raged ranged in age probably from 13 to 16. ... One of the aspects
that I think is really important to point out here is that there wasn't a
situation where the older kids were forcing the younger kids to engage in
something. In many ways it was seen as a special status to be invited to these
events. And I think that in many ways we could compare this to just teenagers
making plans for what they're going to do tonight and you could be the teenager
who was sitting at the phone waiting eagerly for a phone call hoping that
you're going to be invited that night ... Now, this situation is unique in
terms of the fact that there was some sexual activity that took place. So in
that sense it was not the sense of being invited to come over to my house to
watch a video tonight that that were rented.
But that's the way the kids viewed it.
That's the way they viewed it. And initially a lot of the kids didn't view the
sexual activity that was taking place ... as being absurd or something they
really did not want. What they did not like was the fact that they might
engage in activities after they had been drinking alcohol and had less control
over what was going on. Or once they were in a situation where they really
wanted to say no. But here they were with their best friends and it's really
hard to say no when everybody who keeps your life going is there and is acting
as if you should say yes. So at that point in time some of the girls started
losing control because they wanted to say no but did not feel that they had the
power to say no or even if they did, saying no for many of them, at least from
their perspective, meant losing all their friends. ...
We start with girls who wanna make a stamp, who view sex as a way of really
asserting themselves and you end up in a place where they've lost control.
What happened? How did they get from A to B?
The groups would get together, engage in sex, have a good time together.
Initially that was seen as a marker of independence, of having authority, in
control over their own lives. As things moved on there was really no person
around who had the authority nor fulfilled a role to put a hold on all this and
say 'enough is enough' or 'let's reflect and see where we're going here.'
So they ended up feeling completely out of control.
They ended up feeling out of control, feeling lonely, and feeling powerless.
One wonders what happened to that old fashioned idea of love and sex. Based
on what you heard from these girls, is that completely gone?
The notion of love and sex is not gone. This started as sex and not as love.
Now for some of the girls who were involved with one of the male adolescents in
a intimate relationship there were moments of struggle where they saw that this
whole group sex phenomena was standing in the way of their intimate
relationship that they had. So in many ways the parties were taking away from
the love-based relationship. It never happened the other way around where the
group party atmosphere led to love and made people fall in love. It just
wasn't set up for that to take. They all made a very clear distinction
between love and sex and sex was totally unassociated with love.
What you're describing sounds to me is that these girls were very confused.
That on the one hand they have a message, some kind of message from society,
from the feminist movement, about asserting themselves, about being strong and
independent. On the other hand they're acting out a very traditional female
role of being a kind of subordinate relationship to to boys. Were these, did
you sense that these girls were very confused about that? That they were
taking different messages and mixing them all together?
One of the reasons I think that the girls really struggled with this whole
situation looking back was because they were very confused about the tension
between on one hand having shown that they could stand up for themselves and
really engineer this whole event and at the same time they were the traditional
women who once they wanted to say no could not find a way to get that message
Can you take us inside that health department and tell us about one
instance of you and a girl--one story that that girl told you that surprised
you or opened your eyes to what was going on.
I would like to share an example with you of a situation where I was talking
with one of the girls. This is still at the clinic at that point in time so
it's very early for me in this whole scenario in trying to understand what
exactly is happening.
So just envision yourself being in a clinic room that's a pretty sterile
environment where the same girl has already been and been tested and been told
that she has syphilis. So for her, this is an environment that doesn't have
the most positive association. Picture me as the person who is trying to say
'trust me'. I'm just interested in learning what is happening here. Why this
is going on? And what we can do about this. Because at the same time it
seemed like a lot of the girls were sad about where this whole event was going
... When I first asked her to tell me a little bit about what was going on, her
initial reaction was what I would call typical for a teenager. Just staring up
at the ceiling and saying 'well nothing.' And I tried to come up with lots and
lots of questions and every time she would say 'yes, no--well I don't know.'
So we weren't going very far. At that point in time I basically sat sat back
and said, 'well I guess we're not going anywhere. You don't wanna tell me
anything. I don't know what else to ask you. So we're stuck.'And I still
didn't understand why this happened but it happened consistently with a lot of
the kids. That somehow they decided at some point in time that maybe it was
okay to tell their story.
And I think by not lecturing them about staring at the ceiling or looking down
at the floor made them feel that 'well maybe there was something different
about this.' By not having a chart in my hand and and a medical file maybe this
person is different. And she would talk about what had happened to her. How
she had become involved in this. How this was her life.
What was this life for her?
Going to the parties, having sex. Once in a while drinking alcohol. Being
with her friends. That was the highlight of her life. There wasn't much going
on at home. School was okay. So this was really the central focus of her life.
She talked about the fact that initially she was very intrigued by being
sexually active. She not being sexually active before. And so her initiation
into sex really took place in a group context. Not together with a boy who she
was in love with and who she was dating and that this was a part of a larger
group where she first became really sexually active. And with that I mean go
beyond kissing and hugging but having actual sex.
She talked about the fact that it made her feel special. It made her feel like
she had status among her friends. But at the same time as she would go back
she felt forced to be sexually active as well. That it no longer was something
that she necessarily wanted. That she was losing control over whom she was
having sex with and when she was having sex. And what type of sex she was
engaging in. So she started translating this into almost feeling forced to do
things. ... She also talked about the fact that at times she would go home and
be nervous that her parents would ask about what was going on. But none of
that ever happened. That as she felt that control was slipping and things
might be escalating in terms of the sexual activity, she really couldn't talk
about it at home. That her parents would ask, "Did you have a nice evening
tonight, honey?" And she would say, "yes" and go to her room, and that was all
the communication that takes place. So in this particular case--but in
general--a lot of the girls started feeling very lonely over time. They were
in over their head. They didn't know what to do. And there was nobody to talk
to. The only people they could talk to were people who were involved in the
Was group sex going on?
It was not uncommon when all the young people would get together to engage in
group sex. ... There was group sex going on in terms of one of the guys and
one of the women having sex with each other and then multiple couples at the
same time. There might be switching of partners that took place. There was
group sex going on in terms of one guy having sex with one of the girls and
then the next guy having sex with the same girl. There was group sex going on
in terms of one girl having sex with multiple male partners at the same time.
Multiple females having sex with each other at the same time. I would say the
only type of group sex that I did not hear about in this overall context was
group sex between just guys.
What is a sandwich? We heard that term.
... In some ways the sandwich was the point of escalation. It was the point
when a number of them became really, really scared. What I understand sandwich
to be is one girl having oral sex with one of the men. Having vaginal sex with
another man and having anal sex with a third man. So she literally is smushed
in between three guys and the only way that I've heard it described by some of
the teens is a sandwich.
But that was the breaking point. That was enough. That was the point of
escalation as you put it.
I would say that for those who did talk about the sandwich, who felt
comfortable enough to bring that up and who were there that the moment they
reflected on what that meant and what really was going on, particularly the
girls felt that that was a position they should not be in and that became the
breaking point. It was less being identified as having syphilis from my point
of view at least. But it was having ended up in a position where you have no
control over what's going on. Where you have one woman and three guys--that
that closed the door for them where they basically 'enough is a enough' and
really began struggling with the fact how now to express that enough was
Was there lesbian activity going on among these girls?
There was some level of lesbian activity going on and one of the things that I
think is really interesting and in many ways shows that the girls were trying
to be mature about this, is that some of the young women decided that one way
to regain control over what was happening sexually was to have sex with another
woman. Because if they had sex with another woman, they together had total
control over what was taking place. What kind of sex acts they would engage
in. How long to perform. What exactly they were going to do with whom. ... So
engaging in lesbian sex in some ways became a protective strategy against
forced sexual activity with some of the other young men. ... The girls didn't
use the words of saying that they were engaging in lesbian sex to protect
themselves against forced heterosexual sex by the boys. However, if you listen
to their stories, without using those words, that's what they were saying.
When they would sit there and tell you these stories about what had happened
to them, what was their demeanor?
When the girls were telling their story, some would become really sad and break
down and acknowledge that this was something that had totally escalated, that
had gotten out of hand, that probably was going to impact them for the rest of
their lives and they didn't know what to do with it. So there were lots of
emotions of sadness, crying. Others would respond with anger. And be angry at
everybody basically, including themselves. Including their friends. Including
their parents. Including the other adults in their lives. And feel that here
they were pushed into a situation where nobody was willing to listen to them.
When nobody was willing give them a chance to explain what had taken place and
try to work with them to come up with constructive solutions. And I think
those probably were the most common reactions. It was either sadness and
feelings of distraught on one hand or being angry on the other hand. There were
very few who were in between and had very little emotion.
Did they talk as if the sexual experiences had been traumatic for
Some of the girls would talk about the sexual experiences as impacting them
forever. Some of the girls were very afraid that ten years from now they would
be dating somebody and their partner would ask them about their sexual past.
And then they would have to talk about this. ... And that that might be the
cause of their partner at that point in time breaking off the relationship.
They were afraid that they never again would really enjoy sex and that that
would cause problems in their future relationships. So there was a lot of
concern about the long-term impact of this. Other girls on the other hand,
would treat it as adolescence and kind of shake their shoulders and say, "Well
you know this happened, lots of things happen, it's part of growing up, I'll
move on, it's not a big deal."
Did they describe the sex as pleasurable?
Initially they described the sex as pleasurable. And pleasurable in terms of
it being physically pleasurable but also psychologically. Like this was a an
initiation into the next step of their life. It was part of of their
development that was taking place. Over time, however, very few of the girls
talked about the sex in terms of it being pleasurable at all. It became
something that was painful that in some cases they couldn't even remember what
they did any more. So it became very negative.
Did you talk to the boys as well?
I talked with very few of the boys. I don't know exactly why that is. But the
few boys that I talked with in many ways voiced similar concerns as the girls.
Where this was something that had gotten out of control. They did not share
the girls' concerns in terms of the long-term impact of this, of it being
traumatic. And in general, their attitude was that if this was something the
girls didn't want then it would of been very easy for them to say that it was
something they didn't want. And again I think that resembles being adolescence
where the guys were saying 'well if they didn't want it why didn't they just
say it.' And the girls thinking, 'well if we would say we don't want it
they're gonna get on our case or we won't have any friends left anymore.' So
they never talked with each other about this. There was a lot of
decision-making based on perceptions that the girls had of the boys and that
the boys had of the girls ... . But in general, I would say that the young men
saw this as less intrusive and less of an issue that had led to escalation than
the young women did.
What was your impression of who these girls were socio-economically?
If I had to describe the girls from a socio-economic point of view I would say
they were middle class girls with parents who had very high ambitions for them
for their futures. Who wanted them to be successful in school. Have wonderful
careers. Earn a substantial income. And that was one of the reasons why a
number of the parents moved out there so that they could provide an environment
that would stimulate those kinds of options for their children. One of
the mistakes that we don't want to make is to think about these girls as just a
unique group of girls who got lost, who had no social support, who came from
families that didn't care. In many ways, and I think that's why it, to me, was
so important to gain an understanding of what was going on is that these girls
were part of general mainstream, middle class America. And that the options
that they had in life were wide open. That the environment that their parents
provided really supported the kind of ambitions that they had for them. ...
So in other words, this is basically a cross-section of the kids of
I would say that this is a cross-section of the kids in Rockdale County. I
actually would even want to consider pushing it further and say this is a
cross-section of adolescence in the United States in the 1990s. That even
although we might be really shocked to hear some of the things that took place
in many ways the dynamics that surrounded all this are common for adolescence
all over. What we don't know is to what extent sex plays a role. In this case
we only discovered that because some of the girls had developed syphilis and
ended up walking into a health department. Had that not happened we would not
have discovered it. And I think that one of the issues we all need to keep in
mind is that we only know about those kinds of things that we ask about or that
we find evidence for. If we don't look for the evidence, if we don't ask about
it, then we won't discover it.
You say we won't discover it. Where were the parents?
The parents at a different level had as much difficulty with the whole
situation as the adolescents did. These were parents who in general, and I'm
generalizing now, could not accept the fact that their teenagers were sexually
active. Who, even although their teenager had an STD would much rather say,
"Well, that must have happened some other way than through sexual activity."
Who were maybe willing to accept that their teenager daughter had been sexually
active but it must have been a one time incident. And probably was a one time
incident where she really did not want to do it. But it happened.
One of the things that has been very striking to me is to see how so many of
the parents did not want to talk with their adolescents about this. Now I
mainly got the adolescent perspective, but from their point of view they felt
that their parents didn't necessarily open the door for them to talk about
this. That they felt uncomfortable bringing up sexual activity with their
parents. ... And there was a pretty substantial gap between the reality of the
adolescents and the reality of the adults. The adults in many ways reacted that
what they were hearing about their children was not only having a negative
impact on their childrens' lives but also shattering their own dreams and
Where was this physically taking place, this sexual activity?
The sexual activity took place at a number of places. And probably the two most
common places for sexual activity to take place were either at the home of one
of the adolescents. A lot of the adolescents had parents who worked, were at
home alone, had parents who put in 40, 60, 80 hour work weeks...
So it would take place at one of the childrens' home. Sometimes a parent would
drop off their own children at a home where sexual activity one of these sex
parties was going to take place but the notion was "this looks like a nice
house, these must be nice people so nothing is going to happen that I would not
approve of." As it became a little bit more clear that some of the adults were
picking up on the fact that some activity was taking place that they would not
approve of, and I'm not sure that at that point in time one was thinking as
much about sex and probably was more thinking about alcohol or drugs. At that
point in time the teens would have some of their parties in hotel rooms at
nearby local hotels and motels.
So if the parents didn't know what was happening, it stands to reason the
parents just must not have been around, physically?
The parents didn't know what was happening because they very often physically
were not around. When physically around very often were tired, were dealing
with their own struggles of every day life and at times felt uncomfortable
talking with their teenagers about sexuality in general forget about talking
about maybe some sexual activity that their own children were engaging in.
What were your personal feelings as this story was unfolded to you?
As I heard the stories I started feeling powerless in the sense that you wanted
to give the girls advice. But I was an outsider coming in. I also started
feeling that just by doing very little I was doing a lot. Just by letting them
tell their stories and not be judgmental about it ... . In some ways just by
being able to tell the story they became creative to think about ways in which
they could prevent this from happening in the future.
What about towards their parents?
I don't think that any of this has brought the girls closer to their parents.
Some are the exception and the parents and the adolescents have gotten closer
and are more comfortable talking about topics such as sexuality. In most cases
they felt that their parents did not understand them, were angry with them,
started treating them as bad young women, which was the last thing that they
wanted--which was what they were afraid of to begin with.
Some of the parents stepped in and asked for children to go live with
relatives, moved them to different schools. So while they already were very
confused about what was going on, they did not always perceive their parents'
actions to be necessarily supportive of their own situation. And this one girl
I think captured this very very well. She said, "My parents are more worried
about protecting their own reputation than they are about protecting me." And
I think to some extent she captured what some of the other adolescents were
The sex that you heard about, the way that the girls were using the sex and
what had happened--what does it say about what happened to girlhood as we
traditionally picture it?
These girls were at a very difficult point in their lives. On one hand they
looked like little children. Their parents, and their teachers and most adults
whom they encountered treated them as little children. At the same time they
started feeling like they were adults. They had reached a point in their life
where they felt competent to make their own decisions about what was good for
them, what was not good for them. They felt competent to decide how they
wanted to spend their time. At the same time they were living in an
environment that was boring from their point of view. There wasn't much going
on in terms of activities. There wasn't much room to do things that went
beyond be good at school and being sweet at home. So they were really trying
to find a niche to prove themselves, probably more to themselves than to their
other friends [or] than they were trying to prove themselves to adults. And in
this whole process they ended up being in a situation where they thought they
were more capable to make their own choices than they ended up being. ...
Is it your impression that adolescence is the same today as it was 20 years
ago, as it was 40 years ago?
I think adolescence has changed a lot over the last few decades. We expect a
lot more from adolescence nowadays provide them with a lot less social support.
We provide them probably with a lot more material support. But there was a
real tension that we have to deal with here where even although you provide
your adolescent with all the material support that they wish to have there
still is an incredible need for emotional support. And by so many parents
struggling to acquire the resources to provide them material support, they
themselves have little room left for their own emotional support and it also
reflects on the relationship that they have with their adolescents. I think in
general we also expect adolescents to be more able to take care of themselves.
And we want them to be adults at a lot lot younger age than we used to. At the
same time we give them a very mixed message because if they do things as
adolescents that we do not approve of we tell them that now you are a child
again and not the adult that I wanted you to be.
Does this lack of safety, security, impact girls disproportionately? Are
girls more at risk in some senses?
I would say that the lack of safety impacts girls more because the sexual
dynamics between men and women in general have not changed. And particularly
if you talk with adolescent men you will find that they still very much believe
in the traditional stereotype of "I am the man, I am in charge." And we have
not socialized those young men yet into understanding the whole notion of
equality and what does 'no' from a woman mean or not mean. They still believe
a lot in the traditional stereotypes. From the girls' point of view, they have
grown up into a society where they're expected to be able to make their own
choices and draw their own lines. But we haven't provided them with the skills
to do that. We actually are taking out less time to provide them with those
skills than we used to. ...
What was the reaction of the community to the uncovering of this of this
I think the community was shocked ... . They were shocked because of what was
happening to the adolescents in the community. The community also was shocked
about what this would do to the reputation of the community. That now they
would be profiled to the outside as a community of sex, drugs, STDs, teen
pregnancy, all the social problems that we wish not to be associated with.
Some people were worried about what it would do to the value of their houses.
So this went pretty deep in terms of the perception of the community and the
impact that it would have on that.
But the concern it doesn't sound like it was for the kids. It sounds like it
was for anything but the kids.
Among the parents I would say that there was a genuine concern for the kids
even if they didn't always respond in ways that the adolescents wished from
their point of view that they would have. From the rest of the community the
concern seemed to be more focused on the image of the community than it was on
Now as you've described it, the 15 girls, many of them were involved with
the Black older boys. How do you explain this? What do you think was the
dynamic here? What was going on?
This is a community that's located in the southern United States where despite
multiple efforts to improve race relations and despite actual improvements that
have taken place over time, race continues to be a very sensitive topic. I
think it became an even more sensitive topic for Rockdale County because we're
talking about sex and white teenagers being sexually active. There was a taboo
that has not disappeared regarding sexual activity between African American men
and white women. Here we're talking about white adolescents. So in many ways
what was happening here was that the girls not only were challenging community
norms by being sexually active, but were challenging those even further by
engaging, at least part of the time, in sexual activity with African American
The ultimate rebellion.
In many ways from their point of view it was the ultimate rebellion. It also
was the intrigue. Many of them had not spent much time around African
Americans period. They had grown up in largely white communities. Most of
their friends were white. So here was exposure to the unknown from their point
This is a very sad story. This whole thing strikes me as a very sad story.
Does it strike you that way?
It's very sad. ... I would say it's very sad because of so many lessons we
could of learned from this. And part of me feels that we're not picking up on
all those lessons and still leave adolescents hanging there forcing them to
take care of themselves when we know that they're not always able to do
I think in many ways the county needs to be complimented for having brought
this out in the open. For having contacted the state health department and
said we think we have a serious issue here. ... One of the things that we need
to keep in mind is that this is not unique to Rockdale County in any sense.
That the way in which the adolescents act here they act all over the United
States, probably all over the world. That if we don't provide adolescents with
ways to talk about what they are experiencing, what they are feeling, ways in
which they can't protect themselves from being pulled into a situation where
escalation may occur, if we don't do that, then we're letting this happen in
other places. ...
I think that many of the adults who were the parents of the children involved
in the outbreak, but even the parents of the children in general, resemble a
substantial proportion of people in the United States. People like to be part
of the middle class, preferably of the upper middle class. One of the ways in
which you achieve that goal is by working hard, by making long hours, by
investing all your time and energy and insuring that you can buy a house that
is in a neighborhood that you think is safe.
... As a consequence of all that very little time is left over for emotions.
It's almost like material aspects have begun running people's lives. ... One of
the mistakes that all adults are prone to make is to provide adolescents with
material goods, be it a special CD player, be it special clothes. Whatever it
is. And say, "This is my sign of love to you." And the adolescents are very
happy with that. They'll take any kind of presents that you give 'em. What
they don't tell you, because it's not cool to tell you as an adolescent is,
"I'd like a hug. I'd like to just sit next to you for five minutes and not
talk about anything." If you talk with an 8 or 9 year old they'll snuggle up,
they'll sit next to you, they still feel comfortable expressing those emotions.
Once you are a teenager you don't express it anymore but you still need that.
And somehow by becoming so focused on where we are in terms of our class in
society as adults we forget that we then need to take the initiative to provide
that kind of emotional support to our teenagers.
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