Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health have found that multi-person sex (MPS), defined as sexual activity involving several people simultaneously, may be an emerging public health problem among teens.   Results of their exploratory study conducted in the greater Boston area among females ages 14-20 years old showed that 1 in 13 participants had ever engaged in MPS.

Participants ages 14-15 were the most likely to report ever engaging in MPS, and over half (54%) of all study participants who reported ever engaging in MPS had their first experience before they turned 16 years old. More than half of the young women (65%) reported that their involvement in MPS had been pressured, forced, or coerced.  Not surprisingly, alcohol and substance use were related to events of MPS.  According to Dr. Emily Rothman, lead researcher on the study, “one-third of the young women who had a multi-person sex experience had used alcohol or drugs immediately prior, and of those, 50% said the alcohol and drug use itself was not consensual.”

One of the most interesting findings was the relationship between pornography and MPS.  “Exposure to pornography in the past month was associated with a five-fold increase in the odds of having had a multi-person sex experience,” Rothman said. Among participants who reported involvement in MPS, 50% reported that they had been pressured to perform a sexual activity that their partner had seen in porn. “That really raises questions about whether pornography may be influencing the sexual behavior of very young teens and young adults.”

Why is MPS a public health concern for teens?

Participants reported low levels of condom use during acts of MPS, increasing their vulnerability to HIV, other STIs, and unintended pregnancy. “What’s particularly worrisome in terms of public health is that 45% of the most recent multi-person sex experiences, at least one male had not used a condom,” Rothman said.  Forced or coerced sex is also linked to increased risk of STI/HIV transmission. Researchers point out that young women who experience unwanted sex, or sex with multiple partners in a row, may not be physiologically prepared for intercourse, increasing the risk of vaginal tearing and thus the risk of contracting HIV or other STIs. Finally, researchers believe that the risks of STI/HIV transmission associated with multiple concurrent partnerships also likely translate to MPS.

What’s next?

The study conducted by the Boston team was an exploratory study; thus, further research is needed to determine the prevalence of MPS among adolescents in other parts of theUnited Statesand the world. There is a need for larger studies examining the relationship between MPS and HIV/STI risk. Also, more research is needed to determine how engaging in risky sexual behaviors, such as MPS, during the teenage years affects sexual and reproductive health outcomes later in life.

“The take-home message here is that both consensual and non-consensual group sex is happening among youth,” Rothman said. “Parents, pediatricians, health organizations, and rape crisis centers really need to be prepared to talk about, provide education about it, and address it.”

To learn more about this issue, read the full study, “Multi-person Sex among a Sample of Adolescent Female Urban Health Clinic Patients.”

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