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Friday, December 14, 2007

Restless Virgins

There has been a lot of buzz in recent years about Milton Academy — at least in certain circles. Sex scandals, drugs, computer break-ins, and an attempt to abolish the Lower School have all threatened to tarnish the high reputation of this elite school. So it was perhaps inevitable that two alumnae would write a “tell-all” book about the Academy. Restless Virgins, by Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley, is that book.

The subtitle is “Love, sex, and survival at a New England prep school,” but don’t blame the authors for the publisher’s sensationalism. The real question is whether the overall balance of this gossipy book presents a fair picture of student life at Milton Academy. Maybe it does, but I’m skeptical. I am willing to believe the authors’ claim that they did extensive research, interviewing dozens of students. But a fair and balanced portrayal wouldn’t make a very exciting book, and my inclination is to guess that Jones and Miley opted for the dramatic over the statistically valid. That’s a perfectly fair approach, of course...for a work of fiction: you need drama in order to tell a dramatic tale. But Restless Virgins is a work of non-fiction (or so it says), and it’s reasonable to expect a certain amount of statistical validity. We also, of course, have no way of knowing what was changed, in addition to the students’ names.

I have no real evidence to support my skepticism. How could I? But the burden of proof lies with the authors, not with the reader. According to an article in the Boston Globe:
But at least two of the seven subjects profiled have raised questions about the methods used by the authors and about the results. The two girls, who are now halfway through college, say they feel misled and betrayed. Though they did talk about sex with the authors, they say they also talked at length of teachers, classes, sports, college applications — all of which play a minor role in the book.

The authors, who obtained signed releases from the participants, stand by their work. “We were direct, clear, and open about the subject of Restless Virgins,” authors Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley said in an e-mail. They say their intent was to write “a compassionate and concerned examination of what it’s like to be a girl and a guy in high school today.”

...

The scenes in the book are sensationalized and distorted, says [one] girl, who just finished her sophomore year at an Ivy League school. “I was definitely under the impression that it would be tasteful, appropriate, academic, more like a sociological study. It’s a sexualized version of events they chose to show. I feel extremely stupid for talking to them.”

A second girl featured in the book also expressed dismay. “Although we discussed sex, it was not the focus of my senior year at all. I feel like they’re just capitalizing on the [hockey] scandal.”
The January ’05 “hockey scandal” to which she refers was the impetus for the book, but the authors provide very little context or background. (Five male hockey players were expelled and charged with statutory rape for “persuading” a sophomore girl to have oral sex with them in the locker room, one after another.) I suppose the overall intent of the authors is to claim that a climate of casual sex and exploitation of girls led to the event. It might be so, but they don’t really make their case.

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