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Book Review

'Restless Virgins' explores sex subculture at exclusive prep school

Abigail Jones (left) and Marissa Miley, co-authors of 'Restless Virgins,' are alumnae of Milton Academy. Abigail Jones (left) and Marissa Miley, co-authors of "Restless Virgins," are alumnae of Milton Academy. (MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

Teenagers are bombarded with mixed messages about sex. Parents urge extreme caution, while the larger culture links sex with being cool and popular. Little wonder adolescents are sometimes schizophrenic, often making bad decisions triggered by peer pressure and underage drinking.

Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley, the authors of "Restless Virgins," are alumnae of Milton Academy, the exclusive prep school from which Governor Deval Patrick and Senator Ted Kennedy also graduated. The teenagers described by the authors seem to have it all, including wealthy parents and enviable educational opportunities. Yet they're far from content, inhabiting a world of grinding peer pressure where sex is a prime currency in a psychologically devastating game of popularity.

The authors are not experts in adolescent development, nor do they marshal much sociological data about teenagers and sex. Instead, they interviewed Milton Academy students (whose names they've changed) about the fateful 2004-05 school year. What emerges is a reckless, and frankly quite depressing, subculture of kids who use sex as a major indicator of social status. And while the authors provide a detailed, nonjudgmental "insider" account of Milton Academy's social landscape, they might have been better off using a wider lens, occasionally turning to psychology, cultural studies, or sociology.

At the top of the school's social hierarchy are the jocks and popular girls, sexually active almost by definition, Jones and Miley note. Those on the outside live with anxiety about their lack of sexual experience. The king of Milton Academy is a jock named Brady, whose binge drinking and crass sexual exploits are legendary. The authors introduce him as if he's on MTV's "The Real World": "At the top of his formidable body, jutting delicately from the pale skin around his eyes, were long eyelashes that made him look vulnerable. Girls couldn't get enough of his curly locks and irresistible smile."

Whitney is the "popular girl," and the authors introduce her at a school dance where she entices a hunky guy. "Whitney's tousled brown hair seduced Tripp with every move she made. . . . She knew she was head-turning, jaw-dropping, weak-in-your-knees hot. And she knew he noticed." In a zeitgeist that celebrates heirhead Paris Hilton, Whitney is as empowered as it gets.

For teenagers like Brady and Whitney, sex is a significant indicator of popularity. Getting drunk and "hooking up" provide Brady with testosterone-fueled stories to share inside the locker room, making him the alpha dog. For Whitney, having sex with attractive, popular boys reinforces both her desirability and her spot atop the school's social order. The authors also profile Reed, a jock with a conscience; Jillian, a feminist school newspaper editor (and not a fan of Whitney's); and a number of other students struggling to find their identities.

In January 2005, a scandal erupted that would define the year. After a female sophomore performed oral sex on five members of the boys' hockey team in a locker room, the news reached the ears of the administration, not to mention the front page of The Boston Globe. The five players were expelled, and statutory rape charges were filed against three of them; they were later given probation.

In one of the book's few descriptions of enlightenment, Brady cries as he realizes his five teammates have been expelled and could face jail. Alas, such moral comprehension seems rare in an environment where parents and authorities find it easier to "leave those kids alone" than hold them accountable.

If the hypercompetitive, sexually charged social structure of Milton Academy is any indication, today's privileged kids are definitely not all right. "Restless Virgins," like the confused adolescents it describes, is a bit schizophrenic: part MTV drama and part investigative reporting on a worrisome trend.

Restless Virgins: Love, Sex, and Survival at a New England Prep School, By Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley Morrow, 321 pp., $24.95

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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