The issue of youth sexuality — who’s having it, when, what kind, how much? — is of endless fascination to adults, and despite strong evidence that teens are now becoming sexually active later and more responsibly than in the past, there’s always attention to be gotten by claiming the opposite.

Whether it’s spreading wild rumors about rainbow parties or trumpeting the latest research “proving” that young people are having wild, irresponsible hookups, youth sex sells.

Media coverage of one recent article demonstrates just how ridiculous such coverage gets. Twelve-Year-Olds Are Having Sex, blared one blog headline. The news site UPI led with US Middle School Youth Engaging In Sex, while the website Science Daily went with Middle School Youth As Young As 12 Engaging In Risky Sexual Activity.

The UPI lead set the tone:

By age 12, 12 percent of U.S. students had already engaged in vaginal sex, 7.9 percent in oral sex and 6.5 percent in anal sex, U.S. researchers have learned.

Wow. One in eight twelve-year-olds having vaginal sex? One in fifteen having anal sex? What the hell is going on?

Let’s take a look.

You don’t have to read farther than the article’s title — “Patterns of Vaginal, Oral, and Anal Sexual Intercourse in an Urban Seventh-Grade Population” — find the first problem with this coverage.

That’s right, it’s not a national study. It’s a survey of students from ten public schools in one American city. And it’s nowhere near a nationally representative sample — the group studied was mostly poor, and more than 80% black or Latino.

So does this mean that the statistics in the survey are valid for inner-city students of color in the South?

Well, no. It doesn’t mean that either.

Nearly half of the students in the surveyed schools were excluded from the sample, mostly because either they or their parents refused to consent to their being questioned about their sexual practices. So the study is further skewed on that basis.

Oh, and although the media coverage described the study as examining a sample of 12-year-olds, 45% of the students surveyed were aged 13 or 14, and the researchers found much higher rates of sexual activity in the older students. So contrary to the UPI’s claim that 12% of 12-year-olds in the sample had had vaginal sex, the study actually found that only 8.6% claimed they had.

That’s right. “Claimed they had.” The study was based on self-reporting, which is standard, but if you check out the data, you find certain suspicious trends leap out.

Take the anal sex figures, for instance. The study found that 6.5% of the sample had ever had anal sex. But if you break those figures down by gender, here’s what you find:

Nearly eleven percent of the boys, as opposed to just three percent of the girls, claimed they’d had anal sex.

That’s right. Boys were nearly four times as likely as girls to say that they’d had anal sex.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Eleven percent of seventh-grade boys answered yes when asked whether they’d ever had anal sex — specifically, whether they’d ever “put” their “penis in a partner’s anus (which means butt).” And more than a quarter of the boys who said yes to that question claimed to have put their penises in four or more butts.

Now, it’s possible, of course, that every one of these kids was telling the truth. But isn’t it also possible that some of them couldn’t resist the temptation to boast, or just to goof around?

Having once been a seventh-grade boy myself, I know which way I’d bet.