As a teen in the early-80s, I was very naïve about oral sex. I thought oral sex meant talking about sex with one’s partner in a very sexy way. A friend and I, trying to practice the mechanics, would move our mouths in silent mock-talk as we suggestively switched our hips from left to right and flirted with our best bedroom eyes. We wondered aloud how anyone could engage in oral sex without breaking into hysterical laughter. In our naïveté, oral sex was not only hilarious, it was just plain stupid.
Twenty years later, I doubt most teens are as naïve as my friend and I were. Although the prevalence of oral sex among adolescents has yet to be comprehensively addressed by researchers, any adult who interacts with teens will quickly learn that, far from being stupid or hilarious - oral sex is a popular activity in some adolescent crowds.
Some teens claim, as teens have always claimed about sex, that “everyone is doing it.” They tell of parties—which they may or may not have attended—where oral sex isy available. They describe using oral sex as a way to relieve the pressure to be sexual with a partner yet avoid the risk of pregnancy. Some believe oral sex is an altogether risk-free behavior that eliminates the worry of sexually transmitted infections. There is a casualness in many teens’ attitudes towards oral sex revealed in the term “friends with benefits” to describe a non-dating relationship that includes oral sex. In fact, many teens argue that oral sex really isn’t sex at all, logic that, try as we might, defies many adults. Most pointedly, teens’ anecdotal experiences of oral sex reveal the continuing imbalance of power prevalent in heterosexual relationships where the boys receive most of the pleasure and the girls, predictably, give most of the pleasure.
Young people long for honest conversations about the complexities of human sexuality, including the practice of oral sex. Even so, the topic of teen oral sex is sensationalized in the media—and in the minds of many adults—making it difficult to talk about in meaningful ways. Using a sex-positive approach, these ten messages will supply adults with practical messages about oral sex that may encourage teens towards greater sexual knowledge, improved sexual health, and increased mutuality in current and future sexual relationships.
1. Oral sex is sex.
Regardless of how casual the behavior is for some young people, giving and receiving oral sex are both sexual behaviors. Oral sex is the stimulation of a person’s genitals by another person’s mouth to create sexual pleasure and, usually, orgasm for at least one of the partners. It’s that straightforward.
Even so, many young people—and even some adults—believe that oral sex is not “real sex.” Real sex, they say, is penis-vagina intercourse only. Any other sexual behavior is something “other” and certainly not real sex. This narrow definition of sex, rooted in heterosexist attitudes, is problematic for several reasons.
First, such a narrow definition is ahistorical. Art and literature reveal human beings, across human history and culture, consensually engaging their bodies in loving, pleasurable acts of sex beyond penis-vagina intercourse. In Western culture, our notions of sex are still shackled by religious teachings that say the only acceptable sex—in society and the eyes of God—is procreative sex. Of course, the wide accessibility of contraceptives, among other influences, has dramatically shifted our understanding of this definition. Still, many people are unaware that across centuries and continents, human beings have enjoyed many kinds of sex and understood those acts to be sex whether or not they involved a penis and a vagina.
Next, by defining sex in such narrow terms, we perpetuate a dangerous ignorance that places people at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. Many people, including teens, who define sex in such narrow terms incorrectly reason that they are safe from HIV if they avoid penis-vagina intercourse. Because saliva tends to inhibit HIV, it’s true that one’s chances of contracting HIV through oral sex with an infected partner are considerably small, compared to the risk of unprotected vaginal or anal sex. Of course, this varies with the presence of other body fluids as well as the oral health of the giver. However, if one chooses to avoid “real sex” and instead has anal sex, the risk for HIV transmission increases. In reality, regardless of what orifice the penis penetrates, all of these sex acts are real sex. In this regard, the narrow definition of sex is troubling because it ignores critical sexual health information that all people deserve, especially those who are sexually active or intend to be in the future.
Finally, this narrow definition of sex invalidates the sexual practices of many people who, for whatever reasons, do not engage in penis-vagina intercourse. These people include those who partner with lovers of the same sex. They also include people who, regardless of the sex of their partners, are physically challenged due to illness, accident, or birth anomaly. To suggest to these individuals that oral sex—or any other primary mode of shared sexual expression—is not real sex invalidates the range of accessible and sensual ways they can and do share their bodies with their partners.
Clearly, we must educate young people that there are many ways to enjoy sex, including the sensual placement of one’s mouth on another person’s genitals. Oral sex may be practiced in casual, emotionally indifferent ways, but this does not disqualify it as a legitimate sex act. Oral sex is sex—and, in most states, the law agrees.
2. Without consent, oral sex may be considered sexual assault.
Some teens report that oral sex takes place at parties where alcohol and other drugs are consumed. It’s imperative, then, that adults confront the legal realities of such situations with teens. Of course, drinking and drug use are illegal for adolescents. According to Iowa law, if alcohol or drugs are used by either partner of any age, consent for oral sex (or any sex) cannot be given.
3. Practice safer oral sex to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections.
Aside from abstaining from oral sex, young people can protect themselves and their partners from the inconvenience, embarrassment, treatment costs, and health consequences of sexually transmitted infections by practicing safer oral sex. The correct and consistent use of latex condoms for fellatio (oral sex on a penis) and latex dental dams for cunnilingus (oral sex on a vulva) and anal rimming (licking the anus) should be taught and encouraged.
4. Oral sex is a deeply intimate and sensual way to give sexual pleasure to a partner.
Unlike some other sex acts, oral sex acutely engages all five senses of the giver. For the giver of oral sex, the sense of taste is clearly engaged. If safer sex supplies are not used, the giver experiences the tastes of human body fluids—perhaps semen, vaginal fluids, and/or perspiration. The tongue and lips feel the varied textures and movements of the partner’s genitals. With the face so close to their partner’s genitals, the giver’s nose can easily smell intimate odors while the eyes, ifd, get a very cozy view of the partner’s body. Finally, during oral sex the ears hear the delicate sounds of caressing another’s body with one’s mouth.
5. Boys do not have to accept oral sex (or any sex) just because it is offered.
In some adolescent circles, young men report that oral sex is offered freely by some young women. Even if they do not desire oral sex from a certain young woman, some guys are hard pressed to refuse her. After all, our culture teaches that real men are sexually ready and willing at all times. Real men certainly do not turn down sex! Even so, adults must give young men explicit permission to turn down oral sex—and any sex—they do not want. We must teach them that, despite the distorted messages they receive, authentic manhood and masculinity are not hinged on the number of sex partners one accrues.
6. Making informed decisions that respect others and one’s self is a true mark of manhood.
By making girls the responsible party for saying no to oral sex, we fail young men in developing skills that truly define manhood: healthy sexual decision making, setting and respecting personal boundaries, and being accountable for one’s actions. We also leave them at risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections. In addition, although our culture rarely communicates this, young men who accept oral sex whenever it is offered risk losing the respect of the many adults and young people who do not admire or appreciate men who have indiscriminate sex with large numbers of partners.
7. Giving oral sex is not an effective route to lasting respect, popularity or love.
For many young women, giving oral sex is weighted with hopes of further attention, increased likeability, and perhaps a loving relationship. For them, giving oral sex becomes a deceptively easy, if not short-term, way to feel worthy and loved. Adults who care about girls must empower them to see beyond the present social situation and find other routes to a sense of belonging and love.
8. Girls can refuse to give oral sex.
Adults must go beyond simply telling young women to avoid giving oral sex for reasons of reputation and health. We must empower girls, through encouragement, role plays, and repeated rehearsals, to establish and maintain healthy boundaries for loving touch in their friendships and dating relationships. We must create safe spaces where girls can encourage and support each other in refusing to give boys oral sex, thus shifting the perceived norm that “everyone is doing it.”
9. Young women may explore their own capacities for sexual pleasure rather than spending their energies pleasuring others.
It is developmentally normal for adolescent girls to experience sexual desire. Although our cultural script of adolescent sexuality contradicts this, it may be that some girls authentically desire the kind of sensual and sexual intimacy oral sex affords. If this is the case, it is essential that adults do not shame girls away from these emergent desires. Instead, they should explore the ways oral sex may increase one’s physical and emotional vulnerabilities and strategize ways that girls can stay healthy and safe while acknowledging their own sexual desires.
Adults can suggest to young women that their growing sexual curiosity and desires may be fulfilled by learning, alone in the privacy of one’s room, about one’s own body—what touch is pleasing, what is not, how sexual energy builds, and how it is released through their own female bodies. If girls could regard themselves as the sexual subjects of their own lives rather than spending vast energies on being desirable objects of others, they may make healthier, firmer, more deliberate decisions about the sexual experiences they want as adolescents and adults.
10. Seek the support and guidance of adults who have your best interests at heart.
Adults can let young people know we are willing to listen to their concerns around issues of oral sex. We can offer young people support and guidance in their struggles to decide what’s right for their lives. We can become skilled and comfortable in addressing risk-reduction and the enhancement of sexual pleasure together, as companion topics. And, finally, adults can use the topic of oral sex as a catalyst to dispel myths, discuss gender roles, and communicate values that affirm the importance of mutuality, personal boundaries, and safety in the context of healthy relationships.