Was oral sex always normal?

Science, technology, and life.
May 30 2008 8:04 AM

Open-Mouthed Wonder

Was oral sex always normal?

Two days ago, I wrote that oral sex was becoming destigmatized and normalized, thwarting parents who had hoped they could "stick to the basics" in talking to their kids about sex. Many of you wrote back, dismissing my assumptions as prude, antiquated, and out of touch. You argued that oral sex has always been more basic and common than vaginal sex and that the idea of recent stigma against it is a myth.

When I said "basics," I meant the facts of life from a parental perspective. In other words, procreation: teaching your daughter how babies are made, not how to go down on the kid next door. But let's set aside semantics and morals. Let's look at the data, starting with a review of the scholarly literature, published last year in the Journal of Sex Research by Wendy Chambers of the University of Georgia.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Historically, fellatio or cunnilingus, hereto referred to as oral sex, were perceived among heterosexual couples as not only more intimate than intercourse but also to be reserved for those who were married (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann, & Kolata, 1994). It took Kinsey's studies to reveal the greater prevalence of oral sex; though it was not until the 1970s that societal attitudes began to perceive it as acceptable for unmarried couples as well (Michael et al., 1994). Thus it is a historical reversal that oral sex has become more common than intercourse among heterosexual, White, and better educated samples as well as a precursor to intercourse (Billy & Tanfer, 1993; Michael et al., 1994; Prinstein, Meade, & Cohen, 2003; Schwartz, 1999). … [S]tudies indicated a rise in oral sex among adolescents (Newcomer & Udry, 1985), university students (Woody et al., 2000; Grunseit, Richters, Crawford, Song, & Kippax, 2005), and adults in general (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994).

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The 1994 study by Laumann et al. surveyed 3,432 Americans aged 18 to 59. According to a Kinsey summary, the survey found that "90% of men and 86% of women have had sex in the past year," whereas "27% of men and 19% of women have had oral sex in the past year."

In 2002, the Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed 505 teens aged 15 to 17. One question  asked: "Please tell me how often each of these are part of a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend … almost always, most of the time, rarely, or almost never?" Among sexually active teens, 49 percent said intercourse was part of a relationship almost always or most of the time; 43 percent said the same about oral sex. When the question was changed to a "casual relationship such as a hook-up," the gap disappeared: Forty percent said oral was part of the relationship almost always or most of the time; 39 percent said the same about intercourse.

In 2004, AARP surveyed 1,682 Americans aged 45 and older. The survey  found, "Compared to 1999, there is … a higher incidence of oral sex among men." Still, the trend was no match for intercourse. The survey asked respondents how often they had engaged in various sex acts in the previous six months. In every age bracket, among both genders, at least twice as many respondents said they had engaged in intercourse once a week or more often as said they had engaged in oral sex with similar frequency.

In 2005, the National Center for Health Statistics analyzed data from its 2002 survey of 12,571 Americans. Among teens aged 15 to 19, 55 percent said they'd ever had oral sex; 50 percent said they'd had vaginal sex. In every other age group, the balance was reversed: Vaginal experience was slightly more universal than oral experience.

One final note, posted by Tim Harford in Slate two years ago:

Johns Hopkins University Professor Jonathan Zenilman, an expert in sexually transmitted infections … reports that both the adults and the teenagers who come to his clinic are engaging in much more oral sex than in 1990. For men and boys as recipients it's up from about half to 75 to 80 percent; for women and girls, it's risen from about 25 percent to 75 to 80 percent.

That's a pretty good variety of samples and age groups. Let's recap the overall patterns: Oral sex was stigmatized. The stigma has faded. Oral sex is becoming more commonly reported, through some combination of increased activity and decreased stigma. Nevertheless, vaginal experience remains more universal, and vaginal sex is far more frequent. Furthermore, as we learned from the timing data in Wednesday's piece, teens aren't starting with a "basic" oral stage followed by an "advanced" vaginal stage. They're losing both kinds of virginity around the same time.

So, this notion that everybody's been going down on everybody all along, and that nobody's been embarrassed or secretive about it, and that it's obviously elementary and vanilla, is baloney. Yes, oral sex is common, and strikingly so among adolescents. But that trend is a novelty, and a story.

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